German and French leaders press Putin

German and French leaders press Putin

Russian leader offers to help unblock grain shipments if sanctions are lifted

People take part in a mass first-aid training event conducted by charitable foundations near the Lviv National Opera in Lviv, Ukraine on Friday. (Reuters Photo)
People take part in a mass first-aid training event conducted by charitable foundations near the Lviv National Opera in Lviv, Ukraine on Friday. (Reuters Photo)

The leaders of France and Germany on Saturday asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to hold “direct serious negotiations” with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky.

Putin, meanwhile, said Russia was willing to help ship grain trapped in Ukrainian ports to ease a global shortage, but only if the West lifted sanctions against his country for invading Ukraine.

The exchange took place during an 80-minute phone call to Putin from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron.

The two European leaders “insisted on an immediate ceasefire and a withdrawal of Russian troops”, the German chancellor’s office said.

Macron and Scholz urged Putin to have “serious direct negotiations with the Ukrainian president and (find) a diplomatic solution to the conflict”.

As Ukraine’s Western backers are considering whether to send more arms supplies to Kyiv, Putin told Macron and Scholz that the continuing arms supplies were “dangerous”, warning “of the risks of further destabilisation of the situation and aggravation of the humanitarian crisis”, the Kremlin said.

He also said the difficulties in supplying grain to world markets were the result of “erroneous economic and financial policies of Western countries”.

“Russia is ready to help find options for the unhindered export of grain, including the export of Ukrainian grain from the Black Sea ports,” the Kremlin quoted Putin as saying.

“An increase in the supply of Russian fertilisers and agricultural products will also help reduce tensions on the global food market, which, of course, will require the removal of the relevant sanctions,” he said.

Russia’s offensive in Ukraine and Western sanctions have disrupted supplies of fertiliser, wheat and other commodities from the two countries, fuelling concerns about the risk of hunger around the world.

Russia and Ukraine produce 30% of the global wheat supply. The West has accused Putin of using hunger as a weapon in his offensive against the neighbouring country.

Putin also said Moscow was open to resuming dialogue with Kyiv, his office said.Talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations have been held both in person and via video-link since the Russian military offensive but have recently ground to a halt.

“President Vladimir Putin confirmed the Russian side’s openness to resume dialogue,” the Kremlin said.

In other developments, Zelensky and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke by phone on Saturday about the latest developments in the Donbas, and Russia’s ongoing blockade of Black Sea ports that is preventing grain exports.

Johnson said the UK would work with its Group of Seven partners to push for urgent progress to avert a global food crisis. The call came a day after the UK leader urged the supply of heavy weapons to Kyiv as it attempts to repeal Russian progress in the east.

In an earlier interview on Dutch television, Zelensky warned that Ukraine can’t fight “to the last man standing”, warning that to restore its territories militarily, “hundreds of thousands of lives will be lost”.

“There are risks and challenges in the east of Ukraine. There are steps indicating a desire to surround our army. There is a large increase in military machinery and personnel by the Russian federation,” Zelenskiy said of Moscow’s intensified campaign in the Donbas.

A return to pre-Feb 24 positions is key for negotiations, he said, adding, “we are not ready to give away either Crimea or Donbas.” 

His comments came after some pundits, including former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, called on Kyiv to consider trading territory for a cease-fire.

In Mariupol, an empty Russian cargo ship arrived for the first time since Moscow’s troops gained control of the Black Sea port city, and will transport 2,700 tonnes of metal to Rostov-on-Don on Russia, about 180 kilometres to the east, the Russian news agency Tass reported.

Ukraine has decried the action as looting. “After the theft of Ukrainian grain, the occupiers resorted to exporting metal products from Mariupol,” Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, wrote on her Telegram channel.

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