10:56 Jul. 30, 2016
Moscow targets Italy, Greece, Hungary, Cyprus, Slovenia, Slovakia and Bulgaria in its campaign to end western penalties
Vladimir Putin will step up Russia's campaign to end European Union sanctions with a visit to Slovenia on Saturday, encouraged by signs his tactic of lobbying what he views as more pliant southern and eastern European states is starting to pay off, Reuters reports.
The sanctions, imposed over the Ukraine crisis, are designed to block access to Western credit and technology for people and businesses linked to President Putin. Combined with American and Group of Seven sanctions, they have made it harder for Russia to weather an economic crisis fueled by low oil prices.
The EU earlier this month extended economic sanctions on Russia until the start of 2017, despite misgivings from some countries such as Slovakia 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 favors their continuation, told Reuters.
"The result is that we are seeing more and more countries saying we should analyze the sanctions, assess what effect they are having, and review them again."
Italy, Greece, Hungary, Cyprus, Slovenia, Slovakia and Bulgaria were among Moscow's prime targets, diplomats said.
Russia says it will not discuss returning Crimea to Ukraine, meaning there is no prospect that the EU sanctions specifically linked to the annexation will be removed anytime soon.
But there is flexibility about wider EU sanctions on Russia that were imposed in response to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where the Kremlin was accused of giving military aid to separatists.
Two EU diplomats said they thought the impact of Putin's widening charm offensive, accompanied by offers of lucrative trade deals and polite reminders of lost export revenues, could see those watered down next year.
"It's getting harder to hold the line," said one, from another country which wants the sanctions maintained. "The sanctions would probably not all be lifted at once, but there could be a decision to lift them in one sector next year."
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in May she expected a broader review of the bloc's policy toward Russia later in the year.