Putin says Russia is not trying to divide EU ahead of Austria visit

The Russian president will make his first visit to a western European nation since his reelection

FILE - In this June 24, 2014 file photo Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a news conference after his meeting with Austrian President Heinz Fischer in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has said Moscow wants a “united and prosperous” EU ahead of talks in the Austrian capital, Vienna.

Mr Putin will meet with Austria’s president Alexander van der Bellen on Tuesday as well as Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in his first visit to a western European nation since his re-election as Russian premier earlier this year.

Russia’s relationship with the EU is at its lowest point following the country’s involvement in Ukraine and the war in Syria as well as the poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain.

However, Mr Putin told Austria's ORF station the Kremlin wanted to see 28-member bloc united as Russia’s most important commercial and economic partner.

"The more problems there are in the EU, the bigger our risks and uncertainties," Mr Putin told the broadcaster.

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

Most EU member states expelled Russian diplomats after Britain accused the Kremlin of being involved in the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in March.

But Austria, which has traditionally maintained ties with Russia and formerly the Soviet Union, was one of few countries that chose not to make expulsions.

Mr Putin told ORF that Austria had remained Russia’s "trusted partner in Europe” and that the two countries had always had “very good and close relations”.

The Russian president has supporters in the far-right Freedom party, a junior partner in the Austrian coalition government. The Freedom Party’s leader Heinz Christian Stache has called for EU sanctions against Russia to be lifted.

The talks are expected to discuss the issue of the sanctions, which were levied in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea as well as its involvement in the political instability in Ukraine.

Speaking ahead of Mr Putin’s visit, Chancellor Kurz said Austria would "decide pragmatically whether to co-operate with someone politically".

"We try to work with those who publicly express the wish themselves to work with us," he added.

The visit is also significant because it marks 50 years this month since Austria became the first western European nation to sign a natural gas deal with the Soviet Union.