Putin heads to Austria amid fraught Russia-EU ties

VIENNA (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived Tuesday in Austria, one of the European Union’s more Russia-friendly members, on his first foreign trip since being sworn in for a fourth term.

Before meetings with Austrian leaders, Putin dismissed suggestions that Russia has any intention of dividing the 28-nation EU. In an interview with Austrian public broadcaster ORF, he said that Moscow wants the EU “to be united and flourish, because the EU is our most important trade and business partner.”

Putin’s sixth official visit to traditionally neutral Austria marks the 50th anniversary of the start of Soviet gas deliveries to the country.

Unlike many other EU countries, Austria didn’t expel Russian diplomats over the poisoning in Britain earlier this year of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal.

In March, conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz pointed to Vienna’s “traditionally good contacts” with Russia and said that his government would use them to press Moscow to help clarify the nerve agent attack. He said Vienna was “of the opinion that it is important to maintain channels of dialogue.”

Putin is expected to meet with liberal President Van der Bellen, Kurz and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, whose nationalist Freedom Party entered the government in December as the junior coalition partner. Over the weekend, Strache called for the EU to lift sanctions against Russia.

This article provided by NewsEdge.