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'Russia Not Aiming To Divide EU,' Putin Says Ahead Of Austria Visit

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz shake hands after a joint news conference following their talks in Moscow in February.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled a willingness to repair ties with the European Union ahead of a visit to Austria -- his first trip to a Western European country since his reelection earlier this year.

Putin arrived in Vienna on June 5 for talks with Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, as Russia's relations with the EU remain strained by its aggression in Ukraine, its role in the Syrian conflict, the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England, and other issues.

In an interview aired on the eve of his visit, Putin told Austrian public broadcaster ORF in Moscow that he wanted a "united and prosperous" EU.

"The more problems there are in the EU, the bigger our risks and uncertainties," Putin also said, calling the 28-member bloc Russia's most important commercial and economic partner.

"We need to build cooperation with the EU," he added. "We do not aim to divide the EU."

Putin denied that Russia was sowing discord by nurturing close ties with European populist movements like the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), which is part of the Austrian government.

EU sanctions, levied against Russia following its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in March 2014 and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, are expected to be part of the talks in Vienna.

Conservative leader Kurz has advocated a step-by-step lifting of the sanctions, if there is progress on defusing the Ukraine conflict.

Heinz-Christian Strache -- leader of Kurz's junior coalition partner, FPOe -- has called for the restrictive measures to be lifted.

Kurz's coalition was one of the few EU governments not to withdraw diplomats from Russia in response to a nerve-toxin attack in March on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

Britain accused Russia of being behind the attempted assassination of the Skripals, which Moscow denies.

Kurz's government has justified its refusal to join the international response to the poisoning by saying Austria was a "builder of bridges between east and west" and wanted to "keep channels open" to Moscow.

Putin told ORF that Moscow and Vienna had maintained "very good and close relations," adding that Austria has traditionally been Russia's "trusted partner in Europe."

"In recent years, our dialogue has not been disrupted, in spite of difficulties," the Russian president said, adding that bilateral trade grew 40.5 percent last year.

Austria, the first Western country to import Soviet gas 50 years ago, is one of Europe's main entry points for Russian gas to Western Europe.

Putin, 65, was reelected to a fourth term as Russian president in March, in a vote opponents said was marred by fraud and international observers said lacked competition and did not present Russians with a genuine choice.

With reporting by dpa, the BBC, Bloomberg, and TASS