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Jean-Claude Juncker: EU must engage with Russia despite sanctions

The European Union needs to engage with Russia despite the economic sanctions it has imposed on the country for annexing the Crimean peninsula, Jean-Claude Juncker said.

The European Commission president is the highest ranking EU official to visit Russia since the country grabbed control of Crimea in 2014, triggering US and EU sanctions.

After a two-year break which felt more like a boycott, European leaders and chief executives of top multinational companies are back at Russia's top economic gathering in St Petersburg in a sign of weariness over the sanctions.

Mr Juncker lashed out at his critics in Europe who argued that his visit to Russia could signal that the EU was ready to compromise on sanctions while Russia is still not willing to help advance the peace process in Ukraine.

"I take the view that we must talk with Russia, the leadership, its people: For some it must be a radical idea; for me it's common sense," he said in remarks which triggered applause.

Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine landed President Vladimir Putin in international isolation.

The EU and US imposed economic sanctions and kicked Russia out of the G-8 group of nations.

Mr Juncker said the relationship between Russia and the EU is "not broken beyond repair. We need to mend it and I believe we can."

However, he made a point of confirming the EU's stance that it does not accept Russia's annexation of Crimea because it has "shaken the very principles of European security" and still views the Minsk peace accords for Ukraine as the only conditions for the sanctions to be lifted.

"Russia is party to the Minsk agreement," he said. "The next step is clear: the full implementation of the agreement, no more, not less, this is the only way to lift the economic sanctions."

Once a showcase of Russia's geopolitical weight and economic attractiveness, the St Petersburg Economic Forum - dubbed Russia's Davos - was a sore sight the past two years.

European leaders and heads of major companies who once had lucrative long-term projects in Russia were nowhere to be seen.

This year's gathering, however, signals what could be an emerging movement within the EU to ease the economic sanctions.

The measures did not only affect the Russian economy by closing long-term EU lending to Russian companies but also triggered a Russian import ban on meat, vegetable and dairy products from the European Union, dealing a heavy blow on agriculture-dependent nations such as Greece.

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