European Union leaders have been attending a dinner hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of a Russia-EU summit on Monday that is likely to be dominated by differences over the Syrian crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted European Union leaders for dinner on the evening before a summit that is likely to focus on Syria, with Iran and trade issues also expected to figure.
Monday's meeting will be the first Russia-EU summit since Putin returned to the presidency on May 7 for a historic third term.
Western leaders have been urging Russia to put more pressure on Syria to implement a UN-backed peace plan aimed at ending 15 months of bloodshed during an anti-government uprising there.
Moscow, while saying it supports the plan put forward by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, has consistently refused to back further action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
'No external interference'
"The only way out of the Syria crisis... involves a cessation of violence and consistent support for the plan of Annan," Russia's foreign minister said before the dinner in St. Petersburg on Sunday evening.
"Russia will continue supporting this position and calls on other states to do the same."
But Russia says the ouster of Assad should not be a precondition for political dialogue and that political decisions cannot be forced on Syria from the outside.
Putin has cited the examples of Libya and Iraq as evidence that regime changes and outside interference are not long-term solutions. Russia opposed external intervention by the international community in both cases.
Assad on Sunday blamed "terrorists" and "outside forces" for the ongoing bloodshed in the country.
The Kremlin has also criticized the EU for imposing an oil embargo on Iran over its nuclear program. It argues that unilateral sanctions will only harden Tehran's stance.
Despite differences on foreign policy, however, Moscow has stressed that Putin regards Russian-EU ties as being of the utmost importance.
"Overall, we believe that enhanced strategic partnership between Russia and the EU is not only useful, but essential to both sides," Russia's EU envoy Vladimir Chizhov said in Brussels.
The 27-nation EU is Russia's top foreign trade partner, with Europe relying heavily on Russian energy exports, while Russia imports several commodities from EU countries.
Russia has been urging the EU to implement visa-free travel. The EU wants Russia to lower barriers for Western companies and investment by reducing corruption and improving the rule of law.
Russia is to join the World Trade Organization this year, which will bind it to global rules.
tj/rc (Reuters, AFP)