Europe's top official, Jean-Claude Juncker, is set to meet the Russian president Vladimir Putin in June during his first visit to Russia since the Ukraine crisis, it was confirmed today.
Juncker, president of the European Commission, is set to attend the St Petersburg International Economic Forum on 16 June - just one week before the UK's referendum - where he will discuss the current state of EU-Russian relations. Part of his schedule is likely to include a meeting with Putin.
The Kremlin extended an invite to Juncker to attend the Forum, seen as Russia's equivalent to Davos, earlier this year but he held off on making a decision until closer to the time. It will be Juncker's first trip to Russia since the EU slapped sanctions on Russia in the aftermath of what the EU termed, "Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and deliberate destabilisation" of eastern Ukraine.
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"President Juncker has been invited and plans to participate in the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on 16 June," a spokesperson for the European Commission confirmed today.
Juncker "will use this opportunity to convey to the Russian leadership the EU's perspective regarding the current state of EU-Russia relations."
On the possibility of a meeting between Juncker and Putin, the spokesperson added: "President Putin will also attend the Forum. I think it would be evident that the two leaders being there will have to meet.
"As for sanctions, at the G7 summit the leaders recalled that the situation of sanctions is linked to Russia's ... respect for Ukraine's sovereignty ... this remains valid, and we do not see any inconsistency with the decision of President [Juncker] to attend the Forum."
As part of the sanctions regime, the EU has frozen the assets of top Russians associated with the invasion and issued a number of other partial bans on economic activity between the EU and Russia. Russia responded by imposing an import ban on EU food, which has put pressure on European farmers.
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The visit to Russia comes at a very sensitive time for the EU. It will take place just one week before the UK's referendum on membership of the organisation. Images of Jean-Claude Juncker meeting with Vladimir Putin may cause some controversy and frustration among In campaigners, who have tried to depict EU membership as an important part of the UK's resistance to the Russian president.
According to Politico, several countries, including the UK, the US and other central and eastern European nations have expressed unease about the visit.