European Union leaders unleashed a torrent of criticism at Russia for intimidating neighbors like Ukraine and scheming to pull them back into its sphere of influence.
Accusing the Kremlin of “intimidation, aggression,” EU President Donald Tusk defended the 28-nation bloc’s pursuit of better economic and political ties with countries on its eastern fringes that were once part of the Soviet Union.
“If Russia was a bit softer, more charming, more attractive, perhaps it wouldn’t have to compensate its shortcomings by destructive, aggressive and bullying tactics,” Tusk told reporters Thursday before a EU summit with leaders of six eastern European countries in Riga, Latvia. “Let me be frank: beauty does count.”
Russia has played havoc with EU-eastern relations by annexing Crimea and stirring a pro-Kremlin rebellion in eastern Ukraine, occupying parts of Moldova and Georgia, and enlisting Belarus and Armenia in a Moscow-led economic union. The sixth neighbor represented at the summit, Azerbaijan, has stayed aloof from both sides.
EU governments have offered trade concessions and economic aid to the eastern countries, while putting the prospect of membership far into the future. Moldova won the right for its citizens to travel to the EU without visas last year, something Ukraine and Georgia hope to gain in 2016.
Any hope of rapidly transforming the lesser-developed, oft corruption-ridden eastern economies has given way to small-bore initiatives, such as the summit’s planned announcement of 200 million euros ($222 million) in seed capital to promote small businesses in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.
European leaders argued that sphere-of-influence politics belongs to the past, insisting that they are not battling Russian President Vladimir Putin for control over the eastern borderlands. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called EU-eastern ties “not an instrument of enlarging the European Union but it is an instrument of rapprochement.”
Russia parried the European criticisms by accusing the EU - - with collusion by the U.S. -- of re-erecting the barriers in Europe that came down at the end of the Cold War. Speaking to Bloomberg Television earlier on Thursday, Vladimir Chizhov, Russian ambassador to the EU, said: “We don’t look at Europe as a continent of frontlines. Other people do.”