RIGA, Latvia – It was enough even for the normally unflappable European Union President Donald Tusk to start losing his cool. He stuttered, staggered his sentences, as he assessed what Russian President Vladimir Putin was doing to the EU's brittle sense of unity.
"One of the most important goals for President Putin today is to divide Europe," he said in off the cuff remarks to the European Parliament. He called it a key reason why he is "so obsessed about unity today."
He'd better be. For EU unity has been in short supply here on the shores of the Baltic Sea, where Europe's top diplomats gathered this week to forge a common strategy on the Ukraine crisis. When it comes to Russia, the 28-nation EU is roughly split in two. Several former Soviet bloc nations — including the three Baltic states and Tusk's Poland — urge a tough line in the face of what they see as Russian aggression, while others like Germany and France are more careful to keep channels open.
At the same time, Putin has been wooing some nations like Hungary and Cyprus, making sure they can act as a thorn in the EU's side.
Since foreign policy is set by unanimity between 28 nations, Tusk will find it tough to speak forcefully when he meets with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Monday.
"Unity is a very good word. Everyone is for unity," said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, with biting sarcasm. "But you know, unity to do nothing is not for me, I don't like it," he said at the meeting of EU foreign ministers in Riga, which ended on Saturday.
That's exactly what U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and a group of top Democrats and Republicans sought to highlight in a letter to Obama on Thursday. In it, they complained that U.S. foreign policy on Ukraine and Russia was being "held hostage by the lowest common denominator of European consensus."
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini understands this all too well — since she has led several meetings with member states at loggerheads. "But we get out of the room with a common position," she insisted, however difficult that may be. So far the EU has stuck together to impose economic sanctions on Russia and impose visa bans and asset freezes on 151 officials linked to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, including several Russians.
But EU unity is fraying in places like Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban is under close scrutiny for his efforts to build an "illiberal state" partly based on Russia. He has waged a campaign to discredit civic groups, limit government transparency and weaken the democratic system of checks and balances.
Some critics have even called Orban "Little Putin" for the way he governs. Orban said after meeting with Putin last month in Hungary that he had reached a "political agreement" with Putin on a new gas deal, showing how Moscow continues to wield clout in eastern Europe because of its energy resources. Just inviting Putin to an EU nation was already an affront to many European partners.
But the move was mutually beneficial to Orban and Putin, said analyst Csaba Toth of the Republikon Institute in Budapest.
"It is also in Putin's interest because there is now a state which represents a more moderate, more permissive position in the debates within the EU," Toth said.
If Putin's visit to Budapest made few happy in the EU, the same went for Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades' four-day visit to Russia last week. There he signed a deal allowing Russian navy ships to make regular port calls in Cyprus, a Mediterranean island with great strategic interest. Anastasiades also proclaimed Cyprus to be Russia's "most credible voice" within the 28-member bloc.
It made even Washington stand up and notice.
"We've been clear this is not the time for business as usual with Russia and have stressed with our European allies and partners the importance of unity," said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. "That's certainly something we feel very strongly about."
Pablo Gorondi from Budapest and Menelaos Hadjicostis from Nicosia contributed to this article.
Follow Raf Casert at http://twitter.com/rcasert