Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun a visit to the small Balkan state of Slovenia amid tensions between Moscow and the West over the Kremlin’s role in Ukraine.
Slovenia, an EU and NATO member, has maintained friendly relations with Moscow even as it joined EU sanctions against Russia for its support of pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine and its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Slovenia has described Putin's one-day visit as strictly informal, but said his talks with officials would also focus on economic and bilateral issues.
But EU diplomats told Reuters that they fear Russia is lobbying friendly European states, including Slovenia, to erode the bloc's unity on sanctions against Moscow.
"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 soft approach," one of the diplomats said.
The diplomats said Italy, Greece, Hungary, Cyprus, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Bulgaria were among Russia's main targets.
Putin on July 30 attended the centenary commemoration of a chapel in the Julian Alps that was erected in honor of over 100 Russian and other World War I prisoners of war who died in an avalanche while building a mountain road for the Austrian army in 1915.
At the small, Orthodox-style wooden church, Putin said Russia was ready to help strengthen security in Europe and the world.
"So that we not only remember the horrors of war, but together work on strengthening mutual understanding, trust and security in Europe and the world," he said as hundreds looked on, including Slovenian President Borut Pahor.
Earlier, Pahor had told Russia's TASS news agency that Putin's visit was a chance to pay “respect to the traditional friendship of Slovenia and Russia, despite some differences in the two countries' relations over their positions on certain pressing issues,”
The tight security for Putin's visit included closing the country's main highway to Austria, which caused huge traffic backups.
Putin's trip has angered Ukrainians living in Slovenia, who protested on July 30 in front of the Russian embassy in the capital, Ljubljana. Dozens of protesters held banners reading "Putin is a Terrorist" and chanted "Long live Ukraine!"
Before Putin’s arrival, Ukraine's ambassador to Slovenia, Mykhailo Brodovych, said the Russian president’s visit was "negative."
"These commemorative events are just a pretext for Putin to demonstrate that he is normally accepted in the country that is a member of the EU and NATO," Brodovych wrote on his webpage.
While in Slovenia, Putin was also due to unveil a memorial to Russian soldiers who died during World War II at the main cemetery in Ljubljana.
The Russian president is expected to meet with top Slovenian officials during his visit.
Slovenia, a country of 2 million people, became independent from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. It joined NATO and the EU in 2004.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, and Interfax