BRUSSELS (AP) – European Union countries neighboring Russia have rejected a Franco-German plan to resume official meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with a leader likening the move to an attempt to dissuade a bear from stealing honey.
In a statement in the early hours of Friday morning, EU leaders said only that they “will explore the formats and conditionalities of dialogue with Russia”. There was no mention of high-level meetings or plans for a summit with Putin.
The European Union is deeply divided in its approach to Moscow. Russia is the EU’s largest supplier of natural gas and plays a key role in a series of international conflicts and issues relating to Europe’s strategic interests, including the Iran nuclear deal and the conflicts in Syria and Russia. Libya.
Germany, a European heavyweight, has strong economic interests there, notably the NordStream 2 submarine pipeline project, and a number of countries, including France, are reluctant to continue to wage a sanctions battle with Russia, especially about the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The EU fears that Putin will become more and more authoritarian and wants to distance himself from the West. The 27-nation trade bloc and the NATO military alliance are struggling to bring Russia to the table. US President Joe Biden’s meeting with Putin this month was a rare exception.
“We have to deal with Russia, but being very careful about the real intentions of the Putin regime,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told reporters at a European summit in Brussels. “So far we don’t see any drastic change in Russia’s pattern of behavior. “
“If, without any positive change in Russia’s behavior, we start to engage, it will send very uncertain and bad signals,” Nauseda said. “It looks to me like we’re trying to hire a bear to keep a jar of honey safe. “
The other two Baltic states, Estonia and Latvia, are also deeply concerned about reaching out to Moscow as the Minsk accords supposedly bring peace to Ukraine, whose Crimean peninsula has been annexed by Russia in 2014, are still not met. Conflict is still brewing in eastern Ukraine with Russian-backed separatists.
“Right now, if it goes as proposed, Russia will annex Crimea, Russia is waging war in Donbass and Europe shrugs its shoulders and continues to try to dialogue. The Kremlin does not understand this kind of policy, ”said Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins.
His Estonian counterpart, Kaja Kallas, said that “what our intelligence (service) is telling us is that the sanctions are working and that the European Union must be more patient”.
But French President Emmanuel Macron has said Europe cannot simply resolve its problems with Russia on a case-by-case basis, continuously imposing sanctions or other measures.
“We cannot continue without dialogue. We need to talk, including our disagreements. This is the only way to solve them, ”Macron said. “It is a dialogue necessary for the stability of the European continent, but demanding because we will not abandon our interests and our values.
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told lawmakers that “the events of recent months – not just in Germany – have made it clear that it is not enough to react to the multitude of Russian provocations in an uncoordinated manner”.
“Instead, we need to create mechanisms to respond in a common and unified way to provocations” to what she described as “hybrid attacks from Russia”. This includes outreach to countries such as Ukraine, Belarus and the Western Balkans, but also the direct participation of Russia and Putin.
The plan was well received in Moscow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin supported the idea of restoring “the mechanism of direct contacts between Brussels and Moscow”.
“Putin has spoken about it several times,” Peskov said. “Brussels and Moscow really need this dialogue. ”
Ukraine, on the other hand, was not so keen on raising EU awareness.
“Initiatives to resume EU summits with Russia without seeing any progress from Russia will be a dangerous deviation from EU sanctions policy,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in Brussels.
Ultimately, the leaders agreed to stress “the need for a firm and coordinated response by the EU and its member states to any further malicious, illegal and disruptive activity by Russia, making full use of all instruments to the provision of the EU ”.
Despite Franco-German pressure for the talks, they called on the executive branch and the EU’s top diplomat “to present options for further restrictive measures, including economic sanctions”.
Sylvain Plazy in Brussels, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Frank Jordans in Berlin and Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed to this report.