European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Russian leader Vladimir Putin held their first meeting in more than two years in St Petersburg, promising to keep “close contacts” in order to improve frosty bilateral relations.
Europe’s economic sanctions on Russia will be lifted once the Minsk agreements are fully implemented, Juncker told Putin on Thursday (16 June), repeating the official line held by Europe and the US over the Ukraine conflict.
The pair agreed to keep “close contacts” to improve bilateral relations, which have hit a low point with the eastern Ukraine conflict, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
It was the first encounter of an EU leader with the Kremlin in more than two years, since the Ukraine crisis broke out, and sanctions were imposed on both sides.
The meeting between the Commission chief and the former KGB agent in St Petersburg took place in a “good atmosphere”, a member of the Juncker team told EurActiv.com.
Juncker accepted Putin’s invitation to attend the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, Russia’s version of the World Economic Forum.
In his speech, the Commission President offered to build a new “bridge” to overcome the gap between the EU and Russia.
“If our relationship today is troubled and marked by mistrust, it is not broken beyond repair. We need to mend it, and I believe we can,” he told a large audience during the opening ceremony of the forum.
“I have always believed in the power of dialogue. When our relations are tense, we must keep talking. Even when economic sanctions are in place, we must keep the door open,” he stressed.
But Juncker’s visit did not alter the EU’s position on sanctions, as some critics feared, just days before EU member states are expected to extend the punitive measures for another six months.
“The next step is clear: full implementation of the [Minsk] agreements. No more, no less.This is the only way to begin our conversation, and the only way to lift the economic sanctions that have been imposed,” Juncker told the auditorium.
The Minsk accords set a number of points to bring an end to the conflict in Ukraine and restore political stability in the country.
Despite calls from Berlin or Athens to ease the pressure on Russia, in light of the numerous challenges on Europe’s plate, Juncker stressed that “on Minsk, the EU is united”.
His team explained that Juncker conveyed the same message in private to Putin later in the afternoon.
Despite addressing mainly a Russian audience at the Kremlin’s flagship economic event of the year, Juncker kept his usual blunt tone to describe EU-Russia relations. He reminded that their common ties were “strained” even before the conflict in Ukraine, as the EU’s engagement “was not always welcomed” on some issues.
The conflict in Ukraine and the “illegal” annexation of Crimea worsened the situation as they broke with the principles of sovereign equality, the non-use of force and territorial integrity, he explained.
Looking ahead, Juncker also warned Putin that, even if their vision of a “fair society” diverge, both the EU and Russia “must fulfil our international commitments on civil and political rights”.
And given how the Ukrainian conflict broke out, the Commission chief underlined that if a country in Russia’s neighbourhood wants to develop closer ties with the EU, this “can never be seen as an act of aggression or division”.
With bilateral relations at their lowest since the Cold War, Juncker was aware that his first conversation with Putin in years was going to be difficult.
“If we need to have a frank conversation today, it will not be the first time and probably not the last. We will talk as long as it takes”.
He admitted that “it would be pointless, possibly dangerous, to ignore” the problems their relationship currently faces.
While Juncker set the “full” implementation of the Minsk accords as the necessary condition to press the reset button and lift European sanctions, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Sergei Lavrov, held a different view.
Lavrov pointed out that “most things need to be done” by the Ukrainian side, including a reform of the constitution to introduce further decentralisation for the benefit of Russian-speaking regions in the secessionist eastern part of the country, which is supported by Moscow.
Speaking at the forum, the Russian diplomat urged the EU to restart dialogue, as many EU businessmen, in particular in Germany, have called for.
“You cannot go on without relations with Moscow,” he told the audience.
He then urged Europeans to put aside the “rhetoric and political games” played by the US, saying they are “too costly”.
You first, Putin
One of the European personalities invited at the forum was Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French President. He slammed the EU-Russia confrontation as “artificial” and called for the lifting of economic sanctions.
But Sarkozy insisted that Moscow takes the first step and removes sanctions imposed on EU countries.
People will see this as “a symbol of strength because Russia is a big country,” he explained.
Despite his close ties with his “friend” Putin, Sarkozy admitted that “of course we have our disagreements”, in particular on issues related to borders.
However he refused entering into details, nor to comment on the similarities between Putin’s policies and those of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
“We do not have disagreements over the internal politics of Russia,” he stated, declining to comment further because it was not his “responsibility” to judge the Russian people’s choices.