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Scholz says Putin bent on conquest, but important to keep contact open

German Chancellor Scholz receives relatives of members of the German Armed Forces and police officers, in Berlin

By Andreas Rinke

POTSDAM, Germany (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to conquer parts of Ukraine and shows no restraint in his brutality, but it is still important to keep contacts open in case a moment arrives to end the war, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Saturday.

"Whenever I speak with Putin he says very clearly that for him it is about conquering something," Scholz said at an event in Potsdam, near Berlin. "He simply wants to conquer part of Ukrainian territory with violence."

Scholz has spoken directly with Putin more than most other Western leaders since the Feb 24 invasion. The two last spoke by telephone for an hour on Dec. 2.

Scholz said it was not clear how many Russian soldiers had died so far in the invasion, but the number could be as high as 100,000.

"We have seen the brutality the Russian president is capable of. In Chechnya where he basically eradicated the whole country. Or in Syria. There is no restraint there, it's as simple as that," Scholz said.

"We are of completely different opinions. Nonetheless I will keep speaking with him because I want to experience the moment where it is possible to get out of this situation. And that's not possible without speaking with one another."

In his remarks on Saturday, Scholz also defended the government's aim to raise defence spending to NATO's goal of 2% of gross domestic output, saying that before reunification, it has reached as much as 4%.

NATO countries needed to be strong enough that nobody would dare to attack them, he said.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke; Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Peter Graff)