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Scholz phones Putin after diplomatic overture by Biden and Macron

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at a news conference on Wednesday. (Michael Sohn/AP)
7 min

RIGA, Latvia — Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday that Moscow’s relentless airstrikes on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure were “forced and inevitable” because of Ukraine’s attacks on the Crimean Bridge and other Russian targets, and he blamed Western nations’ “destructive” policy of supporting Ukraine for prolonging the war, which Russia started.

The hour-long call, which was initiated by Berlin, was Putin’s first with a Group-of-Seven leader since Russia suffered a string of battlefield defeats, and since Moscow initiated the wave of attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure using missiles and self-detonating drones. Those attacks have cut off electricity, heat and water service in many parts of Ukraine, raising the risk of a humanitarian disaster this winter.

The call took place the day after President Biden, at a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron in Washington, indicated his willingness to speak to Putin, provided the Russian leader was really interested in “looking for a way to end the war.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday ruled out giving up any of the territory that Russia illegally claims to have annexed.

According to the Kremlin, Putin complained about Western nations sending weapons to Ukraine and training the country’s military and also griped about its “comprehensive political and financial support for Ukraine.”

“The President of Russia called on the German side to reconsider its approaches in the context of the Ukrainian events,” the Kremlin said.

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Amid a proposal by the European Union to create a tribunal on alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine, Putin also sought to deflect blame for atrocities, accusing Ukraine of “more and more bloody crimes against the civilian population,” according to the Kremlin readout.

A German government statement said that Scholz condemned Russian airstrikes against civilian infrastructure in Ukraine during the call and “stressed Germany’s determination to support Ukraine in ensuring its defense capability against Russian aggression.”

Putin complained that the West’s “destructive line,” providing weapons and financial support to Ukraine “leads to the fact that Kyiv completely rejects the idea of ​​any negotiations.”

Biden, appearing with Macron, said: “I’m prepared to speak with Mr. Putin if there is an interest in him deciding he’s looking for a way to end the war. If that’s the case, in consultation with my French and NATO friends, I’ll be happy to sit down with Mr. Putin to see what he has in mind. He hasn’t done that.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has laid out parameters for a peace deal, including full respect for the U.N. Charter, which would require Russia to withdraw from all illegally occupied Ukrainian sovereign territory, including Crimea. G-7 leaders, including Scholz, Biden and Macron, formally endorsed Zelensky’s proposal in a statement in October.

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Peskov, noting that Biden had conditioned any talks on Russia withdrawing from Ukraine, added that “obviously” Moscow was not willing to do so. “What did President Biden actually say? He said the negotiations would be possible only if Putin leaves Ukraine,” Peskov told journalists on Friday.

“The special military operation is continuing,” he said. adding that Putin was always open to negotiations since Russia preferred to achieve its goals in Ukraine “through peaceful diplomatic means.”

Putin last spoke to Scholz and Macron in mid-September, before his illegal attempt to annex the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, and also before an explosion on the Crimean Bridge that Russia has cited as the reason for its infrastructure strikes. Since then, Russia has lost substantial ground, including retreating from Kherson city, the regional capital.

Given those territorial losses, Putin has seemed increasingly hemmed in, paranoid and hostile, with his economy sinking and his global clout in decline.

Setbacks in Ukraine war diminish Russia’s clout with regional allies

Rather than indicating a readiness to compromise, however, senior Russian officials have increasingly taken to airing discredited, baseless claims, insisting Russia is really the victim in the war, and trying to deflect the blame for continued fighting onto Ukraine because it has refused to accept Russian terms.

Putin’s illegal annexations were designed to set new Russian red lines and to take the territories off the table in future peace negotiations, conditions he knew Kyiv could never accept. But Russia was forced to surrender Kherson city and other territory west of the Dnieper River, even after Russian officials repeatedly hinted they would defend the “new territories” with nuclear weapons.

Both Moscow and Kyiv are bracing for a bitter winter campaign that could decide the fate of each.

Scholz initiated the hour-long call to Putin on Friday, but it was not clear whether it was coordinated with allies or even with other E.U. countries, who have struggled in recent days to reach agreement on a plan to impose a cap on Russian oil prices. A spokesman for the European Commission, the E.U.'s executive arm, said it had not been briefed ahead of Scholz’s call.

Macron and Scholz have faced criticism over their intermittent contact with Putin.

Macron was accused of naively persisting in engaging with Putin even as the Russian leader showed no willingness to shift course in Ukraine.

In the early days after Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Scholz was criticized for the slow pace of arms deliveries and dithering that caused critics to question whether he was attempting to keep a door open to the Kremlin.

Even as Germany has announced what it has dubbed a Zeitenwende, or turning point, in foreign policy, beefing up security and sending arms to Ukraine, reality has not kept pace with expectations.

Speaking at a security conference in Berlin earlier this week, Scholz said he’d like to see a return to the previous “peace order” that had existed in Europe. “What Russia is doing today is going back to the imperialistic approach of the 19th, 18th, 17th centuries, where a stronger country thinks it can take the territory of a neighbor,” he said. “We have to go back to a situation where we agree again that borders will not be changed by force.”

In its statement on Friday, the German government said Scholz told Putin a diplomatic solution, “including a withdrawal of Russian troops, must be reached as soon as possible.”

Some E.U. countries have also suggested that such conversations with Putin risk showing divisions among Western allies when they should be presenting a united front of support for Ukraine.

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Russia is quietly banking on hopes that European unity over support for Ukraine will shatter over the winter, convinced that rising inflation and energy costs, as well as the increasing cost of the war, could trigger popular anger.

A senior Eastern European official said he was not informed about the Scholz call ahead of time and learned about it from news accounts. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, expressed concern that a call from Scholz could be interpreted by Putin as a sign of European weakness, potentially signaling a willingness to accept an outcome other than “the full liberation of Ukraine.”

At this moment, the official said, “it should not be about dialogue” but about making sure there is no “space for Russia to continue terrorizing its neighbors.” With all the recent focus on holding Russia accountable, the official added, talking to the “person who is essentially responsible for these crimes” sends an ambivalent signal.

On Thursday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia was indeed striking civilian energy infrastructure but claimed this was a military target and that the attacks were designed to disrupt Western arms deliveries to Ukraine.

Lavrov claimed the Ukrainian energy system “has been subordinated to the military interests of Kyiv.”

Morris reported from Berlin and Rauhala from Brussels.