EU Says Hello Again To Putin

By Laurence Norman (May 28, 2012)

On June 3-4, the European Union’s top dogs will head to St Petersburg to meet with Russia’s leaders.

The latest of the twice yearly EU-Russia summits is particularly important. It comes with the fragile Syrian ceasefire seeming close to breakdown. It’s two weeks ahead of the third round of international negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program which Moscow will host from June 17.

Above all, it is the first chance for the West to engage with Vladimir Putin since he returned to the presidency in May.

Having declined an invitation to Chicago to attend last week’s summits of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Group of Eight, Mr. Putin has kept himself to himself since returning to the Kremlin. As many in Brussels expected, Mr. Putin’s gaze has mainly been inwards following large-scale protests over the flawed December parliamentary elections.

In EU circles, the summit is seen as “a first opportunity to see what we can expect from Putin as president,” says one senior European diplomat.

Mr. Putin is “inheriting a rich agenda” left by ex-President (and now Prime Minister) Dmitry Medvedev, as ties warmed in the last year of his term, the person said.

There’s a pending ‘Partnership for Modernization’ –an EU-Russia framework that seeks to deepen trade, economic and energy ties while engaging Moscow on political issues, including human rights and the treatment of civil society.

And there’s work to complete on EU visa liberalization for Russians – a long-frustrated demand from Moscow.

“It’s for Mr. Putin to say this is my agenda too,” the diplomat said. “I don’t expect him to reject it.”

That optimism is relatively broad.

Brussels insiders say they have been encouraged by foreign policy signals thus far.

The maintenance of Sergey Lavrov in the foreign ministry was a sign of continuity from the late Medvedev era and Russia’s cooperation with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton over the Iran nuclear brief has been appreciated. Many feared Russia would undermine Lady Ashton’s script and launch its own unilateral initiatives. Some still do. But for the most part, Russia has thus far played ball.

Even on Syria, where European frustrations neared boiling point over Moscow’s repeated scuppering of United Nations Security Council action against the Assad regime, there has been a rapprochement of sorts. Both sides swung fully behind the Annan ceasefire plan and the EU has backed off repeated calls for Assad to go, a message that Moscow considered unproductive.

Russia on Sunday eventually gave its assent to a UNSC resolution condemning the Syrian army for the weekend attack on the township of Houla.

Yet beneath the positive signals, there are plentiful reasons for caution.

Tensions remain in three traditional spheres:

The EU’s energy liberalization, which forces natural gas producers to sell off or manage independently their transport and distribution units, remains a deep division. Mr. Putin, who keeps a tight grip on energy policy, has blasted the rules as “property confiscation” since they would force OAZ Gazprom, Russia’s national champion, to dispose of some assets. The issue shows no signs of fading away. More broadly, EU efforts to diversify energy supplies away from Russia–and Moscow’s efforts to counter that–are a constant irritant.
Russian policy in its near neighborhood also remains a point of friction. From the so-called “frozen” conflict in Georgia to perceived Russian meddling between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and with Russian minorities in the Baltic states, Brussels continues to eye Moscow’s activities in its “near abroad” with suspicion.
Missile defense, where feelings are mutual. Russia fears that efforts the West claims are aimed at curtailing the nuclear threat from Iran and other rogue states could instead leave Russia encircled.

Add to this old recipe a new ingredient: the consequences of events inside Russia over the last six months.

Diplomats are keen to say it’s business as usual with Moscow and that–reformed or unreformed–EU-Russia ties are too important to be exposed to the vagaries of domestic politics.

Yet if protests flare up again and the Kremlin begins to deal with dissent in a more overtly aggressive fashion, ties could be hugely complicated.

European officials know that nothing would cause quiet efforts to improve co-operation to unravel more speedily or nastily than open criticism of Mr. Putin’s regime from Brussels and European capitals drawing the usual heavy-handed over-reaction from Moscow.