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French President Emmanuel Macron smiles as he meets with Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila (not pictured) and students at the Aalto University in Espoo, Finland August 30, 2018. Lehtikuva/Mikko Stig via REUTERS

(reuters_tickers)

By Anne Kauranen

HELSINKI (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron urged the European Union on Thursday to modernise its post-Cold War ties with Russia and pursue "strategic relations" with Turkey as well as other close neighbours, including in defence matters.

Macron strongly advocates Europe's ability to defend its strategic interests and assert its financial independence in response to the new global economic and defence situation brought on by Donald Trump's presidency in the United States.

The French leader said Europe had long relied on U.S. protection and that while the NATO defence alliance remained important, the EU needed to bolster its own defence capacities.

"It is in our interest for the EU to have a strategic relationship with Turkey as well as with Russia that brings stability, that will in the long term and bring more strength and coherency," he told a news conference on a visit to Helsinki.

Trump's questioning of the United States' future role in NATO, the mainstay of post-war European defence policy, if European members do not increase their financial contributions has worried some members about how they might deal with Russia.

Since coming to office in May last year, Macron has tried to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Those efforts have been complicated by fallout from Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, its role in a pro-Moscow rebellion in eastern Ukraine, its support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in his country's civil war and allegations of Russian meddling in foreign elections.

EU relations with Turkey have also been fraught, notably since it accused Ankara of staging a broad, collective and disproportionate crackdown after a failed 2016 coup attempt.

CRIMEA

"It's not about forgetting the last few years, that wouldn't be right, but simply a realistic means ... to cooperate more deeply," Macron said, adding that Russia would need to signal advances on issues including the Ukrainian peace process.

The EU's relations with Russia needed to be "brought up to date", he added.

"On matters like cybersecurity, defence, strategic relationships, we could envisage the outlines of a new relationship between Russia and the EU which is coherent with the direction Europe is headed in," Macron said. "Stability in the whole region is in our interest."

Finland, a member of the EU but not of NATO, has had a difficult relationship with Moscow since it declared independence from Russia in 1917.

However, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, who joined Macron at the news conference, has been credited at home for forging a constructive relationship with Putin.

Niinisto said he wanted to see a shift in Russia's stance towards the Minsk accords that aim to bring peace to eastern Ukraine before offering a new strategic relationship.

"Russia wants closer economic ties with Europe. But we can't do that while the Ukraine question remains open," the Finnish president told the news conference.

(Reporting by Anne Kauranen in Helsinki; Additional reporting and writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Michel Rose and David Stamp)

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Reuters