European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker looks on during a meeting at the Capitol Hill in Rome, Italy, May 5, 2016. REUTERS/Max Rossi(reuters_tickers)
By Alastair Macdonald and Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's plan to meet President Vladimir Putin in June in Russia on Monday reignited a debate about ties with Moscow as the bloc weighs renewing sanctions on the Kremlin.
Diplomats in Brussels still expect the 28-nation bloc to extend - most likely for six months - the energy, financial and defence sanctions against Russia, which were introduced over Moscow's role in the conflict in Ukraine and expire in July.
But they said that intensifying high-level contacts with Russia two years after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine signals the EU may soften its policy in the second half of the year.
While several EU leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel have visited Russia since the annexation in March 2014 and the backing of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, the trip will be Juncker's first as Europe's chief executive.
Putin was also in Athens last week.
It will come as the 28-strong EU tries to preserve unity on sanctions, which have been questioned by Hungary, Greece and Italy. The United States insists they must remain in place until Russia fulfils its part of the Minsk peace plan.
Lithuania and Latvia, former Soviet republics that are now EU and NATO members very wary of Russia, were critical.
"A visit by an official of this level always carries a symbolic value. I don't see any reasons why we would need to symbolically demonstrate to Russia that we're seeking contact," Lithuania's Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told Reuters.
His Latvian counterpart, Edgars Rinkevics said Juncker should avoid creating "an impression made that relations between Russia and the EU will hold the framework of 'business as usual' by ignoring the events of 2014".
Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said Juncker would "convey to the Russian leadership ... the EU's perspective regarding the current state of the EU-Russian relations".
"DESIRE FOR DIALOGUE"
Schinas reiterated EU sanctions policy on Russia, saying that Juncker's June 16 visit was not inconsistent with it. EU leaders are due to decide at their June 28-29 summit on whether to extend the sanctions.
"The duration of sanctions is clearly linked to Russia's complete implementation of the Minsk agreements and respect for Ukraine's sovereignty," Schinas said, referring to the stalled peace accord, which the EU says must be implemented for sanctions to be eased.
He said Juncker and Putin would meet during the economic forum in St Petersburg but declined to say whether there would be a separate face-to-face meeting. The Kremlin welcomed Juncker's visit, but said it was unlikely to be a breakthrough.
"The most positive element to this trip is that it shows a readiness and a desire for dialogue aimed at getting consensus on those issues where we still have strong disagreements," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Juncker, a former Luxembourg prime minister, has called for a "practical relationship" with Moscow and last November wrote to Putin suggesting closer trade ties between the EU and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
He has at times been criticised by EU members more hawkish on Russia. Germany and France, on the other hand, want dialogue to avoid a further worsening of ties with Moscow, Europe's main energy provider.
Moscow may have given EU states advocating sanctions relief more arguments by last week returning to Kiev jailed Ukrainian military pilot Nadezhda Savchenko in a prisoner exchange welcomed by Western politicians.
An EU diplomat said on Monday that, while this may help "general mood" in ties with Europe, the economic sanctions were still most likely to be prolonged by six months from July.
EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said earlier this month that a broader review of the bloc's policy towards Russia was looming in the later in the year.
Mogherini will also present in June a new "Global Strategy" for the bloc. The EU diplomat who spoke on condition of anonimity said the document would name Russia as a "strategic challenge" but reiterate calls for limited engagement in areas of common interest.
(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, Dmitry Solovyov, Polina Devitt and Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Andrius Sytas in Vilnius, Gederts Gelzis in Riga; Editing by Alison Williams)