Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer said he raised alleged Russian atrocities in Ukraine during a “tough” and unfriendly meeting Monday with Vladimir Putin – the first Western sit-down with the Russian President since he launched his invasion in February.
“This is not a friendly visit. I have just come from Ukraine and have seen with my own eyes the immeasurable suffering caused by the Russian war of aggression,” Nehammer was quoted as saying in a statement issued by his office after the meeting outside Moscow.
Nehammer is the first European leader to meet Putin face-to-face since his invasion of Ukraine. His visit divided opinion among EU leaders, with some expressing skepticism about engaging with the Russian leader.
The pair spoke for about 75 minutes at Putin’s Novo-Ogaryovo residence near Moscow, Nehammer’s spokesperson said, in talks the Austrian leader described as “very direct, open and tough.”
Before visiting Russia, Nehammer met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv and visited the town of Bucha, where bodies of unarmed civilians were found strewn across public streets after a month of Russian occupation.
”I addressed the serious war crimes in Bucha and other places and emphasized that all those responsible for them must be held accountable,” Nehammer said, according to the statement. “I also told President Putin in no uncertain terms that sanctions against Russia will remain in place and will continue to be tightened as long as people are dying in Ukraine.”
The Austrian leader said Putin had blamed the Ukrainians for “being responsible for the crimes in Bucha.” Video footage, however, shows Russian forces gunning down a civilian there.
Austria is militarily neutral but its government has joined its neighbors in condemning Putin’s invasion.
The Chancellor said he raised the issue of evacuation corridors with Putin, after repeated instances in which attempted evacuations around Ukraine have been scuppered by Russian attacks. Ukrainian officials said a Russian strike on Kramatorsk train station on Friday killed dozens of people, including several children.
“I also made it clear to the Russian President that there is an urgent need for humanitarian corridors to bring drinking water and food to the besieged cities and to bring out women, children and the wounded,” Nehammer said in his statement.
Nehammer cited “a sense of responsibility to leave no stone unturned” as a reason for seeking the meeting with Putin, saying: “For me, there is no alternative to seeking direct talks with Russia as well, despite all the very great differences.”
During a briefing in Moscow following the meeting, Nehammer said he was not “particularly optimistic,” adding that “the offensive (in Ukraine) is being prepared with determination.”
While he did not expect Putin to change his view, Nehammer said it was important to confront him “with the facts.”
“What is important is a personal meeting, phoning is one thing, but you really need to look each other in the eye, you need to talk about the cruelty of war,” Nehammer said.
“Of course, when you talk to him for the first, second, third time, we can’t expect him to change his view … I didn’t expect that. But it is important to confront President Vladimir Putin. Every day is a day too long in the war, every … death is one too many.”
Nehammer noted that “it was also clear and recognizable that Russian president still has confidence” in the ongoing negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in Turkey.
Putin had no reply at all when Nehammer relayed to him that Zelensky is ready for an in-person meeting with him, an Austrian official told CNN.
The impression was that Putin is more interested in continuing with the negotiations going on in Istanbul, the official said.
Ahead of the talks on Monday, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister cast doubt on their effectiveness, saying of the Russian leader: “I personally have no reason to believe that he’s talkable.”
Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Lipavsky also urged Nehammer to be wary. “Don’t be naive. Putin is a perpetrator of this horrendous war crime and those atrocities, and he should be punished for that,” he said.
Nehammer’s statement said the European Union was “more united than ever on this issue.”
Ukraine’s foreign minister said on Sunday it would be “extremely difficult” to even think about negotiations with Russia following the atrocities committed in the town of Bucha and at the train station in Kramatorsk.
Putin appointed a new general to oversee his invasion over the weekend, and the focus of Russia’s forces has turned towards eastern Ukraine after their failure to seize the capital, Kyiv, and other territories in the center of the country.
CNN’s Sara Mazloumsaki, Mia Alberti, Amy Cassidy, Jorge Engels and Jennifer Hansler contributed reporting