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Russia 'not trying to split EU', says Putin

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Russia 'not trying to split EU', says Putin

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking ahead of a visit to Austria, has said he does not want to divide the European Union.

It is his first bilateral trip to a West European country for almost a year.

"We do not pursue the objective of dividing anything or anyone in the EU," Putin told broadcaster ORF.

"We are far more interested in the EU being united and flourishing because the EU is our most important trading and economic partner."

The Russian leader will meet government and business leaders in Austria on a visit which formally marks 50 years since the two countries' energy firms Gazprom and OMV first signed a gas supply deal.

The issue of EU sanctions, imposed on Russia because of its support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, will weigh on any talks he has.

Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPO) has called for sanctions against Russia to be lifted, but the conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his party, which control Austria's EU policy, have said Austria will toe the EU line.

Moscow's ties with EU countries remain strained after Russia's annexation of Crimea, its involvement in Syria and eastern Ukraine, and the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in England.

Austria's coalition government of conservatives and the pro-Putin far right was in a minority of EU governments that did not expel any Russian diplomats over the case. Moscow denies involvement.

Vienna points to its history of neutrality and its relatively warm relations with Russia. Austria takes over the rotating EU presidency in July and says it wants to act as a bridge between east and west.