EU, Russia square up over Ukraine at summit


Russian President Putin is welcomed by European Council President Van Rompuy and European Commission President Barroso upon his arrival at the EU council headquarters for a EU-Russia Summit in Brussels. Photo - Reuters

Brussels: EU and Russian leaders meet on Tuesday sharply divided over Ukraine and eastern Europe's future, with trust in short supply and little sign of any readiness to compromise.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold talks in Brussels with European Council president Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso against a backdrop of unrest in Ukraine.

"We need to clear the air" with Russia, a senior EU official said, after Moscow pressured Ukraine into dropping an association accord meant to be the centrepiece of the EU's much vaunted Eastern Partnership strategy.

"We could not simply have a business-as-usual summit," the EU official said on Monday, saying there had to be some "straight talking... a strategic, fundamental discussion" of the EU-Russia relationship.

The unusually blunt language in Brussels reflects growing exasperation with a Moscow which analysts say is playing a naked power game to bring its former Soviet - era satellites in eastern Europe firmly back into the fold.

Tuesday's summit in Brussels has been shortened to just under three hours after a dinner on Monday was dropped and the format changed radically to group the leaders alone, EU sources said.

Putin, van Rompuy and Barroso will be joined by EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, plus a strict minimum of aides, EU officials said.

Ashton meanwhile has brought forward a visit to Ukraine, leaving after the summit, as the situation there develops rapidly with the prime minister's resignation early on Tuesday.

After weeks of violent protests demanding President Viktor Yanukovych revisit the EU accord and drop hastily passed curbs on the right to demonstrate, parliament in Kiev began a debate on repeal of the laws.

The crisis in Ukraine highlights sharp differences over eastern Europe but there are also human rights, trade frictions and international issues such as Iran and Syria where Moscow and Brussels do not see eye to eye.

Close trade ties and disputes
In an effort to find positives, EU officials highlight the importance of trade ties now worth some one billion euros a day, saying this is a hugely important shared interest.

But even here, there are faults to find.

The senior EU official said the Eastern Partnership that offered closer ties with six former Soviet states — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine—would also have been positive for Russia.

Russian accusations that it would lose out if Ukraine had signed the accord, which included a free trade deal, were "absolute nonsense," said the official, who asked not to be named.

FTAs are not mutually exclusive, he said, citing the case of EU accords with Canada or South Korea, when those countries already have deals with the United States.

In marked contrast, however, Moscow's Eurasian Customs Union project setting a single external tariff would close off Ukraine, the official argued.

Worse still, after having supported Russia's candidacy to join the World Trade Organisation, Moscow was now flouting its commitments to the disadvantage of EU industry.

Of the six Eastern Partnership states, Armenia, Belarus and Azerbaijan have opted to turn to Moscow while Georgia and Moldova have initialled political and trade agreements with the EU that still need to come into effect.

Despite the tensions and Putin's known no-nonsense response to any criticism, officials and analysts said they do not think there will be a complete breakdown in relations.

"There will be disagreements but these have to be managed in the interests of both sides ... leaders want to see how they can move forward," the EU official said.

The situation may be difficult but "Putin is a very strong leader (and) ... also utterly pragmatic," one EU diplomat said.

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