President Vladimir Putin has insisted Russia is not trying to split the European Union.

His remarks come ahead of a visit to Austria, his first trip to a Western European country in almost a year.

He told Austrian ORF television he wanted a “united and prosperous” EU, calling it Russia’s most important commercial and economic partner.

The pro-Putin United Russia party has close links with far-right parties in the EU, which alarms many liberals.

The two populist parties now ruling Italy favour closer ties with Moscow and are both Eurosceptic.

In his interview Mr Putin played down the links between United Russia and Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, the FPÖ. The parties have a co-operation agreement, but the FPÖ denies claims it has received money from Moscow.

The FPÖ has some key posts in Austria’s coalition government – it is in charge of the interior ministry and defence – and says it wants to get the EU sanctions on Russia lifted.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 triggered the sanctions, later ratcheted up as Russia helped separatists in eastern Ukraine, and relations with the EU remain frosty.

“The more problems at the heart of the EU, the more risks and problems there are for us,” Mr Putin told ORF.

“We need to build co-operation with the EU. We don’t have a goal of dividing anything or anyone in the EU.”

What some call a “new cold war” was also fuelled by Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war and the poisoning of a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, in southern England. The UK blamed the Kremlin for that attack; Russia furiously denied any role in it.

Pro-Putin activists have been accused of spreading “fake news” on social media to undermine the tough Western stance on Russia and help empower nationalists in the EU.

Austria and many other EU states depend on Russia for much – and in some cases all – of their natural gas.

Mr Putin will meet Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Tuesday, as well as business leaders.

Small Austria offers Vladimir Putin a big opportunity – as geopolitical as it is economic.

Mr Putin is keen to bust out of the isolationism – and the sanctions – imposed on Russia by the West since its annexation of Crimea four years ago.

He is well aware the Western alliance is now strained by tensions between Europe and the Trump administration, and he hopes to exploit them.

The EU of course still fumes over Russia’s role in Syria and Ukraine, its alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK, and its recent testing of a new ballistic missile, but President Putin knows what binds Europe to Russia is energy.

Austria was the first Western country to import Soviet gas 50 years ago, now a third of Europe’s gas comes from Russia and that amount is growing.

Russia’s president will arrive in Vienna in a confident mood.

Unlike most EU governments, Austria’s coalition did not withdraw diplomats from Russia over the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury.

When asked about his stance on Russia, Chancellor Kurz said Austria would “decide pragmatically whether to co-operate with someone politically”.

“We try to work with those who publicly express the wish themselves to work with us,” he said.

Mr Putin told ORF that his visit was not a “reward” for Austria’s goodwill towards Russia.

“I don’t think a European country as highly respected as Austria needs any reward from anyone,” he said.

Mr Putin was recently re-elected to a fourth term as Russian president, winning a landslide victory with more than 76% of the vote.

Independent election monitoring group Golos reported hundreds of irregularities on polling day, and the main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was barred from standing in the race.

When ORF asked Mr Putin why he did not mention Mr Navalny’s name in public he scornfully dismissed the anti-corruption politician, saying his support was “only a few percent”. “What are we supposed to do with such clowns?” he asked.