Orban tells Putin EU unlikely to 'automatically' extend Russia sanctions

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban address the media on February 17, 2016 (AFP Photo/Maxim Shipenkov)

Novo-Ogaryovo (Russia) (AFP) - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday that European Union countries were increasingly keen to cooperate with Moscow and will not "automatically" extend sanctions over Ukraine.

"I think that the period when we automatically extended sanctions is behind us," Orban said in comments translated into Russian at a press conference with Putin at his residence outside Moscow.

"More and more countries have started to understand that we need cooperation."

Orban's hardline rightwing government has enjoyed warm relations with Russia and appealed to the West to work with Moscow over Syria and Europe's migration crisis.

The EU in December extended wide-ranging economic sanctions against Russia over the conflict in eastern Ukraine until the end of July 2016 but there have been sharp differences within the 28-nation bloc.

The sanctions, first introduced in 2014, have helped push Russia's economy into recession but also saw Moscow slap a retaliatory embargo on European food produce that has hurt some countries.

Some EU nations have been mooting an end to the sanctions if there is serious progress on defusing the political stalemate over the Ukraine conflict that Moscow is accused of masterminding.

Putin backed a complex European-mediated peace roadmap last February in Minsk between Ukraine and separatist fighters the West says are armed and backed by the Kremlin.

The fighting in Ukraine has subsided dramatically but there has been little advance made on the political settlement, which envisions greater autonomy for the rebel regions in return for Moscow returning control of Ukraine's border to Kiev.

Putin insisted, however, at the press conference with Orban that it was "senseless" to tie the fulfillment of the Minsk agreement with the lifting of sanctions as it was up to Ukraine to see them through.

"The ball is not in Russia's court," Putin said.

Orban has endured fierce criticism from his EU peers over his stance on migrants, erecting razor-wire fences and saying an influx of Muslims mainly from Syria threatened Europe's Christian identity.

Russia is conducting a bombing campaign in Syria to back up forces loyal to its ally President Bashar al-Assad and is central to any attempts to find a political solution to the conflict there.