Asia might seem to some like an improperly chosen place for holding a European Union – Russia summit. But not if you have a specific message to get across to your partners.
Russia hosted a summit with its E.U. partners in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, right on the border with China. And the message it had to deliver was pretty straightforward and pragmatic.
"If Europe continues to treat Russia and Russian initiatives as skeptically as it has been treating them, Russia could always turn in the other direction and diversify," Alexei Makarkin, Vice President of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based think-tank, told CBS News. "The E.U. leaders got a chance to see with their own eyes that it would not be a problem for Russia to stop giving preferential treatment to Europe and turn to its Asian clients."
Relations between Moscow and Brussels have remained seriously strained since last August, when President Medvedev sent Russian troops into Georgia to counter Tbilisi's military effort to return a part of its country under Georgia's jurisdiction.
Last winter, the rift between Russia and the E.U. grew even wider, as Europe became increasingly wary of Russia's unreliability as a natural gas supplier after a pricing dispute between Moscow and Kiev left hundreds of thousands in Central and Eastern Europe shivering in the deep winter cold.
This summit was expected to mend fences between Moscow and Brussels, but President Dmitry Medvedev did not have many comforting words for the E.U. leaders. The main issue on the agenda at the summit was European energy security – Europe relies on Russia for a quarter of its natural gas supplies. But instead of soothing Europe's concerns over interruptions in gas deliveries from Russia, President Medvedev said no guarantees could be given that supplies would not be interrupted again.
"Russia did not and will not give any assurances. For what reason? There are no problems on our side," President Medvedev said. "We have no problems at all over gas, or the fulfillment of our obligations. Let those, who must pay for the gas give assurances," President Medvedev added, transparently hinting that it was Ukraine who was to blame for the disruption of gas deliveries.
"We have doubts about Ukraine's ability to pay," President Medvedev said, urging the EU "to take a considerable part" in helping Ukraine meet its gas obligations.
The sides also touched upon other issues, including hammering out a new partnership agreement between the E.U. and Russia, a European outreach program for former Soviet republics, the situation in the Middle East, Russia's possible membership in the World Trade Organization and even forming an international tribunal for sea pirates. On some issues, like overcoming the global financial crisis, President Medvedev sounded not so upbeat. "Unfortunately, the logic and the laws of this crisis have not been fully understood or resolved by anyone yet," President Medvedev said at the summit.
But when it came to upholding Russia's stance in dealing with its European partners, President Medvedev seemed like he knew exactly what to do. In a classic Oriental style, President Medvedev presented E.U. High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana with a map of the Khabarovsk territory and also took the jet-lagged E.U. delegation that had just traveled nine time zones on a boat ride on the Amur river - apparently, as a graphic visual demonstration of how close Russia is to China.
"The whole show was very elegantly and professionally done," Alexei Makarkin said. "While riding on a boat between Russia and China, the EU leaders should have almost physically felt how easy it would be for Russia to turn to alternative customers in case Europe continues to be difficult. And no transit countries or border issues need to be involved. Everything is clear and simple."
The EU leaders will have plenty of time to brood over President Medvedev's message on the way back across the nine time zones. It has been made clear to them that Russia is desperately looking for ways to shore up its economy – over the first quarter of the year, Russia's foreign trade has shrunk by a third and direct investments in Russia's economy have fallen by 43 percent. But in case the message is ignored, next time Dmitry Medvedev may take them some place else. "Russia is a big country, and there are even more distant and hard-to-reach corners," President Medvedev said, grinning.