European Union leaders will on Thursday (24 June) consider whether to seek a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of a new strategy to manage relations with Moscow that the EU says are in a “negative spiral”.
Envoys for France and Germany on Wednesday proposed that holding a summit with Putin was a possible way to repair ties between the close trade partners, following on from US President Joe Biden’s summit in Geneva with Putin.
On opposing sides in issues including Ukraine and Belarus, and at odds over human rights, the EU and Russia accuse each other of meddling in elections, disinformation and threatening security and stability from the Baltics to the Black Sea.
“We cannot isolate Russia because Russia is a reality that none of us can escape,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told Reuters ahead of a visit to Brussels, although he will not take part in the summit.
“We need to motivate Moscow to cease its aggressive actions,” he said, saying he supported the EU’s efforts to come up with a new approach.
Since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 and the EU froze summits with Putin, EU policy has zigzagged between imposing economic sanctions and allowing a new gas pipeline from Russia to Germany to reach completion.
But efforts to resolve the conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have reached a stalemate, despite ceasefires and peace agreements.
In a sign of tensions, Russia said this week it had fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of a British destroyer sailing in the Black Sea off the coast of Crimea, although Britain, no longer an EU member, denied it.
At the two-day summit in Brussels that will also consider the COVID-19 pandemic and ties with Turkey, leaders hope to build on a Russia strategy paper earlier this month by the European Commission and the EU’s diplomatic service.
It warned of the “negative spiral” and “a further downturn” in ties. EU leaders are now expected to build on that paper to flesh out ways to both call out covert Russian action and work with Moscow on combating climate change.
The paper, seen by some as overly confrontational, proposes the mantra using the mantra “push back, constrain, engage”.
“Out of a confrontational of ideas comes understanding,” a senior EU diplomat said in support of the EU strategy, although the envoy doubted a sudden improvement in trust.
Analysts say Biden’s visit to the EU signaled that the US wishes his European allies to handle the Russian challenge single-handedly, giving more resource to Washington to respond to China’s growing assertiveness.
French President Emmanuel Macron already tried in September 2019 to seek less frosty ties with Putin, without success. Some EU diplomats said there should be an improvement in relations before any summit with the Russian leader.
The last EU summit with Putin was held in Brussels in January 2014. After that France and Germany have held summits with Putin to discuss Eastern Ukraine in the so-called Normandy format, the last of which was in Paris, in December 2019.
Potential for new flashpoints abound. The EU will on Thursday or Friday publish details of economic sanctions on Belarus, an ally of Russia that the Kremlin sees as a buffer state between Russia and NATO.
Western pressure on Belarus has so-far served Russia, as Lukashenko has accepted a remarkable rapprochement with Putin in recent months.