Tough-talking Putin visits Brussels
(BRUSSELS) - The European Union welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, highlighting its partnership with a Moscow determined to forcefully defend its interests against Western interference.
EU officials described the 30th EU-Russia summit as topping "15 years of intense summitry" between "indispensable partners" in a changing world.
The summit is a "tribute to the indispensable nature of our partnership," EU President Herman Van Rompuy said in a statement. "Together the EU and Russia can make a decisive contribution to global governance and regional conflict resolution."
Putin meanwhile was telling former Soviet states of the need for closer ties so as to limit the influence of a West which holds that he is trying to restore the economic and defence ties of the Communist era.
Western attempts "to force other nations to accept their own standards can lead to the most serious circumstances," Putin said after meeting the leaders of Belarus and Armenia before talks with resource-rich Kazakhstan.
"Considering the current turbulence and unpredictability in the world of economics ... the only way to survive is by following the integration trend," Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told state news channel Vesti.
"So the processes taking shape in the post-Soviet landscape -- to call this an attempt at Sovietisation is to show a near-complete misunderstanding of what is going on," Peskov said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this month infuriated Moscow by claiming "there is an attempt to re-Sovietise the region.
"We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it," Clinton said.
Against this backdrop, Putin arrives in Brussels late Thursday for dinner with Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and other senior EU leaders and officials.
On Friday, the summit's set-piece formal meetings take place.
The timing of the visit is delicate as the bloody conflict in Syria finds Russia sticking by long-time ally President Bashar al-Assad to the West's clear frustration, albeit while calling for peaceful change.
"We want Syria to come out of this in one piece," Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's ambassador to the EU, told a pre-summit briefing Wednesday.
Moscow wants to see a democratic, responsible government in Damascus, Chizhov said, conceding that there were different views over the tactics needed to arrive at such an outcome.
Human rights remain a sensitive issue, with Putin condemning what he sees as interference by the West in supporting Russian opposition groups.
The two sides meanwhile share trade of more than 300 billion euros and Russia supplied 29 percent of EU oil and gas needs in 2011, but even such ties that bind can prove problematic.
Brussels says Moscow has not lived up to the commitments it made to win World Trade Organization membership but Russia insists it simply needs more time to adjust to the painful compromises involved.
The "Russian economy is still digesting WTO membership," Chizhov said, adding that Moscow too might have its own WTO gripes against the EU, especially over its rules in the energy sector.
Chizhov noted that despite their differences, which were only to be expected in such a wide-ranging relationship, "every summit is an important step in promoting the strategic partnership."
This will be a "summit of cooperation, not a summit of confrontation," he added.