French president Francois Hollande has met Russian leader Vladimir Putin during an impromptu visit to Moscow in a rare display of goodwill amid high tensions over the ongoing conflict in east Ukraine and France’s decision to suspend the delivery of two warships to Russia.
The French leader’s unexpected stopover in Moscow, as he travelled from Kazakhstan back to Paris, makes him the only head of state from a major western power to visit Russia since it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March.
The visit – which, in sharp contrast to protocol, was held at a Moscow airport rather than at the gilded halls of the Kremlin or Putin’s country residence - comes as Russia’s economy heads toward recession for the first time in six years, and Moscow is more isolated than ever over its role in Ukraine.
Mr Putin also struck a more moderate note than expected on the conflict in east Ukraine, where fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Kiev’s forces has claimed at least 4,300 lives since April.
Western nations have imposed sanctions on Russia for what it says is its role in providing the militants with personnel and arms, something Moscow denies.
Mr Putin said, in televised remarks after the meeting, that he very much hopes “that in the near future we will have a final ceasefire agreement” in east Ukraine.
Without a fully-implemented truce, he said, “it is difficult to picture Ukraine as a territorially integral country, and Russia, as is well-known, supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine”.
In his own remarks televised after the meeting, Mr Hollande said “de-escalation of the Ukrainian crisis is possible,” if the ceasefire agreement, agreed to by both sides in Minsk in September, is fully implemented.
“France wants this crisis to end because it is causing suffering, for Ukrainians and because of the sanctions, and because it prevents relations with Russia from proceeding as they should.”
Mr Putin said that the two leaders had not discussed the delivery of the two warships, which was suspended by France after coming under intense pressure from its allies to halt the sale because of tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
On Friday, France’s defence minister said in a TV interview that the delivery of both ships may be cancelled if the political situation does not change.
Mr Putin said: “We proceed from the assumption that (the deal) will be carried out.”
He added, however, that Russia would “act with understanding no matter how these events develop”.
Mr Hollande’s visit comes at a challenging time for Mr Putin.
Russia’s economy and currency have been battered by plummeting oil prices and western sanctions, and the South Stream gas pipeline project, which would have brought more Russian gas directly to southern Europe, has been abandoned.
Alexei Pushkov, a prominent member of Russia’s parliament who often expresses Kremlin views on foreign policy, praised the French leader for his unscheduled visit to Moscow.
“Hollande, who until now has always remained in the shadows on Ukraine, has left the shadows and showed his character: he paid a timely visit to Moscow and met with Putin,” Pushkov wrote on Twitter.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko wrote on his official Twitter account that he had spoken to Mr Hollande by phone about how to resolve the conflict in east Ukraine.
In comments carried by Ukrainian news agencies, Mr Poroshenko announced that the Kiev government would meet with rebel leaders in Minsk on Tuesday to discuss how to better implement the ceasefire agreement.