BRUSSELS – President Vladimir V. Putin for years trumpeted Russia’s grand ambitions for improved relations with the European Union. He not only pushed to break down visa barriers across a vast expanse of territory covering more than 6,000 miles, but also urged the creation of what he calls a “harmonious economic community stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok.”
On Tuesday, Putin arrived at the Brussels headquarters of the 28-nation bloc. But he will not even get dinner. That customary courtesy got yanked from the program – a small sign of how escalating tensions over Ukraine have soured even the basic routines of diplomacy and chilled relations between Moscow and Brussels.
Beyond the protocol slights, there are stark limits to how far Europe is willing or able to go in a high-stakes struggle with Russia over the unrest in Ukraine, where weeks of peaceful protests last week tipped into violence and raised the unnerving prospect of chaotic civil strife on Europe’s eastern border.
Russia and Europe have for weeks been trading accusations over Ukraine, with each accusing the other of meddling in the affairs of a sovereign state. Russia last week added to the tit-for-tat recriminations by issuing a lengthy report on what it said were human rights abuses in the EU.
And instead of the ceremonies and wide-ranging meetings, which are usual at the twice-yearly summit meetings between the EU and Russia, Putin faces a truncated session lasting just a day, instead of the normal two. He arrived early afternoon Tuesday for a brisk photo call and then talks with Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, the body representing member states, and José Manuel Barroso, the president of the bloc’s executive arm, the European Commission.
Officials in Brussels insist that they still want to develop what is officially a “strategic partnership” with Russia, an arrangement built primarily on strong trade ties, but say that they first need to clear a thicket of mistrust, something nobody expects to happen soon.
EU leaders “don’t know how to deal with Putin. They can’t deal with him: They are 28 and he is one,” said Amanda Paul of the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based research body.