Germany, France seek EU backing on Putin summit bid

Germany and France looked to persuade wary EU leaders on Thursday to relaunch regular meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite concerns Moscow has not backed down from its aggressive actions.

Berlin and Paris on Wednesday put forward a last-minute proposal for the bloc to consider the idea of holding summits again with Putin in the wake of US President Joe Biden’s sit-down with him in Geneva last week. 

Moscow said Putin was a “supporter” of the proposal, which would potentially revive a regular fixture that was frozen in 2014 after the takeover of Crimea by Russia.

“In my opinion, we as the European Union must also seek direct contact with Russia and the Russian president,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told Germany’s parliament ahead of the gathering of EU leaders in Brussels.

“It is not enough for the American president to talk to the Russian president,” she said, stressing that the European Union too “must also create different formats for talks”.

Merkel, who could be attending her last EU summit with German elections set for September, insisted that the 27-member bloc should meanwhile put up “a united front against the provocations” by Russia.

French President Emmanuel Macron insisted that talking with Putin was “necessary for the stability of the European continent” but underscored that the bloc would be “demanding because we will not give up any of our values”.

– ‘Dangerous deviation’ –

Merkel and Macron face resistance from numerous EU member states — especially in eastern Europe — who were blindsided by the push and remain deeply wary of rewarding the Kremlin with talks before it changes course. 

“The Kremlin understands power politics, the Kremlin does not understand free concessions as a sign of strength,” Latvian Prime minister Krisjanis Karins said. 

“The way its proposed is that Russia annexes Crimea, Russia wages war in Donbass (east Ukraine) and Europe shrugs its shoulders and continues to try to speak a dialogue.”

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda warned that Europe had to be “extremely cautious” over talking to Russia, but predicted that leaders would “find some solutions” over the proposals.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he was not against the presidents of European Commission and Council meeting with Putin, but refused to do so himself over Russia’s failure to cooperate on the investigation into downed Malaysian airliner MH17. 

Non-EU member Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba blasted the German-French effort as a “dangerous deviation from EU sanctions policy” after earlier talks with the bloc’s foreign policy chief. 

The EU is looking to revamp its strategy on keeping its vast eastern neighbour in check as Brussels admits that relations with the Kremlin look set to deteriorate further despite having already reached their “lowest level”.

Moscow is at loggerheads more recently with a number of Western capitals after a Russian troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders and a series of espionage scandals that have resulted in diplomatic expulsions.

– ‘Disruptive activity’ –

The Merkel-Macron plan insists the EU has to stand firm and united on Moscow, but should look to engage with the Kremlin on issues of mutual interest such as climate change, health, the Iran nuclear deal and conflicts in Syria and Libya.

EU ambassadors failed to agree a common position on the summit proposal late on Wednesday and left it for the leaders to hammer out the details.

Proposed draft conclusions put forward by Berlin and Paris for the EU summit say the bloc “will review the existing formats of dialogue with Russia, including at Leaders’ level”.

But they also lay out that leaders will ask the European Commission “to present options for additional restrictive measures, including economic sanctions” to push back against “any further malign, illegal and disruptive activity by Russia”.

Ties between the EU and Russia have been in the doldrums since the Kremlin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014.

The bloc has slapped waves of sanctions on Moscow, and Russia has responded with its own countermeasures.

The last summit between EU chiefs in Brussels and Putin took place in early 2014, but the Kremlin strongman has always preferred to deal bilaterally with individual nations.

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