The EU’s “Eastern Partnership” summit in Vilnius beginning on Thursday night was supposed to celebrate landmark trade and co-operation deals being signed or finalised with four former Soviet republics.

Instead, Armenia turned its back on an EU deal in September while 46m-strong Ukraine last week froze preparations to sign one– both under brutal pressure from Moscow. That has left only Moldova and Georgia ready to “initial” the texts of deals in Vilnius.

The summit, which opens in a rebuilt replica of the 15th-century Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, must now try to salvage hopes of a future deal with Ukraine and put a brave face on the limited success of the four-year-old partnership programme.

Russia’s strong-arm tactics towards ex-Soviet neighbours preparing to do EU deals have raised questions over the future of the Eastern Partnership – and caused tensions between older and newer EU members over how to respond.

When EU ambassadors met to prepare for the summit this week, west European envoys insisted the Vilnius declaration must contain no explicit promise of future EU membership to ex-Soviet countries such as Ukraine. One ambassador from an ex-communist country upbraided colleagues for using wording similar to that which Brussels uses with north Africa.

“While we are drafting, Russia is acting,” the ambassador said, according to two people in the room.

The Eastern Partnership aimed to implant European democratic values into countries beyond the EU’s eastern borders, after 10 ex-communist countries from central Europe joined the union in 2004 and 2007. It offered agreements to six ex-Soviet republics similar to those given to central European states in the 1990s.

Partner countries are offered tariff-free access to the EU single market – and vice versa – if they adopt large chunks of EU legislation.

That could stimulate big investment inflows, although partnership countries risk economic pain until they complete reforms needed to make their products competitive in the EU.

Some critics say the programme made two big mistakes. It offered one-size-fits-all solutions to wildly differing countries. And it assumed these countries’ leaderships would embrace EU integration the way central Europe’s reformist 1990s governments did.

“We would have eaten grass to rejoin Europe,” one senior central European politician recalled this week. But many ex-Soviet authoritarian elites today are mainly interested not in westernising their countries but in preserving their power and wealth.

Other critics say the packages fell short, by omitting – because of western EU members’ “enlargement fatigue” – any promise of eventual membership. Countries that did crave European integration questioned if their painful reforms would be adequately rewarded.

EU officials also reckoned without Russia launching a rival integration project, a customs union of ex-Soviet states – incompatible with the EU’s trade area – set to be deepened by 2015 into a “Eurasian Economic Union”. Russia has used energy, trade and security pressures to deter ex-Soviet countries from EU deals.

Radoslaw Sikorski, foreign minister of Poland, a driving force of the Eastern Partnership, says Moscow “shifted the goalposts”. In 2008, he suggests, President Vladimir Putin signalled Russia would not allow countries such as Ukraine or Georgia to join Nato, but EU integration was not a problem.

Stefan Füle, EU commissioner for the partnership project, parried criticisms that the Kremlin had outmanoeuvred Brussels.

“We’ve worked with Ukraine for years on meeting their European aspirations. We have put forward the most ambitious [offer] second to enlargement,” Mr Füle said, adding the EU deals had “huge transformative power”.

“Looking back I don’t see anything we would do differently,” he said.

Some central European diplomats, however, say the EU should have been more aggressive and creative in offering incentives to Ukraine.

The senior central European politician said the EU approached Ukraine like a normal commercial and political partner, holding formal talks. Russia treated it “like a spy operation”, with operatives in the local media and parliament, and special operations targeting individual Ukrainian oligarchs.

“We always had a much weaker hand than Russia. They have a unity of purpose, and a certain brutality,” he said. “This is a crucial operation for them.”

Analysts suggest the EU must now find new ways of engaging with ex-Soviet republics and their citizens – offering visa-free travel, reducing reliance on Russian energy, and helping civil society promote political reforms.

Peter Havlik of the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies says the EU should work with Moscow on making the Eastern Partnership and Russia’s customs union compatible.

That could lead ultimately to what both sides have proclaimed as a long-term goal of a free trade area “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” – with countries such as Ukraine an integral part, and big beneficiary.

It would require Brussels to engage with Moscow and Kiev’s proposal of three-way talks – although with care. “What has to be avoided is the impression that the EU and Russia are negotiating over Ukraine’s future,” says Mr Havlik.

Some suggest the EU must mature into a more hard-headed geopolitical player, with a clearer strategic grasp of its aims in the former Soviet space.

“Brussels likes to think that because [the Eastern Partnership] is a civilisational project, it’s not geopolitical,” says James Sherr of London’s Chatham House think-tank. “But of course it’s geopolitical – and Moscow will always see it that way.”

Additional reporting by Jan Cienski in Warsaw

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