Europe

EU leader Juncker to visit Russia in hint of diplomatic thaw

  • FILE - In this file photo dated Thursday, May 26, 2016, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker speaks during a press conference in Shima, central Japan, Thursday, May 26, 2016.  Spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday May 30, 2016,  that Jean-Claude Juncker would address a Russian economic conference in St. Petersburg and meet Putin in mid-June, in what would be the most high-profile EU visit since Russia annexed Crimea two-years ago. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi, FILE)

    FILE - In this file photo dated Thursday, May 26, 2016, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker speaks during a press conference in Shima, central Japan, Thursday, May 26, 2016. Spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday May 30, 2016, that Jean-Claude Juncker would address a Russian economic conference in St. Petersburg and meet Putin in mid-June, in what would be the most high-profile EU visit since Russia annexed Crimea two-years ago. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi, FILE)  (The Associated Press)

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the church of the Protaton, dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin, in Karyes, the administrative center of the all-male Orthodox monastic community of Mount Athos, northern Greece, Saturday, May 28, 2016. Putin has arrived at the northern Greek peninsula of Mount Athos, on a visit to the autonomous Orthodox Christian monastic community here. (Alexandros Avramidis/Pool Photo via AP)

    Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the church of the Protaton, dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin, in Karyes, the administrative center of the all-male Orthodox monastic community of Mount Athos, northern Greece, Saturday, May 28, 2016. Putin has arrived at the northern Greek peninsula of Mount Athos, on a visit to the autonomous Orthodox Christian monastic community here. (Alexandros Avramidis/Pool Photo via AP)  (The Associated Press)

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is coming to Russia next month in what would be the most high-profile EU visit since Russia annexed Crimea two years ago, but both sides are downplaying the prospects of a more meaningful diplomatic thaw.

Like the United States, the European Union has effectively frozen ties with Russia and imposed sanctions after its 2014 seizure of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. Only a handful of European leaders have visited Moscow since, including Greek and Cypriot officials last year and Austria's president and Hungary's prime minister this year.

Russia's sanctions-struck economy contracted by nearly 4 percent last year while Russia's retaliatory boycott of EU food products has spurred inflation.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, told reporters that Juncker would address a Russian economic conference in St. Petersburg and meet Putin in mid-June.

But Peskov stopped short of calling this a sign that EU-Russia ties were on the mend.

"I would not be too optimistic and spot the signs of a breakthrough anywhere," Peskov said. Mutual sanctions and loss of trust would be "impossible to get rid of overnight," he said.

EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas would not confirm whether Juncker intended to meet Putin. He said the visit would not herald any softening of EU sanctions on Russia, while Juncker's speech to the economic forum would allow the commission chief to assess the current damaged state of EU-Russia relations.

___

Associated Press reporter John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this story.