Nearly three months since securing a fourth term in office that will see him remain in power until at least 2024, Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun signalling his willingness to repair ties with the European Union ahead of a visit to Austria — his first trip to a Western European country since his re-election earlier this year.
Putin is set to hold talks in Vienna on June 5 with Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen and recently elected Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. His visit comes as Russia’s relations with the EU remain strained by its aggression in Ukraine, Moscow’s role in the Syrian conflict, and the February poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the UK.
The issue of the EU’s sanctions against Russia, which were imposed after the Kremlin ordered the invasion and annexation of Crimea and support in fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, will, undoubtedly, dominate talks.
“We are far more interested in the EU being united and flourishing because the EU is our most important trading and economic partner,” said Putin before adding, “We are not pursuing the objective of dividing anything or anyone in the EU.”
Austria’s coalition government of conservatives and the pro-Putin far right was one of the few EU governments that opted not to expel any Russian diplomats over the Skripal case. After being criticised for not following the lead of other EU nations, Austria pointed to its history of neutrality and historic warm relations with Russia as reasons for its decision to remain on the sidelines of the increased tensions between the West and Russia.
Moscow wants the EU to lift sanctions, but the bloc has linked that to progress on the ground in eastern Ukraine. Russian has thus far neither removed its heavy weaponry from the theatre of combat nor halted its support for the local separatists.
Austria, which takes over the rotating EU presidency in July, has said it wants to act as a bridge between East and West. Conservative leader Kurz has advocated a step-by-step process for lifting the sanctions, if the conflict in Ukraine is de-escalated.
Heinz-Christian Strache – the leader of Kurz’ junior coalition partner, FPOe — has called for the sanctions regime to be lifted.
“We always make a pragmatic decision about whether to cooperate with someone politically,” Putin said when asked in the interview about United Russia’s ties with far-right parties. “We try to work with those who publicly express their wish to work with us.”
Putin denied that Russia was sowing discord by nurturing close ties with European populist movements like the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), which is part of the Austrian government.
Austria, the first Western country to import Soviet gas 50 years ago, is one of Europe’s main entry points for Russian gas to Western Europe.
Putin, 65, was reelected to a fourth term as Russian president in March, in a vote opponents said was marred by fraud and international observers said lacked competition and did not present Russians with a genuine choice.