Europe needs better relations with Russia: Juncker

By Jens Hack PASSAU, Germany (Reuters) - Europe must improve its relationship with Russia and should not let this be something decided by Washington, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Thursday. The European Union joined the United States in imposing sanctions on Russia last year over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and tightened them after separatists launched a rebellion in the east of the country with the backing of Russia. Relations between Moscow and the West have taken a further turn for the worse since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a bombing campaign in Syria against opponents of President Bashar al-Assad. Juncker said tensions had to be eased, even if this was not necessarily popular. "We must make efforts towards a practical relationship with Russia. It is not sexy but that must be the case, we can't go on like this," he said at an event in the southern German town of Passau. Last week U.S. President Barack Obama accused Putin of acting out of a position of weakness to defend a crumbling, authoritarian ally in the Syrian leader. But Juncker signaled Europe should take a different approach. "Russia must be treated decently," he said. "We can't let our relationship with Russia be dictated by Washington." EU sanctions are up for renewal at the end of this year and so far the bloc has taken a united line on maintaining them, even though some member states are being hit hard, including by Russian counter-sanctions on Western food imports. (Writing by Madeline Chambers and David Stamp; Editing by Richard Balmforth)