Moscow backs proposal for talks put forward by Germany, France as EU leaders ready to weigh the plan at Brussels meet.
Russia has described the European Union as “fragmented” after the bloc failed to agree on a French-German proposal for direct talks with President Vladimir Putin.
Berlin and Paris had on Thursday called for the EU to resume talks with the Russian leader, a week after United States President Joe Biden’s meeting with him in Geneva.
While they said restarting discussions would help repair ties and enable cooperation in areas of mutual interest, some member states fiercely opposed the plan, with Eastern European critics denouncing it as “dangerous”.
The idea was formally rejected at a European Council meeting in Brussels, which began on Thursday and lasted into the early hours of Friday.
Putin had welcomed the plan after it was announced, but Moscow expressed disappointment on Friday over the outcome.
“In general, President Putin was and remains interested in improving working relations between Moscow and Brussels,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “The European position is fragmented, not always consistent and sometimes unclear.”
The 27-member bloc froze summits with Putin following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and relations between Brussels and Moscow have steadily deteriorated to a post-Cold War low point since.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was attending what could have been her last EU summit ahead of September’s elections to choose her successor, said that EU leaders had instead agreed to maintain and develop a “dialogue format” with Russia.
“I would have liked to see a bolder step here, but it is also good this way and we will continue to work on it,” she said. “We defined again under what conditions we are prepared to work and communicate more closely with Russia.”
The EU is deeply divided in its approach to Moscow.
Russia is the EU’s biggest natural gas supplier, and plays a role in issues linked to Europe’s strategic interests, including the Iran nuclear deal, and conflicts in Syria and Libya.
European heavyweight Germany has strong economic interests there, notably the Nord Stream 2 undersea pipeline project, and a number of countries, including France, are reluctant to continue waging a sanctions battle with Russia.
But the bloc and Russia are on opposing sides over Ukraine, Belarus and human rights, and accuse each other of threatening security and stability from the Baltics to the Black Sea.
Poland and Baltic countries say that EU-Putin meetings would send the wrong message.
“It was a common position of many leaders” not to change the stance on Russia, said Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, who claimed the idea was like “trying to engage the bear to keep a pot of honey safe”.
Latvia’s Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins said that any EU outreach to Moscow over a possible summit risked the bloc being interpreted as weak by Putin’s government.
“Right now, if it pans out the way it’s proposed, Russia annexes Crimea, Russia wages war in Donbas, and Europe shrugs its shoulders and continues to try to speak a dialogue,” he said, referencing the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine featuring Russian-backed separatists.
“The Kremlin does not understand this kind of politics.”
As they dismissed the plan for direct talks, the bloc’s leaders, in a statement, called on the European Commission and the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell “to present options for additional restrictive measures, including economic sanctions” against Russia.
Since 2014, the EU has imposed successive waves of sanctions on the Russian energy, financial and arms sectors, as well as individual sanctions on Russians accused of human rights abuses or using banned chemical weapons.
Moscow has responded in turn with countermeasures.