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Putin calls to improve ties with EU despite sanctions

Nataliya Vasilyeva
Associated Press

St. Petersburg, Russia — Russian President Vladimir Putin called on European leaders on Friday to improve ties with his country despite sanctions after meeting with European investors who said they want to expand their businesses there.

Speaking at Russia’s top economic conference, Putin said top German and French investors expressed their plans to invest more in Russia despite the weight of the sanctions, some of which the European Union extended just as Putin was speaking.

“Politicians should meet the businessmen halfway, show wisdom, long-term thinking and flexibility,” Putin said. “We need to bring back trust to Russia-European relations and restore the level of cooperation.”

He said Russia doesn’t need a new Cold War and that the country’s policy is “aimed at cooperation.”

He made a point, however, to stress that Russia’s ban on EU foodstuffs and other retaliatory measures were done “in response” to the EU sanctions.

“We don’t bear grudges and we are willing to meet our European partners halfway — this, however, must not be a one-way street,” he added.

Putin criticized the West for ignoring Russia’s legitimate interests. He said there is no reason for NATO’s continued expansion, and noted that the U.S.-led NATO missile defense plans pose a threat to Russia.

Western leaders and company executives went to Russia’s St. Petersburg Economic Forum this year after a two-year break that felt like a boycott, signaling a growing fatigue in Europe over the Russia sanctions.

Putin had a meeting with the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell on Thursday and other international executives, telling them that Russia is open to Western investment despite the strained ties with the West.

The United States and the European Union slapped Russia with economic sanctions in 2014 after it annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and threw its backing to separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

As Putin was delivering his speech in St. Petersburg, the EU extended for another year some of its sanctions targeting Russia. After the EU first imposed sanctions two years ago, Moscow retaliated by banning imports of meat, vegetable and dairy products from the EU, a blow to many of the bloc’s members.

The sanctions extended on Friday target imports from the peninsula and investment there among other measures. On top of that, cruise ships from the EU cannot call at ports there, in an attempt to hurt the tourism industry.

At the moment, the EU also has other sanctions targeting Russia in more direct way, limiting access to capital markets, banning arms trade and containing Russia access to sensitive oil industry technologies. It also has asset freezes and travel restrictions on 146 people and 37 entities. Some of these sanction need to be extended in the coming weeks and months.

The announcement came one day after EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker met with Putin in St. Petersburg.

Juncker, the highest ranking EU official to visit Russia since the Crimean annexation, told the forum on Thursday that the EU needs to engage with Russia despite the painful sanctions exchanged over the past two years.