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France denies Russian claim of discussion on potential Ukraine talks

France's Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu held rare phone talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu (STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN)
France's Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu held rare phone talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu (STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN)

Russia said that its defence minister Sergei Shoigu and French counterpart Sebastien Lecornu discussed the potential for talks on the Ukraine conflict during a rare telephone call on Wednesday, a claim that Paris immediately denied.

The unexpected call, which Moscow said was initiated by France, marks a rare instance of high-level contact between the two countries, whose ties have been severely strained by the two-year Ukraine war.

"Readiness for dialogue on Ukraine was noted. The starting points could be based on the Istanbul peace initiative," the Russian defence ministry said in a statement on the call.

It did not elaborate on what it meant, and a source close to Lecornu was quick to deny such a conversation took place.

"France neither accepted nor proposed anything of the sort" on the conflict, the source told AFP.

The French defence ministry acknowledged the pair discussed Ukraine, but stressed Lecornu reaffirmed France's support for Kyiv's fight against Russia.

NATO member Turkey said last month it was ready to again host a peace summit between the two warring sides, but Kyiv has pushed back at the idea of negotiating directly with Moscow.

Ankara first hosted peace talks in the weeks after Russia launched its invasion in February 2022.

- 'Increased exchanges' -

Contacts between a senior Russian official close to President Vladimir Putin and a top minister from a European power have been rare in the two years since Russia's invasion.

Both sides said the pair discussed last month's deadly attack on a Moscow concert hall, which was claimed by Islamic State and roundly condemned by Western countries.

Lecornu told Shoigu that France was always ready to face down "terrorism" and was prepared for "increased exchanges with the aim of fighting this threat as effectively as possible", the French defence ministry statement said.

The French minister reiterated "France's firm condemnation and solidarity with the victims and their families", adding that he "also unreservedly condemned the war of aggression that Russia has launched in Ukraine".

According to the Russian defence ministry's statement, Shoigu said he hoped France was not involved in the attack.

"The Kyiv regime does nothing without the approval of Western curators. We trust that in this case French special services are not behind it," Shoigu was quoted as saying.

The Kremlin has pushed the narrative that the West and Ukraine were somehow linked to the attackers, an idea that the US and Kyiv have denounced as absurd.

Lecornu said that France had no information to establish a link to Ukraine, calling on Moscow "to stop all instrumentalisation" of the attack, the French defence ministry said.

Putin has acknowledged that "radical Islamists" conducted the attack in Moscow that left at least 144 people dead, but suggested they were linked to Kyiv.

Shoigu separately chided Paris for signalling Western soldiers could be sent to Ukraine, after French President Emmanuel Macron in February declined to rule out putting boots on the ground.

"With regard to the Elysee Palace's statements about sending a French contingent to Ukraine, Sergei Shoigu pointed out that if they were implemented in practice, it would create problems for France itself," Russia's defence ministry said.

- 'Fight for freedom' -

Lecornu reminded Shoigu that "France will continue to support Ukraine as long and as intensely as necessary in its fight for freedom and sovereignty, in order to bring peace and security to the European continent," the French ministry said.

President Emmanuel Macron said in March that France had offered Russian security services "increased cooperation" following the Moscow attack -- adding that there would be contact on a "technical and ministerial level" rather than direct talks with Putin.

France has been targeted by Islamist extremists multiple times, and French authorities have asked foreign allies to send several thousand security forces to help guard the upcoming Olympics, underlining the strains caused by the sporting extravaganza.

The French leader tried in a series of phone calls in 2022 to warn Putin against invading Ukraine and travelled to Moscow early that year.

He kept up phone contact with Putin even after the invasion but talks have now ceased, with the last call between the presidents dating back to September 2022.

Macron has in recent months toughened his line against Russia, refusing to rule out putting troops on the ground in Ukraine.

Lecornu and Shoigu last held phone talks in October 2022.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a phone call in April 2023, and Shoigu spoke to US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin the month before.

Lavrov regularly travels to G20 meetings, but there is no indication he speaks directly with Western officials there.

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