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Putin Cancels Paris Visit After Hollande Insists Talks Would Be Limited To Syria

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and French President Francois Hollande talk after a press conference following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow in November 2015.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and French President Francois Hollande talk after a press conference following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow in November 2015.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has nixed a planned visit to France next week amid a row over the war in Syria, after French President Francois Hollande reportedly sought to limit their meeting to a discussion of that five-year-old Mideast conflict.

Putin had been due in Paris on October 19 to meet with Hollande, as well as to inaugurate a Russian Orthodox cathedral and visit a Russian art exhibition.

Instead, senior-level talks will wait amid deteriorating relations between Moscow and the West on Syria but also on issues including the conflict in Ukraine and related sanctions and countersanctions, accusations of Russian cybercrime and hacking, and escalating troop and military-equipment levels near Russia's borders with NATO and the West.

The Kremlin said on October 11 that Putin had decided to cancel the visit, insisting that he remains "ready to visit Paris when it is comfortable" for Hollande.

Moscow will "wait for when that comfortable time comes," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

The French president said Paris and Moscow had a "major disagreement" over Syria, where the breakdown of a cease-fire last month has given way to a massive offensive by President Bashar al-Assad and Russian warplanes on rebel-held portions of the city of Aleppo.

The violence in Syria has included the repeated bombing in September of a hospital and the bombardment of a convoy carrying humanitarian aid that killed at least 20 people.

French officials have suggested Syria and Russia could face war crimes charges over Aleppo, and Russia last week blocked a French-sponsored UN Security Council resolution on ending the hostilities in Syria.

"With Russia, France has a major disagreement on Syria, and the Russia veto on the French resolution at the UN Security Council has prevented the cessation of bombings and enablement of a truce," Hollande said at the Council of Europe in the northeastern French city of Strasbourg on October 11.

"I consider it is necessary to have dialogue with Russia, but it must be firm and frank -- otherwise it has no place and it is a charade."

Relations At Cold War Level

Moscow's relations with the West have plunged to levels unseen since the end of the Cold War following Russia's military seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and an ensuing war between Kyiv's forces and Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 9,600 people.

Western leaders have tried to avoid linking the conflicts in Ukraine -- where there is significant evidence that Russia is backing armed separatists despite Moscow's denials -- and Syria, which hosts a Russian military base and where Russia announced a bombing campaign in September 2015 to fight "international terrorists" and support Assad.

France has been at the forefront of international efforts to get Russian and Syrian warplanes to end their bombing campaign in rebel-held areas of Aleppo, in attacks that have resulted in hundreds of civilians being killed and tens of thousands of others in urgent need of humanitarian aid.

Diplomats have also said Paris was leading discussions on whether to impose new European Union sanctions on Russia over Syria.

On October 10, Hollande told French TV that Assad's forces had committed a "war crime" in Aleppo with Russia's support.

"These are people who today are the victims of war crimes," he said. "Those that commit these acts will have to face up to their responsibility," including in the International Criminal Court (ICC)."

War-Crimes Investigation?

Also on October 10, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called the Syrian and Russian bombardments of Aleppo a "gift to terrorists," adding that Paris was working to find a way for the ICC to open a war-crimes investigation into the bombardment of that northern Syrian city.

Neither Russia nor Syria is a member of the ICC.

Moscow has repeatedly denied attacking civilians, and says it targets "terrorist" groups in Syria.

On October 8, it vetoed a UN Security Council resolution drafted by France and Spain calling for an end to air strikes on Aleppo and military overflights. Moscow said it would have provided "cover for the terrorists."

There is also uncertainty over whether Putin will be invited to a possible meeting in Berlin on October 19 to talk about the Ukraine crisis, with the French and German leaders -- and possibly Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko -- also present.

Kremlin spokesman Peskov said on October 11 that the "preliminary preparation for such a meeting has been under way," but he did not say it was agreed.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP
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