(Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday gave African leaders seeking to mediate in the war in Ukraine a list of reasons why he believed many of their proposals were misguided, pouring cold water on a plan that Kiev has largely rejected.
African leaders have been seeking to agree on a series of “confidence-building measures”, even as Kiev launched a counter-offensive last week to expel Russian forces from the regions of southern and eastern Ukraine it occupies.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said after their meeting in Kiev on Friday that peace talks would require Moscow to withdraw its forces from occupied Ukrainian territory, something Russia said was non-negotiable.
Putin opened talks on Saturday with representatives of Senegal, Egypt, Zambia, Uganda, the Republic of the Congo, Comoros and South Africa at a palace near St. Petersburg by stressing Russia’s commitment to the continent.
But after presentations by the presidents of Comoros, Senegal, and South Africa, it goes in to challenge the plan’s assumptions — based on accepting internationally recognized borders — before the round of statements goes any further.
Putin reiterated his position that Ukraine and its Western allies started the conflict long before Russia sent its armed forces across the border in February last year, which they deny.
He said the West, not Russia, was responsible for the sharp rise in global food prices early last year, which hit Africa especially hard.
He told the delegation that Ukrainian grain exports from Black Sea ports that Russia had allowed over the past year had done nothing to alleviate Africa’s difficulties with soaring food prices because it had largely gone to rich countries.
He said that Russia has never refused to hold talks with the Ukrainian side, which Kiev has prevented. However, Moscow has repeatedly said that any peace must allow for “new realities,” meaning its declared annexation of five Ukrainian provinces, four of which it only partially controls — a red line for Kiev.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in televised remarks that Moscow shared the “main approaches” of the African plan, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying it was “difficult to achieve”.
Peskov said Putin has shown interest in the plan, which South African President Cyril Ramaphosa outlined in his presentation, and Russia will continue dialogue with African countries.
Lavrov said they had not reached the Russian leader with any message from Zelensky.
Putin said that Moscow “is open to constructive dialogue with anyone who wants to establish peace on the basis of principles of justice and recognition of the legitimate interests of the parties.”
There was no immediate word on the bilateral talks that Ramaphosa, who hosted a summit in August of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, said he was going to have with Putin.
Since the International Criminal Court indicted Putin in March for war crimes — which he rejects — South Africa, as a member of the court, has found itself in the awkward position of having to arrest him if he sets foot there.
Written by Kevin Levy. Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Heavens
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