Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (R) talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Athens on May 27, 2016
Athens (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin signed several economic deals with Athens on Friday during a visit to Greece aimed at reinforcing a relationship with one of his few friends in the EU amid tensions with the West.
The visit, Putin's first to the EU since December, comes at a low ebb in relations between Russia and Europe over the conflict in Ukraine that broke out in 2014, with sanctions still in force against Moscow.
It also comes as Athens desperately seeks to come out of recession. Greek officials say increased trade with Russia could play a part in recovery efforts.
EU leaders are to discuss next month whether to renew sanctions on Russia's banking, defence and energy sectors that expire in July.
The sanctions, however, did not prevent Russia and Greece from signing what Putin referred to as a "bunch of agreements" that included deals on energy and Russian tourism to Greece.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev on Friday said a counter-embargo on EU food products would be stretched to the end of 2017.
"The issue of sanctions is not our problem. We did not impose them, we took measures to respond to them," Putin said. "As soon as they are lifted we will take analogous steps toward our partners."
While the sanctions are likely to be extended, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said resistance is growing within the EU, and a unanimous vote is required.
Italy and Hungary have been among the most sceptical while Poland and the Baltic states have repeatedly pressed for maintaining pressure on Moscow.
Greece's leftist leader Alexis Tsipras criticised what he branded a vicious circle of sanctions, but nonetheless said his country "belongs to the EU and respects absolutely its commitments to the international organisations to which it belongs."
Steinmeier on Friday floated the possibility of a "step by step" reduction of sanctions but only if there is progress on ending the conflict in Ukraine.
G7 leaders in a statement warned the policy would not change until the conflict in Ukraine ends.
"We recall that the duration of sanctions is clearly linked to Russia's complete implementation of ... agreements and respect for Ukraine's sovereignty," the group said in a statement.
Tsipras' government angered its EU peers by holding up a joint statement by the bloc on further sanctions.
Putin is to meet Tsipras and President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, and sign a number of agreements before giving a brief news conference.
Both countries are Orthodox, and religious symbolism is also high on the agenda of the two-day trip, the Russian leader's first to Greece in nearly a decade.
- Russia vs China -
Except for tourism, Russia is little involved in Greece's economy despite a flurry of agreements over the years, many of which never came to fruition.
But this time may be different, said Ioannis Mazis, a professor of geopolitics at Athens' National University.
"Russia needs to compete with China which is in the process of piecing together a 'pearl necklace' of ports" from Europe to the South China Sea, Mazis told Skai television, referring to China's investment in a string of foreign ports in recent decades.
In an article in Kathimerini daily on Thursday, Putin said Russia was interested in tenders involving Greek rail assets and the port of Thessaloniki, a major gateway into the Balkans.
As a major gas exporter, Mazis said, Moscow is also keen to take advantage of the EU's switch away from petrol, and is desperate to find a southern pipeline route to bypass Ukraine -- a country which is a major thorn in EU relations after Moscow's annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and Russia's support of separatist rebels.
The Kremlin on Thursday said trade and economy will top the agenda and a "number of bilateral agreements" would be signed.
The pro-government Avgi daily on Friday said this would include a deal between Russian oil giant Rosneft and Greek refiner Hellenic Petroleum.
The creation of Greek-Russian agricultural companies is also expected next month, Avgi said.
Tsipras' advisor on Russian issues, Dimitris Velanis, told Avgi that Russia factors heavily in the government's efforts to pull the country out of recession.
"The Greek government is doing everything to launch growth and we believe growth will include Russia," Velanis said.
- Calls for help? -
Greece has repeatedly sought the help of Russia as it descended into economic crisis over the past six years.
Tsipras is believed to have asked for Russian financial assistance last year as the country teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, although Russian officials have denied any requests were made.
In the Kathimerini article, Putin said the EU would not be a global player without his country's help.
Putin will join celebrations Saturday for the 1,000th anniversary of the Russian presence at the ancient monastic community of Mount Athos in northern Greece, one of Orthodox Christianity's holiest sites.