Austria rolls out red carpet for Putin despite Skripal controversy

Austria broke ranks with Britain and its European partners on Tuesday as it rolled out the red carpet for Vladimir Putin three months after the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal.

The Russian leader was given full military honours as he met with Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, and Alexander van der Bellen, the country’s president, in Vienna.

Mr Putin used the opportunity to argue for the lifting of Western sanctions imposed over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, telling a joint press conference it would benefit all sides.

“The sanctions are harmful for everyone — both those who initiated them and those who are targeted by them,” he said.

The visit, just months after Western countries expelled Russian diplomats in a coordinated response to the Skripal poisoning, was an unabashed showcase for the benefits of doing business with Russia.

An Austria energy company signed a new deal with Russia’s Gazprom to secure gas supplies until 2040, and Mr Kurz spoke of how the two countries “cooperate well not only in the political but also in the economic sphere”.

Austria was one of the few European countries not to expel any Russian diplomats over the Skripal affair, and Mr Kurz has made no secret of his desire to preserve good relations with Moscow, saying he wants Austria to be a “bridge” between Russia and the West.

“Today we had the opportunity to talk about international issues, that Russia as a superpower has a great significance in Syria and eastern Ukraine, and that Russia has a great responsibility. We hope Russia will contribute to people finally seeing what they are longing for: peace,” he said after meeting with Mr Putin on Tuesday. 

Mr Putin seized on Syria to make another pitch for improved relations with Europe.

“If Europe wants to reduce the flow of migrants, including from Syria and neighboring countries, we must help people to return to their homes, we need to help them to build a life in their own countries,” he said.

In an interview with Austrian television ahead of the talks, Mr Putin insisted he was not trying to split Europe. “We want a united and prosperous Europe,” he said, arguing the EU is Russia’s most important economic partner.

“The more problems at the heart of the EU, the more risks and problems there are for us,” he said.

Mr Putin also told Austrian television that he and Donald Trump “regularly talk over the phone” and that Mr Trump had expressed fears over a new arms race in a recent call.

“Donald said he was worried about the possibility of a new arms race,” Mr Putin said. “I fully agree with him — however, to prevent a possible arms race, we should think about it, we should do something about it.”

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