MOSCOW (AFP) – French President Francois Hollande on Saturday became the first European leader to travel to Russia in an attempt to defuse the standoff with Vladimir Putin over Ukraine, as Kiev announced a fresh round of peace talks next week.
Hollande’s meeting with Putin in the diplo-matic terminal of an airport outside the capital came as the conflict in eastern Ukraine has plunged relations between the West and Moscow to a post-Cold War low.
The French leader said he hoped to stop a new East-West division from arising, and that he expected to see “some results” from the talks with Putin, whom Europe and the United States have accused of arming and bankrolling the rebellion in east Ukraine.
“There are times when we need to seize op-portunities. This is such a time… I think we must prevent other walls from separating us,” said Hollande, who also spoke to Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko earlier in the day.
“We must find solutions together,” he told the Russian leader, who this week gave a militant speech accusing the West of undermining Russia.
Putin said there are “difficult problems” to tackle but that the visit would “without a doubt contribute to the resolution of many problems”.
In a crucial admission, Putin said for the first time that the pro-Russian rebels have violated a shaky ceasefire with Kiev. “We see that both from the side of Kiev leadership and from the side of Donetsk and Lugansk, from both sides, not everything is respected,” he told journalists after the meeting lasting nearly two hours.
Hollande’s last-minute visit, which a source in his delegation said was also agreed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, came as Kiev announced a new round of talks with the rebels in Minsk next week to try and rescue a tattered September ceasefire.
The talks are to be held on Tuesday – also the date set by both sides for a fresh truce to come into force.
Ukraine and the rebels, whose fighting in the east has already claimed more than 4,300 lives, have agreed to suspend military operations on December 9, calling it a “Day of Silence”.