Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Russia is not trying to split the European Union. His remarks come ahead of a visit to Austria, his first trip to a Western European country in nearly a year.
He told Austria’s ORF station he wanted a “united and prosperous” EU, calling the bloc Russia’s most important commercial and economic partner.
He also played down reported links between his United Russia party and Austria’s far-right Freedom Party.
Mr Putin will meet Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Tuesday, as well as business leaders.
“The more problems at the heart of the EU, the more risks and problems there are for us,” he said.
“We need to build co-operation with the EU. We don’t have a goal of dividing anything or anyone in the EU.”
EU sanctions, levied against Russia because of its 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, will likely form part of discussions.
Small Austria offers Vladimir Putin a big opportunity – as geopolitical as it is economic.
Mr Putin is keen to bust out of the isolationism – and the sanctions – imposed on Russia by the West since its annexation of Crimea four years ago.
He is well aware the Western alliance is now strained by tensions between Europe and the Trump administration, and he hopes to exploit them.
The EU of course still fumes over Russia’s role in Syria and Ukraine, its alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK, and its recent testing of a new ballistic missile, but President Putin knows what binds Europe to Russia is energy.
Austria was the first Western country to import Soviet gas 50 years ago, now a third of Europe’s gas comes from Russia and that amount is growing.
The British government has accused Russia of being behind the attempted assassination of the Skripals, an allegation Russia denies.
Austria’s coalition was one of the few EU governments not to withdraw diplomats from Russia in protest at the allegations.
Mr Putin has supporters within Austria’s ruling coalition, including Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who has called for sanctions on Russia to be lifted.
Asked ahead of the meeting in Vienna about Russia’s ties to far-right parties, Mr Kurz said Austria would “decide pragmatically whether to co-operate with someone politically”.
“We try to work with those who publicly express the wish themselves to work with us,” he said.
Mr Putin was recently re-elected to a fourth term as Russian president, winning a landslide victory with more than 76% of the vote.
Independent election monitoring group Golos reported hundreds of irregularities on polling day, and the main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was barred from standing in the race.