BRUSSELS — Russia had no seat at the European Union’s table Thursday but it cast a shadow over the summit as a target for criticism of its role in the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence over the wars that have dragged on for years deeply frustrated a Europe limited to diplomacy, money or humanitarian aid to try to change facts on the ground.
“Faced with the brutality of the Syrian regime and its supporters, notably Russia and Iran, we are not as effective as we would like to be,” EU Council President Donald Tusk told reporters. “Unfortunately, I know who is effective enough, not in humanitarian assistance, but in bombing.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “We are all seeing something in the 21st century that is shameful, that is heart-breaking, that shows we haven’t been able to act politically how we would like to act.”
A great unknown also weighs on the Europeans: exactly what U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s attitude toward Russia will be, given the benevolent view of Putin that he expressed during the election campaign.
The EU has slapped sanctions on Russia for annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and the leaders gave their greenlight Thursday for some of them to be rolled over for a further six months. But cracks have appeared in Europe’s facade, with Italy notably pushing for an easing of the punitive measures.
Any sign that Trump will be more tolerant of Russia’s actions is only likely to deepen the EU divide.
Tusk said it was too early to assess what might be possible effects of U.S. policy toward Russia. “We have to wait for the declaration of the new president.”
In any case, new sanctions over Russia’s backing of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in crushing the besieged eastern city of Aleppo were not on the table, despite stiff criticism expressed by some member states.
“I have been talking constantly to Russia, and Russia makes commitments that it is not keeping. Now it is time for us to conclude a cease-fire,” French President Francois Hollande told reporters.
Putin also cast a shadow as the leaders struggled to broker a compromise with the Netherlands that would allow the EU to enact a long-standing agreement with Ukraine on closer ties.
The agreement is the same one that sparked the Maidan Square popular uprising in Kiev three years ago. Protests broke out in November 2013 when then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych abruptly decided to abandon the pact with the EU and seek closer cooperation with Moscow instead.
Hundreds of thousands took to the streets. Later, the protests later turned violent and more than 100 people were killed, many of them by sniper fire.
The EU compromise involved a legally binding text explaining that the agreement does not mean membership for Ukraine or military support or more money beyond the billions already poured into the country from Europe.
It may be enough to persuade Dutch lawmakers to approve a pact that was rejected by voters earlier this year. But those guarantees may also be music to Putin’s ears.