PARIS/STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin has canceled a visit to Paris next week after President Francois Hollande said he would see him only for talks on Syria - the latest episode in deteriorating relations between Moscow and the West.
French officials have been grappling for ways to put new pressure on Russia after Moscow vetoed a French-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria. French officials’ growing anger over a Russian-backed Syrian government onslaught against rebel-held areas of the city of Aleppo had led them to reconsider whether to host Putin on Oct. 19.
“I made it known to Mr Putin that if he came to Paris, I would not accompany him to any ceremonies, but that I was ready to continue the dialogue on Syria. He decided to postpone the visit,” Hollande said at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.
The Russian president had been scheduled to inaugurate a new Russian Orthodox cathedral and visit a Russian art exhibition in the French capital on Oct. 19.
The Kremlin confirmed Putin’s decision, but made no mention of Syria and said he was ready to come to Paris at Hollande’s convenience.
While Paris has said it is vital to keep dialogue going with Moscow and not sever relations, events in Syria have damaged their ties as the two countries support opposite sides in the conflict.
Describing Russian air strikes in Syria as “war crimes”, Hollande said it was still necessary to talk with Moscow, but only if discussions were “firm, frank,” otherwise it would be a “charade.”
“With Russia, France has a major disagreement on Syria and the Russian veto of the French resolution at the U.N. Security Council has prevented the cessation of bombings and enablement of a truce,” Hollande said at the Council of Europe.
“I’m ready to meet President Putin if we can advance peace, end the bombings and announce a truce,” he said.
France’s foreign minister said on Monday his diplomats were working to find a way for the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor to launch an investigation into war crimes it says have been committed by Syrian and Russian forces in eastern Aleppo.
Diplomats have also said Paris is leading discussions on whether to impose new European Union sanctions on Russia specifically over Syria, where Moscow backs President Bashar al-Assad in a more than five-year-old civil war.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau and Jean-Baptiste Vey; Editing by Ingrid Melander/Mark Heinrich