Top EU official Jean-Claude Juncker plans to travel to Russia next month to attend an economic forum despite enduring tensions over sanctions that the West has imposed on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine.
"I think it is important that we try, at least on economic issues, to get closer to Russia again," the European Commission chief told dpa on Monday in Luxembourg, on the margins of an anniversary celebration for the conservative European People's Party.
"But it will not come to any softening of European positions in St Petersburg," he added.
The northern Russian city will host the economic forum that Juncker plans to attend on June 16. The St Petersburg International Economic Forum is the country's most prominent economic forum. The annual event features Russia's leadership and most valuable companies.
"The president will use this opportunity to convey to the Russian leadership, as well as to a wider audience, the EU's perspective regarding the current state of EU-Russia relations," commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told journalists in Brussels.
He did not rule out Juncker possibly having contact with President Vladimir Putin, since the Russian leader is also expected to attend the three-day event.
"I will speak with those who are there," Juncker said in Luxembourg.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warmly welcomed the announcement of Juncker's plans, telling the state news agency TASS that Putin "has repeatedly expressed his interest, Moscow's interest, in conducting and expanding such dialogue."
He too said that Putin and Juncker will probably meet during the forum. However, Peskov also warned that the leaders would be unlikely to reach a major breakthrough in restoring EU-Russian relations.
"The recent rejection of dialogue and collaboration in numerous areas, these of course have a negative impact," Peskov said.
Juncker has in the past advocated for relations with Russia to be improved, but top-level contacts between Brussels and Moscow have been limited because of Russia's actions in Ukraine.
The West believes that Russia violated international law by annexing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and has condemned Moscow for supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. The EU and others have hit Russia with a number of sanctions.
The 28-country EU will have to decide by the end of July whether to prolong the toughest of the sanctions, which hamper Russian imports into the EU and Russian banks' access to European markets. The bloc's governments are said to disagree on how to proceed.
But Juncker predicted that the sanctions against Russia would be extended and that the EU would make clear that it "in no way agrees with the approach of Russia in Ukraine and in Crimea."
G7 leaders said at a summit in Japan last week - where Juncker represented the commission, the EU's executive - that sanctions on Russia can be rolled back once the country meets its commitments under the Minsk peace deal for eastern Ukraine.
But they also threatened "further restrictive measures in order to increase the cost on Russia," if necessary.
"[This] remains valid, and we don't see any inconsistency with the decision of the president to attend the St Petersburg international forum," Schinas said.
It is the first time that Juncker will travel to Russia since taking over the reins of the commission in late 2014.
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