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Should the EU reset its relationship with Vladimir Putin?

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron leading push to reset EU relations with Moscow

Germany and France have called for an EU strategy of closer engagement with Russia, catching allies unaware after Joe Biden’s first face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin last week.

Diplomats told the Financial Times that Chancellor Angela Merkel is pushing for the bloc to “consider inviting the Russian president to a summit with EU leaders”, adding that the “initiative was supported by French president Emmanuel Macron”.

European summits with Putin were suspended after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, with the German and French call for closer alignment coinciding with Biden’s effort to realign US-Russian relations during his meeting with Putin in Geneva.

Relations reset

According to the FT, ambassadors representing Berlin and Paris “wrongfooted other EU capitals” during a meeting on Wednesday when they presented “new proposals” on Brussels’ future relationship with the Kremlin.

Germany is of the view that Putin’s meeting with Biden last week “provides a template for reviving relations with Russia”, while Merkel, who “meets Putin regularly”, is an advocate for “finding a format that allows the EU to speak with one voice on Russia”. 

Macron is aligned with Merkel’s view, with a senior French diplomat telling the FT that the plans are “about effectiveness, not about a particular format for meetings”, adding: “It makes sense to think about the added value of high-level discussions – which is exactly what the US did in holding the [Biden-Putin] summit in Geneva.”

The new strategy of arranging a summit with Putin was suggested alongside the “threat of new economic sanctions”, Politico reports, and is thought to make up a “new carrot-and-stick approach toward Russia by the EU”.

The bloc has “worked hard to stay unified in pressuring Moscow” since the 2014 annexation of Crimea. But member states have been left confused by the German and French plan as “officials failed to explain why making such a move at this particular time might yield different results than previous attempts to engage with Putin”.

The proposal is especially likely to concern the Baltic member states and Poland, all of which “neighbour Russia and want to take a tougher line with the Kremlin”, the FT says. 

It was also not made clear whether the proposed summit “would involve all 27 European leaders” or whether the talks would be confined to Putin and “the EU’s chief executive, Ursula von der Leyen, and its chairman, Charles Michel”, The Guardian reports.

Despite the possible protests of some member states, the plan reflects a growing belief among EU officials that direct re-engagement with Russia is preferable to the current lack of communication between Brussels and Moscow. 

Noting that some Baltic states may object to the plan, one senior EU official told Reuters: “We need to have a discussion about how to get away from this negative spiral…but we need to advance united.” 

Thawing relations

EU leaders discussed their relationship with Russia during their last summit in May, concluding that a “negative spiral” had set in when “selective engagement” with Russia was required on areas of common interest.

Warning of the need to counter Russian “malign actions”, the summit text also encouraged the EU’s diplomatic service to develop “concrete proposals and leverages” on engagement with Moscow, adding: “The European Council calls for a review of the existing format of dialogue with Russia, including meetings at leaders’ level.”

But while the summit conclusions hinted at a plan to lay the groundwork for a thawing of relations, the “Franco-German draft text is far more conciliatory”, the FT says.

Straight off the bat, there are “quick signs the plan could backfire”, Politico says, “dividing the EU by being too soft on Putin by offering a summit, while simultaneously angering Moscow by raising the threat of new sanctions”.

The financial threat may “risk undermining” the effort by Biden to “shift the dynamic between the West and the Kremlin”, while it has also struck “many diplomats and officials as ill conceived and ill timed” as it appears to reward Putin before seeing if he will “respond positively to Biden’s overtures” in Geneva, the site adds.

EU member states concerned over Russia’s “malign actions” will not have had their suspicions tempered by the Russian defence ministry’s claim to have fired warning shots, including bombs, at a British warship in the Black Sea near Crimea yesterday.

While a British military spokesperson denied that shots were fired at HMS Defender, the Russian claims hint at the ever-simmering potential for further hostilities, including “cyber-attacks, disinformation and other covert acts” co-ordinated by Moscow, Reuters reports.

The EU has plenty of reasons to “keep Moscow at arm’s length”, Politico says, and its eastern member states may be keen to highlight them in the face of the Merkel- and Macron-backed strategy in the coming weeks. 

“We’re not seeing any reason why we should upgrade our relations with Russia”, a senior diplomat told the site. “We’re seeing a trend that we’re worried about. There are things we cannot accept.” 

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