Russian President Vladimir Putin held out a hand to the west Wednesday just as leaders of the Group of Seven powers met in Brussels to hammer out a joint message to Moscow on Ukraine.
With Russia banned from the summit for the first time since the 1990s, Putin claimed he was ready to meet Ukraine’s president-elect, while scathingly dismissing U.S. claims of military intervention in the country.
“I don’t plan to avoid anyone,” Putin said when asked by French media if he would meet and shake hands with Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko at World War II ceremonies attended by a host of world leaders in Normandy on Friday.
He also signalled an apparent willingness to talk to Barack Obama in France, despite the US showing no signs of wanting a meeting.
“There will be other guests, and I’m not going to avoid any of them. I will talk with all of them,” Putin told French television TF1 and radio Europe 1.
Putin will hold meetings with French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron in France on Thursday and Friday, indicating a possible thaw.
A draft communique from the G7 summit in Belgium seen by AFP called on Russia to “enter into a frank and open dialogue, principally with Ukraine.”
The worst East-West crisis in decades dominated the G7 talks, a summit due to have been hosted by Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi but switched to Brussels in the anger that followed Moscow’s March annexation of Crimea.
- ‘Dark tactics’ -
At a visit in Poland ahead of the talks, Obama drove home a hawkish warning, condemning Moscow’s “dark tactics” in Ukraine and promising years of U.S. support for ex-communist NATO states.
“How can we allow the dark tactics of the 20th century to define this new century?” Obama asked in a speech marking 25 years of Polish democracy after the Cold War.
Earlier, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in Brussels a review of “the U.S. force presence in Europe”, in a sign that Washington is not backing down.
But Putin dismissed allegations of Russian military meddling in eastern Ukraine.
“Proof? Let’s see it!” he said. “The entire world remembers the U.S. secretary of state demonstrating the evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, waving around some test tube with washing powder in the UN Security Council.”
The G7 leaders discussed Ukraine over dinner on Wednesday, and looked set to hold out the carrot of talks against the stick of further sanctions.
“Tonight, the G7 should send a clear message of support to Ukraine and a united message to President Putin that he needs to engage with the Ukrainian government to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron as he went into the talks.
“And that’s what I’ll be saying to President Putin myself tomorrow,” he added.
- ‘Sanctions on the table’ -
EU president Herman Van Rompuy said while wider sanctions were still under preparation, there were “some diplomatic possibilities to see if Russia is ready to engage more”.
Even as hundreds of Ukrainian rebels battled government forces Wednesday, European diplomats stressed there was a “window of opportunity” after the relatively smooth election of chocolate tycoon Poroshenko on May 25.
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated a warning that Russia could face stepped-up sanctions if it does not stop destabilisation in eastern Ukraine.
“Sanctions remain on the table,” Merkel said on arrival.
In the latest violence in Ukraine, three government soldiers were injured in a massive all-night attack carried out by hundreds of pro-Russian insurgents armed with rocket launchers and mortars in the nation’s restive east.
Obama met Poroshenko days before his inauguration and declared himself “deeply impressed” by the businessman Ukrainians chose on May 25 to lead them back from a political and economic precipice.
He said the United States was “absolutely committed” to supporting Ukraine for “the coming years.”
NATO defence ministers Tuesday agreed a series of steps to bolster protection in eastern Europe after the Ukraine crisis, but insisted they were acting within the limits of a key post-Cold War treaty with Moscow.
Obama meanwhile proposed a one-billion-dollar fund to finance new U.S. air, naval and troop rotations through Eastern Europe.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]