Leaders of the European Union and Russia are meeting today for the first time since the gas crisis, more for the purpose of testing the waters than achieving any diplomatic breakthroughs, Oleg Shchederov reports for Reuters.
President Dmitry Medvedev greeted EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso at the Kremlin, saying new legal mechanisms needed to be created to prevent a recurrence. “The recent gas crisis has shown that things are not all right here,” Medvedev said.
Barroso said the crisis should never have happened, but that he welcomed Medvedev’s role in resolving the dispute. “It is important now to create conditions for this kind of crisis not to happen again. We believe energy security is a very important sphere of interest for Russia and the European Union,” Barroso, calling for “positive interdependence” in relations. “And this positive interdependence is more important now than ever because we are facing a very serious global financial crisis,” he said.
Steve Gutterman of the Associated Press provides background:
Russia and the European Union tested the troubled waters of their relationship Friday, holding the first top-level meetings since a chilling two-week cutoff of Russian gas supplies via Ukraine. European Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso, who angrily accused Russia and Ukraine of holding Europe hostage last month in their politically charged price dispute, was to meet with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Barroso is leading a delegation of EU commissioners, including the energy, trade and foreign policy chiefs, in a bid to put relations back on track after their worst year ever.
It will be a tough task. Russia and the EU are linked closely by trade, but their ties have been strained for years by disputes on issues ranging from timber tariffs and overflight fees to the Kremlin’s human rights record and its support for separatists in Georgia and Moldova. The already-wary relationship was badly soured by Russia’s recent war with Georgia and its subsequent recognition of the independence claims of the breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where Moscow’s military buildup is increasingly a thorn in the side of the West. Supplies of Russian gas to Europe via Ukraine resumed less than three weeks ago, and the cutoff has deepened EU concerns about its reliance on Russia for a quarter of its natural-gas needs.
The EU now hopes Moscow will want to soothe relations as its economy is hit by the global meltdown and sharply lower prices for oil, the backbone of its economy. The EU is by far Russia’s largest export market. Ahead of the visit, Barroso said he would not dwell on the gas cutoff and would try to improve relations across the board. It is “urgent to get this relationship to work to our best advantage, acknowledging our differences, (and) work together to build up trust,” he said Thursday.
The EU’s agenda includes the global economic crisis, energy relations, climate change, Russia’s World Trade Organization membership, prospects for concluding a “strategic partnership” and sorting out enduring trade spats such as Russian wood export duties and high charges on Siberian overflights. But Russia and the 27-nation EU are also at odds over broader issues including energy and security. Russia has rejected EU pleas to join the Energy Charter, a treaty that aims to boost the rule of law in energy matters, and has made noises about the need for an entirely new arrangement. Russia is also pushing for a new trans-Atlantic treaty governing security in Europe, which many in the West see as a bid to undermine NATO.
The BBC’s Richard Galpin in Moscow says the gas row has shaken EU countries’ faith in both Russia and Ukraine as energy partners. A commission spokesman told the BBC that the meetings on Friday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and members of his cabinet were a test – to see if the political relationship can move forward. He stressed that reliability and predictability were key for a proper partnership.
Ultimately, Russia needs Europe as a customer more than Europe needs Russia as a supplier. After repeatedly having their gas supplies shut off on Moscow’s whim, the EU will be forced to find alternative suppliers. Nor should gettting Dmitri Medvedev’s signature on a piece of paper, should that ultimately happen, provide even the slightest bit of comfort; he’s shown no compunction about reneging on agreements with the EU.
Once Russia’s “energy weapon” is neutralized, the parties should be able to negotiate on the basis of mutual interest. Until then, the atmosphere of distrust will continue.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.