Vladimir Putin is cozying up to the far-right to divide Europe, the European Commission's Vice President Frans Timmermans said Thursday, a week after France's Marine Le Pen met with the Russian leader.
Le Pen, France's far-right presidential candidate who has called for closer ties with Putin, met him in Moscow last week just a month before the first round of the election there, with the Russian president stressing that the Kremlin does not meddle in her country's politics.
But Russia has offered praise for rightwing and eurosceptic politicians in Europe -- with Putin cementing closer ties with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, for example, in Budapest last month.
"There is a reason why Mr Putin supports the extreme right all across Europe," Timmermans told lawmakers in Spain.
"Because he knows the extreme right makes us weak, he knows the extreme right divides us.
"And a divided Europe means that Putin is the boss," he said.
He said he did not want to enter into conflict with the Russian leader, but thought he was "trying to create disunity by inviting Mrs Le Pen to the Kremlin and supporting all sort of extreme right parties across Europe."
Russia has been accused of interfering in the US election in an effort to sway results in President Donald Trump's favour, prompting a probe by American authorities.
Last month an aide to staunchly pro-Europe French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron accused Russia of trying to derail his campaign by spreading false rumours through state media.
But according to a transcript issued by the Kremlin after Putin met Le Pen, he told her "we by no means want to influence the current events but we reserve the right to communicate with all representatives of all political forces of the country."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has this month met with French Socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon and Macron, as well as conservative candidate Francois Fillon earlier in January.
Still, it is rare for Putin to meet a foreign presidential candidate so close to an election.