Officially, he is in Slovenia to pay tribute to Soviet servicemen who lost their lives there.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the European Union and NATO member state on Saturday has sparked speculation that it is part of a charm offensive to try to end EU sanctions against Moscow, imposed over the Ukraine crisis.
Russia sees Slovenia as an ally in that endeavour and Putin spoke warmly about the bond between the two countries.
“With all my heart, in the name of Russia, in my own name, I would like to thank Slovenia and the Slovenian people for what you are doing to keep alive the memory of all these victims that we sacrificed together to achieve victory, in both the First and Second World Wars,” said Putin, honouring Soviet prisoners of war who died in an avalanche while building a mountain pass in Slovenia during World War One.
Putin was also invited to the unveiling of a new monument to Soviet soldiers in the capital, Ljubljana.
The EU earlier this month extended economic sanctions on Russia until the start of 2017, despite misgivings from some countries who are keen to debate their effectiveness.
Several Moscow-based EU diplomats say Russia’s tactic of methodically lobbying southern and eastern EU member states is starting to seriously erode the bloc’s unity on the issue, making it potentially harder to renew them next time.
“Russia is constantly trying to find a way around the sanctions, targeting countries it thinks are softer. They are trying to kill the sanctions with a softly softly approach,” one of the diplomats, from a country which favours their continuation, told Reuters.
“The result is that we are seeing more and more countries saying we should analyse the sanctions, assess what effect they are having, and review them again.”
Italy, Greece, Hungary, Cyprus, Slovenia, Slovakia and Bulgaria are said to be among Moscow’s prime targets.
Diplomats have also said there is a feeling that EU unity over the sanctions issue is starting to break down because those countries hurt most by Russia’s counter-sanctions – banning many EU food imports – are coming under increased pressure from their own farmers and companies.
Putin in June extended Russia’s counter-sanctions, which have kept products from Italian hams to French cheeses off supermarket shelves, until the end of next year.
Not everyone was happy to see the Russian president visiting the Slovenia.
A group of Ukrainian residents staged a protest in Ljubljana and chanted “We are for peace in Europe”.
In a separate rally, however, pro-Russian demonstrators shouted ‘Russia, Russia’; to make clear their support for Putin.