UPDATE 1-EU's chief diplomat expects ties with Russia to deteriorate further

·2 min read

* EU's chief diplomat expects ties with Russia to worsen

* He urges EU to push back, constrain and engage

* EU leaders are due to discuss Russia strategy next week (Adds quotes, details)

By Sabine Siebold

BRUSSELS, June 16 (Reuters) - The European Union must expect a further deterioration in relations with Russia even though ties have already sunk to their "lowest level", EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Wednesday.

He said the 27-nation bloc must become more "robust and resilient" and apply a mixture of pushing back, constraining and engaging Russia to try to make the relationship with Moscow more stable and predictable.

"The European Union needs to be realistic and prepare for a further downturn of our relations with Russia which are right now at their lowest level," Borrell told reporters.

"This further downturn is the most likely outlook for the time being."

He was commenting on a 14-page report by the executive European Commission on relations with Russia which will provide the basis for a discussion of strategy on Russia at an EU summit next week.

Divisive issues include Russia's human rights record, its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, it support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, alleged cyber attacks and Moscow's backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Some member states also fear that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, being built to bring natural gas from Russia to Germany, will increase EU energy dependency on Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was meeting U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday, has shown no sign of softening Moscow's assertive foreign policy, despite EU sanctions against Russia.

The report describes Russia as an important challenge for the EU and cites the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and legal moves against groups linked to him as part of a "systematic crackdown" on human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Closer cooperation with Russia is a distant prospect, Borrell said.

"To constrain Russia’s attempts to undermine EU interests, the Union itself must become more robust and resilient," he said.

The EU's goal, he said, should be to gradually change the current dynamics in the relationship, which European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen described as a negative spiral, to make it more predictable and stable. (Reporting by Sabine Siebold, editing by Marine Strauss and Timothy Heritage)

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