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Charles Michel gives Putin time of day — more than 90 minutes in phone call

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European Council President Charles Michel on Friday spoke by telephone for more than 90 minutes with Russian President Vladimir Putin, an EU official said.

Putin has shown no willingness to end his war against Ukraine, where Russian soldiers have been accused of atrocities against civilians, and the lengthy telephone call by Michel risked lending renewed legitimacy to the Russian leader, who is mostly isolated and ostracized by his global counterparts these days. Michel engaged the Kremlin chief not just on the continuing military action in Ukraine but also on diplomatic issues related to the long-running conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

With Friday’s phone conversation, Michel became the first and only G7 leader to speak with Putin since evidence of atrocities was discovered in Bucha and other Ukrainian towns that had been occupied by Russian forces for more than a month before they were forced to retreat to Belarus and abandon, at least temporarily, their effort to take the capital Kyiv.

Putin’s other phone calls this week included conversations with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Last Saturday, the Russian president spoke with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

The call followed a trip by Michel to Kyiv on Wednesday where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Michel became the fourth EU institutional leader to visit the Ukrainian capital in recent weeks. European Parliament President Roberta Metsola was there on April 1, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited on April 8 along with Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs.

According to the EU official, Michel delivered a blunt rebuke of Putin’s war, in which he “stressed in no uncertain terms the unacceptability of Russia’s war, detailed the sanction costs the EU is imposing on Russia for its wilful aggression and breach of international law, recalled the EU’s unwavering support to Ukraine and its territorial integrity.”

In its own summary of the call, the Kremlin complained about assertions by EU officials, including Michel, expressing hope for a Ukrainian military victory. The Kremlin accused EU countries of “Russophobia,” and said that Putin had effectively rejected the idea of talking directly with Zelenskyy absent a Ukrainian capitulation to Russia’s demands.

“Attention is drawn to the irresponsible statements of the EU representatives about the need to resolve the situation in Ukraine by military means,” the Kremlin said, adding: “The leadership of most EU countries, by their actions, indulges open Russophobia, which manifests itself, for example, in the cultural, humanitarian and sports fields.”

On direct negotiations, the Kremlin said Putin told Michel: “Such a possibility depends, in particular, on concrete results in the ongoing negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian representatives, during which the Ukrainian side is showing inconsistency and is not ready to seek mutually acceptable solutions.”

The EU official said Michel also sought to deliver a reality check by stressing Russia’s military losses. Michel “equally shared with [Putin] his reading of Russia’s miscalculations and losses, in part to penetrate the information vacuum that may exist around [Putin],” the official said.

According to the EU official, Michel called for a humanitarian cease-fire “on the occasion of the upcoming Orthodox Easter,” which is Sunday, and “raised the need for humanitarian access and for humanitarian corridors to operate” to allow civilians to escape besieged cities, “notably Mariupol” — which Russian forces have nearly captured and mostly destroyed. The EU official said that at Zelenskyy’s request, Michel had urged Putin to negotiate directly with the Ukrainian president.

But there were no indications that Putin would grant any of Michel’s requests or heed any of his admonitions. On Thursday, Putin met with his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the Kremlin released a transcript of the meeting in which the two men celebrated the “liberation” of Mariupol, and claimed they had successfully evacuated 142,711 civilians.

Evidence shows Russian forces have bombed civilian residential areas in Mariupol and other cities, and Ukrainian and Western officials have accused Russia of blocking the evacuations of civilians, while forcibly removing thousands of Ukrainians to Russia’s own territory.

A second EU official said that Michel’s visit, at a moment when Russia was reneweing its onslaught in eastern Ukraine, had been carefully coordinated with Zelenskyy’s office and warmly welcomed by the Ukrainian president, who used it as the basis for an inspirational video message to Ukrainians promising that their country would move toward EU integration at “maximum speed.”

“I was glad to welcome in Kyiv a great friend of our state and all Ukrainians, President of the European Council Charles Michel,” Zelenskyy said in the video. “Each such visit only underscores how absurd Russia’s plans to seize our state were,” he said, noting that Russia had hoped to conquer Kyiv in three to five days. “Fifty-six days in and we are meeting our guests in our capital for the sake of our national interests,” he said.

The second EU official said that it was a calculated risk to engage with the Russian leader. “If there is a chance at some point this can make some small contribution to facilitating a process that can stop these atrocities, put an end to this war and bring peace,” the official said, “that is a risk that’s worth taking.”

In what appeared to be a message of support for Michel’s diplomatic efforts, French President Emmanuel Macron, who is in the final days of a high-stakes reelection campaign, on Friday publicly called on European leaders to maintain contact with Putin. Macron said that such dialogue was needed to avoid “a new world war.”

But even Macron, who had the most extensive diplomatic contact with Putin of any Western leader, has not spoken to the Russian president since the evidence of atrocities emerged at the beginning of this month.

And while Macron called on leaders to maintain dialogue about Ukraine, Michel also broadened his phone conversation to engage with Putin on issues related to Armenia and Azerbaijan, which were at war for decades over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Michel has asserted a big role for himself in promoting dialogue between the two longtime enemies, including hosting a meeting between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on April 6.

Putin has also met individually on several occasions with Aliyev and Pashinyan in recent weeks, and it was not clear that he needed any briefing from Michel on the situation.

This article has been updated.

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