The leaders of France and Germany yesterday urged President Vladimir Putin to free 2,500 Ukrainians who defended the Azovstal steel plant in the devastated port city of Mariupol and are being detained by Russian forces, the Elysée Palace said.
In a joint phone call lasting 80 minutes, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz also encouraged the Kremlin leader to hold “direct serious negotiations” with Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict, and said Russia should agree to an immediate ceasefire and withdraw its forces from Ukraine.
Russia said this month that the Ukrainian fighters had surrendered after making a last stand in Mariupol, where they had held out for weeks in bunkers and tunnels beneath the vast steelworks.
Putin, meanwhile, said he was ready to look for ways to ship grain stuck in Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, which is blamed for causing a growing global shortage of wheat and grain, but only if western countries lifted their blockade on Russian agricultural exports.
The Kremlin said Putin had also told Macron and Scholz that supplying western arms to Ukraine was “dangerous” and had warned “of the risks of further destabilisation of the situation and aggravation of the humanitarian crisis”.
The intervention by Scholz and Macron comes before an EU summit expected to reveal differences between its members in their response to the crisis. Viktor Orban, the Hungarian leader, is blocking attempts to impose an oil embargo on Russia on the grounds that it will devastate his country, which is heavily dependent on the country’s supplies of energy.
Commentators wary of the West pressuring Kyiv to concede land to Moscow and strike a deal with Putin criticised the two European leaders for making the call.
“Appeasement is a corrupted policy of compromise, made erroneous by mistaking a policy of imperialism for a policy of the status quo,” tweeted Jack Saryusz-Wolski, a Polish member of the European Parliament, quoting the German political scientist Hans Morgenthau writing in 1948.
Anders Aslund, an economist and author who writes regularly about Russia and Ukraine, tweeted: “Everything is wrong with Scholz & Macron calling Putin for 80 minutes”. His prime concern was that the call excluded Ukraine. “Stop doing this! Scholz & Macron should demand that Zelensky is part of the conversation or no talk.”