By Jorge Valero
(EurActiv) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday (17 June) said he was willing to reach out to Europe to mend relations shattered by the Ukraine crisis but insisted the West was responsible for the bad blood.
Putin was making a pitch at Russia’s major annual economic forum in Saint Petersburg to improve business ties with Europe, as Moscow desperately tries to breathe life into its recession-hit economy battered by Western sanctions.
“European business wants and is ready to work with our country. European politicians need to reach out to business, to show wisdom, far-sightedness and flexibility,” said Putin.
“We remember how all this started. Russia did not initiate today’s collapse,” he added.
“We hold no grudge and are willing to reach out to our European partners but obviously this can’t be a one-sided game.”
Russia’s energy-driven economy is locked in its longest slump since Putin came to power over 16 years ago, caused by both Western sanctions and plunging oil prices.
Crimea sanctions renewed
As Putin was talking news emerged that the European Union had rolled over for another year sanctions adopted in response to Moscow’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea, which prohibit the EU from doing business on the peninsula.
Sources in Brussels say that broader economic sanctions over a pro-Russian uprising in east Ukraine that have hit Russia’s financial sector could be extended by the EU as early as next week ahead of their expiration at the end of July.
Russia in August 2014 introduced an embargo on a raft of food from the West in retaliation for the sanctions.
Speaking to EurActiv.com, Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov, said that – to his direct knowledge – Juncker and Putin did not discuss sanctions because “that is not in our agenda”.
“It is a problem the Europeans created and when they solve it they know where to find us”.
Putin, in his speech, said, “In my talks with French and German businessmen I see they want to cooperate with our country. Russia did not initiate downfall of our relations.”
Asked about the current version of a ‘Cold War’ between the West and Russia, Putin said, “I would like to think nobody interested in that, for sure not us, no need for that.”
“Negotiations are difficult but this is the only way to reach acceptable solutions,” he added.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who sat next to Putin on the stage, came to the economic forum with a large delegation of businessmen.
He pointed out that the spiral of tit-for-tat measures have hit European producers.
“The sanctions and those put in place in reprisal negatively affect both Russian and European companies,” he said in an interview with TASS news agency. “Both sides suffer.”
Speaking on Thursday at the forum the head of the EU commission Jean-Claude Juncker warned Russia that the economic sanctions would not be dropped until Russia fully implemented a peace deal to end the conflict in east Ukraine that the West blames on Moscow.
“The next step is clear: full implementation of the agreement – no more, no less,” Juncker told Russia’s main economic forum ahead of a meeting with Putin.
“This is the only way to begin our conversation and the only way to lift the economic sanctions that have been imposed.”
The Juncker-Putin meeting – their first in Russia since the EU imposed sanctions – had sparked Kremlin hopes it might signal the start of a return to business-as-usual with the bloc.
Putin, who has previously insisted that the worst of Russia’s economic crisis is over, said he was targeting a return to growth rates of “no lower than four percent”.
But Russia’s gross domestic product shrank by some 3.7 percent last year and the IMF predicts its economy will contract by 1.5 percent this year before experiencing modest growth in 2017.
On Syria, Putin asked, “Do we want to replace an undemocratic regime by another? We need to use democratic tools.”
“Process will be difficult”, nothing will happen easily…, “ he added. The Russian leader suggested that President Assad was also committed to the political process, in drafting a new constitution and then holding parliamentary elections, saying, “We talked about that and Assad agreed to that, under control of the UN.
“There is nothing bad about that,” Putin concluded.
When asked if he still held to his opinion that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was “talented”, Putin paused – to laughter from the audience – and replied, “I just said [in the past] he is bright person, isn’t he?”
“I welcome that he wanted to restore US-Russia relations, don’t we want that?”
“The US is a great power, right now maybe only superpower, and we accept that.”
“The world need a country as strong as the US is, but not that interferes in our affairs or EU-Russia relations”