France and Russia fall out over Syria
By Eric Maurice
Diplomatic tensions between France and Russia increased on Tuesday (11 October) after the Russian leader cancelled a visit to Paris because his French counterpart wanted to talk about the war in Syria.
Vladimir Putin was due to travel to the French capital next Wednesday (19 October) for the inauguration of a Russian church and cultural centre.
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But "certain events linked [to the inauguration] fell out of the programme,” Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists in Moscow, leading Putin to "postpone" the visit without any new date.
Putin had announced last week he would meet French president Francois Hollande.
But Hollande said he would use the opportunity to discuss the situation in Aleppo, where the population is trapped under Syrian and Russian bombs.
"I saw this visit only if it was an opportunity to talk about Syria, and only about Syria," Hollande said during a visit to the Council of Europe, in Strasbourg, on Tuesday after Putin's visit was postponed.
He said he was ready to meet with Putin at any moment "if this helps to stop bombings and encourage the truce."
The diplomatic fallout comes after Russia vetoed a French resolution at the UN security council on Sunday that had called for an "immediate stop" of bombings.
Hollande and his foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said the bombings were war crimes.
"Those who commit these actions will have to pay for their responsibility, including at the International Criminal Court," Hollande said on Sunday, implicitly referring to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad but also to the Russian leader.
Russia's veto was the only vote that stopped the French resolution. A Russian resolution calling for an end to violence, but not for an end to airstrikes, obtained only three votes out of 15 at the security council, Hollande noted.
Putin's spokesman Peskov said the cancellation of the visit and the failed resolution did not mean that the Russian leader was isolated.
"The president’s tight international schedule testifies to the opposite. The Russian president is experiencing no problems in that context," he said.
Tensions over Syria could spill over into the other main issue between Russia and Western powers - the war in eastern Ukraine.
Progress in the implementation of the 2015 Minsk agreement is "too slow," Hollande said on Tuesday, adding that he was ready, with German chancellor Angela Merkel, to organise a meeting of the so-called Normandy Format, composed of the four countries involved in the Minsk talks - France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia.
Following renewed violence in Ukraine during summer, Paris and Berlin had been trying for several weeks to set up a meeting.
On Tuesday morning, before Putin's visit to Paris was held off, Russian ambassador to France Alexander Orlov told the Europe 1 radio station that a dinner of the four Normandy leaders would take place next Wednesday (19 October).
But Hollande gave no date, and in Moscow, Peskov said that there were "problem areas" on which he "wouldn’t dwell".