Austria’s chancellor paid a visit to Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin — the first Western leader to see him in person since the invasion of Ukraine — on Monday and said he was not only pessimistic about peace prospects but also feared that Mr. Putin planned to drastically intensify the struggle. brutality of war.
The visiting chancellor, Karl Nehammer, described Mr Putin as dismissive of atrocities in Ukraine and said it was clear that Russian troops were mobilizing for a large-scale attack in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, the next phase of a war now underway. is in the seventh week. †
“The struggle under threat cannot be underestimated in its violence,” Mr Nehammer said at a press conference after the 75-minute meeting at Mr Putin’s residence outside Moscow, describing the visitor as blunt and direct.
The Austrian chancellor said he had told the Russian president that as long as people died in Ukraine, “sanctions against Russia will remain in place and will be further tightened”.
The Kremlin, which downplayed the significance of the meeting in a succinct statement, only said it “wasn’t long by recent standards”.
While Mr Nehammer was visiting, Russian troops bombed Ukrainian towns and villages, and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said “tens of thousands are dead” in Mariupol, the besieged southern city that was the scene of the war’s most intense destruction.
And despite the Russian military blunders in the war and despite all Western efforts to expel him, Mr Putin still seemed to have the crisis under control. He has firmly suppressed any dissent and has benefited from broad domestic support, continued revenues from oil and gas sales to Europe, implicit support from China and the refusal of much of the world to join sanctions against Russia. to close.
Many commentators in the West had criticized the Austrian chancellor – his country is a member of the European Union but not NATO – for not visiting Moscow at all, seemingly playing on Mr Putin’s story that American-led attempts to Isolating Russia would necessarily end in failure.
Nehammer told reporters afterwards that he had tried to confront Mr Putin about the horrors of war and the war crimes accused Russian troops in the Kiev suburb of Bucha and elsewhere. He said he also told Mr Putin about the destroyed Russian tanks he had seen on a recent visit to Ukraine, in order to clarify how many lives had been lost in Russia.
Mr Nehammer said Mr Putin had brushed aside the war crimes allegations faked by Ukraine.
At the end, Mr. Putin said to him, “It would be better if it” – the war – “ends quickly,” Mr. Nehammer said, but the meaning of those words was unclear, as they could either indicate that Mr. Putin prepared for further peace talks or that he could prepare a swift and relentless attack in the Donbas, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian army since 2014.
“We should have no illusions: President Putin has completely adopted the logic of war and is acting accordingly,” Nehammer said. “That’s why I think it’s so important to constantly confront him with the facts of the war.”
How much more brutal the war could become was signaled in an interview with Eduard Basurin, a separatist commander, broadcast on Russian state television. Mr Basurin said that with Ukrainian troops entrenched in underground fortifications at a steel plant in Mariupol, storming the redoubt made no sense. Instead, he said, Russian forces must first block the exits and then turn to the chemical forces who will find a way to smoke the moles out of their dens.
Mr Putin was silent on Monday, but was expected to speak publicly on Tuesday, when he will travel to the Vostochny spaceport in Russia’s far east with his ally President Alexander G. Lukashenko of Belarus to mark the annual Cosmonauts Day.
The invasion of Ukraine on February 24 is increasingly portrayed by Mr Putin as not against that country, but against the West – especially the United States, as the alleged patron of Mr Zelensky’s government and its ambitions to sphere of influence as a former Soviet republic.
Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said in a Russian television interview that aired Monday that what the Kremlin calls its “special operation” in Ukraine is aimed at curbing American influence — exercised by the Russian government. government is characterized as the root of the world’s ills.
“Our special military operation is designed to end the reckless expansion and reckless course toward complete domination of the United States,” Mr Lavrov said.
The United States and the European Union have imposed increasingly tough economic sanctions on Russia over the invasion and are sending weapons to the Ukrainian military. But they don’t want to get involved in a war with Russia. And the European Union remains reluctant to ban Russian oil and natural gas, which remain critical to the bloc’s own economic health.
EU foreign ministers met in Luxembourg on Monday and Josep Borrell Fontelles, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, said “nothing is off the table, including sanctions on oil and gas.”
While ministers discussed a possible phase-out of Russian oil, which is easier to replace with suppliers other than gas, the meeting also exposed the bloc’s divisions. Austria, Hungary and Germany have so far opposed any attempt to restrict Russian gas imports.
Still, European Union leaders were expected to approve another €500 billion in funds to repay member states for sending arms to Ukraine, which would total €1.5 billion so far – almost equal to the $1.7 billion worth of weapons the United States has. authorized.
Russian troops, which withdrew from northern Ukraine last month after a failed attempt to reach the capital Kiev, have supplies and regroup in Russia and Belarus so they can join the fight in eastern Ukraine. But Western officials said Monday the effort could take some time.
Ukrainian officials have been warning since last week that civilians in eastern Ukraine must flee for as long as they can. Mr Zelensky warned that tens of thousands of Russian troops were preparing another attack there.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Russia is preparing a renewed offensive. Ukraine braces itself for a Russian attack along the eastern front, where Ukrainian officials have warned civilians still living in the region that time is running out to escape. But the road to safety is fraught with danger, with reports of Ukrainian civilians being killed while trying to flee.
If and when the southern port city of Mariupol eventually falls, Russian forces may move north to meet Russian forces attempting to move south from Izyum and attempt to encircle most of the Ukrainian army, which is concentrated further east. , said Mathieu Boulègue, an expert on the Russian military at Chatham House, the London research institution.
That’s easier said than done, said Mr Boulègue, as the battered Russian troops wait for reinforcements. The Ukrainians, he said, tried to block the Russians and stage a counter-attack that would be more complicated than the fighting around Kiev, which had forced the Russians to withdraw.
Due to reports of Russian atrocities in Bucha, Kramatorsk, Mariupol and other cities, negotiations between the Ukrainian and Russian governments have been suspended.
But few believe the opponents are ready for real talks because Mr Putin needs to show more military gains and because the Ukrainians believe they can still fend off the Russians, said Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO.
“The Ukrainians think they have a chance not only to prevent Russia from conquering more ground in the east, but to drive them out there, while Putin has to find something to sell as a victory,” Daalder said. “So diplomacy isn’t going anywhere.”
If and when settlement talks eventually take place, Mr Putin will inevitably be part of it, said François Heisbourg, a French defense expert. Diplomats deal with government leaders, however distasteful they may be, he said.
The West also hopes that the mounting economic pain will encourage Putin to wind down and end the war. Russia is already in a “deep recession” and the economy is expected to shrink by 11 percent this year, the World Bank reported.
But the impact is also serious for Ukraine. The bank predicted that Ukraine’s economy would shrink by about 45 percent this year due to the Russian invasion and the impact of a “deep humanitarian crisis”.
Mr Putin originally called a target of the war the “denazification” of Ukraine, wrongly labeling those who resisted Russian rule as Nazis. An article on Monday in a Russian state newspaper, Parlamentskaya Gazeta, written by an adviser to the speaker of the Russian lower house of parliament expanded that concept to define the enemy as “Ukrainian-American neo-Nazis”.
The battle also included a “cold war” against enemies of the state in Russia, the article said, adding: “The denazification of Ukraine is impossible without a parallel denazification of Russia.”
It was the latest sign that, even as the war in Ukraine rages on, Mr Putin is preparing his security apparatus for an ever-growing intolerance of dissent. The crackdown has gained momentum in recent weeks, with pro-war Russians enlisting teachers and neighbors to speak out against the war.
Last Friday, Russia closed down some of the last remaining independent civil society institutions, including the Carnegie Moscow Center and the Moscow offices of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. It expanded the practice of labeling government critics as “foreign agents,” and for the first time, a popular musician was added to the list: rapper Ivan Dryomin, 25, who goes by the name Face.
Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels and Anton Troianovski from Istanbul. Reporting contributed by Monika Pronczuk in Brussels.