EU leaders to debate stance on Russia at Brussels summit

Just as European Union leaders get ready to consider a tougher approach toward Russia, Vladimir Putin may have outfoxed them.

On Tuesday, Russian warplanes halted their airstrikes on Syria's besieged city of Aleppo in preparation for a temporary truce that Moscow has announced. On Wednesday, Putin is due in Berlin to discuss efforts toward peace in eastern Ukraine.

The Russian president's latest moves almost certainly will widen divisions in the EU on whether to impose harsher penalties on Moscow. Putin has proven to be a master at dividing the Europeans, and no geopolitical challenge has proven more difficult for the EU than the increasingly unpredictable and threatening neighbor to its east.

EU leaders are supposed to rethink their Russia policy at a Brussels summit beginning Thursday, but few are counting on a united stand.

Not that relations are great: Less than three years ago there was talk of more trade and warmer ties; now, there is only a chill.

The low point may have come this month when French President Francois Hollande hinted Russia could face war crimes charges for bombarding Syria's second city, Aleppo. Putin canceled a scheduled visit to Paris. EU nations found a rare point to rally around, with all 28 saying Monday that the attacks "may amount to war crimes."

Meanwhile, a Dutch-led investigation naming Russia as the source of a mobile missile launcher that shot down a Malaysian jetliner over eastern Ukraine in 2014, killing 298 people, has strained ties further.

"We are in the deepest crisis since the end of the Cold War in EU-Russia relations at the moment, and we don't see any breakthrough or fundamental change in this deep loss of trust," said Stefan Meister, head of the Russia and Eastern Europe program at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Generally speaking, the closer EU nations are to Russia, the harder their approach. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, whose country was under Moscow's control until 1991, tweeted on Monday that the bloc must demonstrate the "guts to speak up & act" toward the Russians.

The EU already has economic sanctions imposed on Russia for its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, but so far those have not caused a crack in Putin's stony demeanor.

Where the Russian leader finds it easy to impose his will from the inception to the execution of ideas, the EU needs unanimity on just about all crucial decisions.

That alone stacks the odds hugely in favor of the Kremlin. In a nation famed for its chess champions, Putin knows how to exploit an adversary's weaknesses on the diplomatic stage.

One of the fundamental reasons for the EU's internal divisions is economic. Unlike the United States, the EU depends on Russia for much of its energy, and as a major market for its exports.

Due to EU sanctions and the retaliatory measures imposed by Russia, trade between Hungary and Russia dropped by nearly half in 2015, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto has said. He said it is hard to imagine the EU being competitive on the world stage without "the pragmatic rebuilding of cooperation between the EU and Russia."

Italy and Slovakia, which now holds the revolving EU presidency, also have been reluctant to back harsher sanctions.

"It's been a considerable balancing act to have a coherent European approach toward Russia," said Quentin Peel, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "Given the difficulty of keeping a united position, the Europeans are not going to be rushing in to tighten the screws."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, key to forging the current EU position on Russia, would have to be involved in any changes as the bloc's single most influential politician. On Tuesday, she said sanctions against Russia over its actions in Syria should remain an option.

But even Merkel must work within the limits of the kind of parliamentary democracy that Putin isn't hemmed in by, and the two junior parties in her governing coalition have shown little enthusiasm for turning up the pressure on Moscow.

German companies are also pushing to finalize plans for a pipeline under the Baltic Sea that would let Russia ship natural gas to western European customers while bypassing Ukraine. Merkel appears to tacitly back the Nord Steam 2 project, despite angry protests from some other EU members.

The message being sent by Moscow is that European leaders must take the first step if they want an improvement in relations.

"It is up to the EU to provide an answer, since it was the EU that embarked on the road toward so-called sanctions and cutoff of systemic cooperation," Russian EU Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov said this month.


Geir Moulson in Berlin, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Raf Casert in Luxembourg contributed.