January 27, 2014 9:13 am

EU braced for bruising encounter with Putin over Ukraine

Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on December 19, 2013©AFP

President Vladimir Putin

EU leaders are steeling themselves for a bruising summit with Vladimir Putin, Russian president, as Moscow stresses that it is in no mood to be lectured over the deepening crisis in Ukraine.

In an unusually forthright signal of its displeasure, the EU has cut this week’s summit in Brussels to a few hours from two days and has cancelled a dinner for Mr Putin. EU diplomats stressed that the meeting on Tuesday was intended to be a defining moment in resetting the tone of relations and would focus on human rights and Ukraine.

The Kremlin, by contrast, is keen to downplay any suggestion that the meeting is a watershed and is seeking to discuss the technical issues – trade, energy and visas – that have long been the subject of EU-Russia summits.

“This is not a ‘business as usual’ summit,” said one EU ambassador. “It is time to take stock of where we are in relations with Russia. We will not be discussing any of the nuts-and-bolts issues.”

The ambassador added that the EU wanted to focus on Russia’s use of economic pressure to block the EU’s far-reaching trade and “association” agreements with Ukraine and Armenia. Ukraine’s decision not to sign the EU deal in November has sparked protests against President Viktor Yanukovich, in which at least five people have died. The violence has sent EU-Moscow relations to their most poisonous level since Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008.

Russia rejects accusations that it strong-armed Ukraine into turning its back on the EU and has levelled charges of interference back at the west, criticising Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, for meeting opposition leaders in Kiev’s central Maidan in December. Moscow also contends that western nations have no right to demand that Ukraine’s parliament should repeal legislation on banning protests.

In depth

Ukraine political crisis

Ukraine riot police

Kiev is facing its most serious crisis since independence in 1991 in a dispute over trade links with the EU and Russia

Yuri Ushakov, Mr Putin’s foreign policy adviser, admitted that the summit was “the Europeans’ payback for the last year” but stressed that discussions should focus on how the two sides could work to harmonise the EU’s trade bloc with a Russian-led customs area called the Eurasian Union.

Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, described the shortened summit as “nothing unusual”. “Some summits are short, some are long,” he said. “This is not going to be a summit about Ukraine.” He also added that Russia was still actively negotiating with the EU on issues such as gas supply outside the framework of the summit.

In another sign of worsening relations, Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian foreign minister’s commissioner on human rights, has delivered a damning 153-page report on human rights in Europe, accusing the EU of imposing on other countries an “alien view of homosexuality”. The EU has strongly criticised Russian’s law banning the “promotion” of homosexuality but this stance pits the bloc directly against Mr Putin, who frequently calls on the need for traditional Russian values to resist an onslaught from the west.

The focus on rights and events in Ukraine poses a diplomatic challenge for José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, who already has a prickly relationship with Mr Putin.

Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, warned that both sides needed to step back to prevent the Ukraine crisis from doing further damage, stressing how badly the overt involvement of some European officials in the protests had been received in Moscow. “This interference may be welcomed by one part of Ukrainian society, but it sets a bad example for Moscow to follow should it decide to openly interfere in Ukraine’s politics,” he said. “Getting into a geopolitical battle with Russia over a country that should first decide itself is foolhardy.”

Additional reporting by Andrew Byrne

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