BRUSSELS – European Union countries bordering Russia rejected a Franco-German plan to resume official meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with one leader likening the move to an attempt to talk a bear out of stealing honey.
In a statement in the early hours of Friday morning, EU leaders said only that they “will explore formats and conditionalities of dialogue with Russia.” There was no mention of any 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 biggest natural gas supplier, and plays a key role in a series of international conflicts and issues linked to Europe's strategic interests, including the Iran nuclear deal, and conflicts in Syria and Libya.
European heavyweight Germany has strong economic interests there, notably the NordStream 2 undersea pipeline project, and a number of countries, including France, are reluctant to continue waging a sanctions battle with Russia, including over the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The EU is concerned that Putin is turning increasingly authoritarian and wants to distance himself from the West. Both the 27-nation trading bloc and the NATO military alliance are struggling to bring Russia to the table. U.S. President Joe Biden’s meeting with Putin this month was a rare exception.
“We have to deal with Russia, but being very cautious about the real intentions of Putin’s regime,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told reporters at an EU summit in Brussels. “So far, we don’t see any radical change in the pattern of behavior of Russia.”
“If, without any positive changes in the behavior of Russia, we start to engage, it will send very uncertain and bad signals,” Nauseda said. “It seems to me like we try to engage a bear to keep a pot of honey safe.”
The other two Baltic states, Estonia and Latvia, are also deeply concerned about reaching out to Moscow when the Minsk agreements meant to bring peace to Ukraine, whose Crimean Peninsula Russia annexed in 2014, are still not being respected. Conflict still simmers in eastern Ukraine with Russia-backed separatists.
“Right now, if it pans out the way it’s proposed, Russia annexes Crimea, Russia wages war in Donbass, and Europe shrugs its shoulders and continues to try to speak a dialogue. The Kremlin does not understand this kind of politics,” said Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins.
His Estonian counterpart, Kaja Kallas, said that “what our intelligence (service) tells us is that sanctions work and the European Union has to be more patient.”
But French President Emmanuel Macron said Europe cannot simply tackle its problems with Russia on a case-by-case basis, by continually imposing sanctions or other measures.
“We cannot continue without dialogue. We have to talk, including about our disagreements. It’s the only way to resolve them,” Macron said. “It’s a dialogue that’s necessary for the stability of the European continent, but demanding because we will not give up our interests and values.”
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told lawmakers that “the events of recent months — not just in Germany — have clearly shown that it’s not enough if we react to the multitude of Russian provocations in an uncoordinated way.”
“Instead, we have to create mechanisms to respond in a common and unified way to provocations” to what she described as “hybrid attacks by Russia.” That includes outreach to countries such as Ukraine, Belarus and the western Balkans, but also engaging Russia and Putin directly.
The plan was welcomed in Moscow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin supports the idea to restore “the mechanism of direct contacts between Brussels and Moscow.”
“Putin has spoken about it many times,” Peskov said. “Both Brussels and Moscow really need this dialogue.”
Ukraine, in contrast, was not so keen about the EU outreach.
“Initiatives to resume EU summits with Russia without seeing any progress from the Russian side will be a dangerous deviation from EU sanctions policy,” Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in Brussels.
In the end, the leaders agreed to underline “the need for a firm and coordinated response by the EU and its member states to any further malign, illegal and disruptive activity by Russia, making full use of all instruments at the EU’s disposal.”
Despite the Franco-German push for talks, they invited the EU's executive branch and top diplomat “to present options for additional 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.