European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has wished Vladimir Putin “every success” and congratulated him on his re-election, breaking ranks as other countries call for answers following the Salisbury poisoning.
In a letter to the Russian president Mr Juncker said he had always argued that “positive relations between the European Union and the Russian Federation are crucial to the security of our continent”.
The EU chief’s warm message comes a day after EU leaders at the European Council called on Russia to hand over details of its alleged nerve agent programme to help with the investigation into the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, which the British government says it is certain Russia was behind.
The European Foreign Affairs Council, all 28 EU foreign ministers, issued a joint statement on Monday that said the “European Union takes extremely seriously the UK Government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible” for the attack.
But the statement stopped short of explicitly blaming Russia or saying that it agreed with the UK’s assessment. Russia denies any involvement and says claims it carried out the attack are “slanderous, groundless, and difficult to explain”.
Mr Juncker’s letter to Mr Putin did not mention the Salisbury incident. “Excellency, Mr President,” the Commission President wrote. “I wish to convey my congratulations on your re-election as President of the Russian Federation.
“I have always argued that positive relations between the European Union and the Russian Federation are crucial to the security of our continent. Our common objective should be to re-establish a cooperative pan-European security order.
“I hope that you will use your fourth term in office to pursue this goal. I will always be a partner in this endeavour. I wish you every success in carrying out your high responsibilities. Yours sincerely, Jean-Claude Juncker.”
The EU institutions did not appear united on the issue, however. When asked whether Donald Tusk, European Council leader, would be sending a similar letter, a senior EU source said: “As far as I know president Tusk hasn’t sent such a letter until now. I would not be surprised if he would not send it at all.”
The letter drew immediate criticism from British MEPs. Conservative MEPs' leader Ashley Fox said:
"This is a disgraceful letter from Jean-Claude Juncker. To congratulate Vladimir Putin on his election victory without referring to the clear ballot rigging that took place is bad enough. But his failure to mention Russian's responsibility for a military nerve agent attack on innocent people in my constituency is nauseating.
"The European Commission President is appeasing a man who poses a clear threat to western security."
Mr Putin won 76.7 per cent of the vote with turnout of over 67 per cent of the vote. Opposition activists have pointed to irregularities in the voting process, though international observers said the poll was generally conducted efficiently.
The democratic process as a whole was "characterised by restrictions on fundamental freedoms" and "lack of genuine competition", the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe however said.
"The 18 March presidential election in Russia took place in an overly controlled environment, marked by continued pressure on critical voices, while the Central Election Commission (CEC) administered the process efficiently and openly, the international observers concluded in a statement today," the OSCE said in a statement.
"After intense efforts to promote turnout, citizens voted in significant numbers, yet restrictions on the fundamental freedoms, as well as on candidate registration, have limited the space for political engagement and resulted in a lack of genuine competition."
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies