Russian president Vladimir Putin has cancelled his visit to Paris next week, as relations deterioriated further over what France calls "war crimes" committed by Russian and Syrian government forces in Aleppo.
President Francois Hollande had made it known that he "hesitated" to receive Mr Putin because of Russian actions in Syria. The Élysée Palace announced on Tuesday morning that the visit has been indefinitely postponed.
The cancellation is the culmination of a diplomatic row between Paris and Moscow, which started when French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault flew to Moscow on October 6th to demand that Russia refrain from vetoing a UN Security Council resolution demanding a ceasefire in Aleppo.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov annoyed Mr Ayrault by announcing that Mr Putin would discuss the matter with Mr Hollande during his Paris visit, which was two weeks away. On October 8th, Russia vetoed a Franco-Spanish draft resolution at the UN. It was the fifth time since 2011 that Moscow has used its veto in the Syrian crisis.
On October 10th, Mr Ayrault said that “If the president of the republic decides that the Russian president is coming, it won’t be for pleasantries; it will be to speak truth”. He reiterated that “war crimes” are being committed in Aleppo and that those responsible will be brought before the International Criminal court.
“There are war crimes,” Mr Ayrault said. “The secretary general of the UN said so.”
In an interview broadcast on Monday night, Mr Hollande said he was “still asking himself” whether he should receive Mr Putin. “Is it useful? Is it necessary?” he said.
On Tuesday morning, Alexander Orlov, the Russian ambassador to Paris, told Europe 1 radio station that Mr Putin still wanted to come to Paris. "He will come to speak with the president of the republic about subjects in dispute," Mr Orlov said. "Mr Putin never makes pleasantries. He doesn't have the time. He has other things to do."
The French decided to downgrade Mr Putin’s visit to a working meeting on Syria, and left the choice to the Russians to accept it or not. Moscow deemed the change insulting, and cancelled the trip.
Mr Hollande told the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg that he was “ready to meet [Mr Putin] any time” on condition that their meeting could “advance the cause of peace” in Syria.
“Dialogue is necessary with Russia, but it must be firm and frank,” Mr Hollande said, emphasising that Paris and Moscow have a “major disagreement” regarding Syria.
In a pointed reference to the end of Mr Hollande’s term in office, the Kremlin said the visit might be rescheduled for after May 2017.
Messers Hollande and Putin will nonetheless see each other at a dinner in Berlin where the situation in eastern Ukraine will be discussed on October 19th. The leaders of Germany and Ukraine will also be present.
Mr Putin’s Paris visit had been planned last spring. He was to have inaugurated a “cultural and spiritual centre” belonging to the Russian Orthodox church, near the Eiffel Tower.
The Orthodox centre has five gold onion domes and houses the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, a school and the cultural section of the Russian embassy.
The Russian leader was also supposed to have inaugurated the “Icons of Modern Art” exhibition at the LVMH Foundation. The exhibition marks the first time that the legendary collection of Impressionist, post-Impressionist and early modern art amassed by the Russian millionaire Sergei Shchukin has been reunited and shown in the east. The collection was split in two by Stalin in 1948 was long shunned as “bourgeois” art.