Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer has said that he urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the invasion of Ukraine and raised the issue of “serious war crimes” committed by the Russian military during talks in Moscow.
Nehammer was the first European leader to meet Putin since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
In a statement released after the meeting on Monday, the Austrian chancellor said his primary message to Putin in the “very direct, open and tough” talks was that “this war needs to end, because in war both sides can only lose”.
Nehammer told Putin all those responsible for war crimes in the Ukrainian city of Bucha and elsewhere would be “held to account.”
He also stressed the need to open humanitarian corridors so that civilians trapped in cities under attack can access basic supplies like food and water, according to his statement.
The Austrian leader called the Moscow trip his “duty” to exhaust every possibility for ending the violence in Ukraine, coming just two days after he travelled to Kyiv for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
European Union-member Austria supported the 27-nation bloc’s sanctions against Russia, though it so far has opposed cutting off deliveries of Russian gas. The country is militarily neutral and is not a member of NATO.
Military but not moral neutrality
But Nehammer and other Austrian officials have been keen to stress that military neutrality does not mean moral neutrality.
“We are militarily neutral, but have a clear position on the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine,” Nehammer wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “It must stop!”
Nehammer said he told Putin the EU is “as united as it’s ever been” on the issue of sanctions, and that these will remain in place – and may even be strengthened – if the war continues.
Critics at home
While German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he welcomed the meeting, the reactions at home have included surprise and scepticism.
Conservative Nehammer’s coalition partner, the left-wing Greens, criticised the visit.
“I cannot condone a visit to Putin,” the Greens’ foreign affairs spokesperson Ewa Ernst-Dziedzic wrote on Twitter.
“This has nothing to do with diplomacy. This is also not an agreed roadmap for negotiations. Putin will use this for his propaganda.”
Reinhard Heinisch, a professor of comparative Austrian politics at the University of Salzburg, wrote on Twitter: “Let’s hope there is more to the Austrian chancellor #Nehammer’s visit to Putin than has been said and meets the eye. Austria has all too often served the role of Moscow’s useful idiot in the past.”