March 20, 2018 / 4:06 PM / 6 months ago

Juncker congratulates Putin but EU puts Russia on summit agenda

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union’s chief executive has written to congratulate Russian President Vladimir Putin on his re-election, while EU leaders will discuss how to defend Europe from Russian disinformation and cyber attacks at a summit later this week.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker attends a debate on the guidelines on the framework of future EU-UK relations at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s letter, made public on Tuesday, echoes calls for dialogue by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

“Our common objective should be to re-establish a cooperative pan-European security order,” Juncker wrote.

Putin, in power as president or prime minister since 1999, won a fourth term on Sunday in an election in which he faced no credible challenge, at a time when relations with the West are at post-Cold war lows.

Other European countries have supported Britain, which accuses Moscow of poisoning a former spy with a nerve agent in England in an attack on March 4.

Highlighting divisions over how to deal with Putin, European Council President Donald Tusk, a former Polish premier, pointedly held off any communication with the Russian leader and an aide said he may not do so.

Asked if Tusk, who will chair an EU summit on Thursday that will discuss Russia, followed Juncker in congratulating Putin, a senior EU official said he had not: “And I would not be surprised if he would not send it at all.”

EU lawmaker Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian premier, said in response to Juncker’s letter: “this is no time for congratulations.”

Tusk said in his invitation letter to EU leaders on Tuesday that he will put Russia on the agenda of their summit dinner on Thursday in Brussels.

The agenda will include a debate on strengthening the EU’s defences against so-called “hybrid warfare” attacks. Britain has not asked for new economic sanctions, one EU official said.

EU foreign ministers said on Monday the bloc took Britain’s assessment that it was highly likely Russia was behind the poisoning “extremely seriously”. Russia denies any involvement.

Juncker, a former Luxembourg premier, courted criticism in June 2016 when he attended an economic forum with Putin in St Petersburg when most EU leaders were seeking to isolate Russia diplomatically over Russia’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea.

Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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