EU leader Juncker to visit Russia in hint of diplomatic thaw

AP News
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Posted: May 30, 2016 12:11 PM
EU leader Juncker to visit Russia in hint of diplomatic thaw

LUXEMBOURG (AP) — The European Commission's president will visit Russia next month in what would be the most high-profile EU official to go to Russia since it annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

But Jean-Claude Juncker insisted there will be no letup of sanctions.

"We will not see a weakening of European positions," Juncker told reporters. "We will extend the sanctions against Russia and we will make it clear that we don't agree with the actions of Russia in Ukraine and Crimea in any way."

Russia too is downplaying the prospects of a more meaningful diplomatic thaw.

Like the U.S., the 28-nation EU has effectively frozen ties with Russia and imposed sanctions after its 2014 seizure of the Crimean Peninsula. Only a handful of European leaders have visited Moscow since, including Greek and Cypriot officials last year, and Austria's president and Hungary's prime minister this year.

Juncker stressed he would be addressing a Russian economic conference in St. Petersburg in mid-June and indicated he would likely meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is scheduled to attend the meeting.

"I will speak to those who are there," Juncker said. "I find it important that at least in economic questions we try to get closer together."

Russia's sanctions-struck economy contracted by nearly 4 percent last year while Russia's retaliatory boycott of EU food products has spurred inflation.

In Moscow, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov earlier said that Putin would meet with Juncker in mid-June at the conference in St. Petersburg.

But Peskov stopped short of calling this a sign that EU-Russia ties were on the mend.

"I would not be too optimistic and spot the signs of a breakthrough anywhere," Peskov said. Mutual sanctions and loss of trust would be "impossible to get rid of overnight."

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Nataliya Vasilyeva reported from Moscow. Associated Press reporter John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this story.