Russian President Vladimir Putin may be missing as G7 leaders meet in Brussels, but everything is revolving around him. Presenting a united front when it comes to Russia is not easy.
Instead of an elegant palace complex, an idyllic golf resort or, as once planned, the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, G7 leaders are meeting this week in the unadorned European Council building in Brussels. The surrounding construction sites and a steady rain are adding to the rather dreary atmosphere.
It's definitely not the nicest location, but at least it benefits from the EU summit routine. Every few weeks, black limousines descend on the area and deliver heads of state to their next high-level meeting, meaning the entire infrastructure for the G7 meeting was already in place. Brussels, and the EU buildings, were therefore the obvious choice for this alternative summit with only seven statesmen.
Russia must de-escalate
Russia's annexation of Crimea in March was the reason for its temporary eviction from the G8, the "political price" that Russia had to pay, according to EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy. But Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso were evasive when asked by a journalist whether Russia would have to give up Crimea in order to rejoin the club.
Instead, Van Rompuy called on Russia "to cooperate with the elected and legitimate president and to contribute actively to de-escalation efforts." To this end, Russia should pull its forces back from the Ukrainian border and attempt to have a moderating influence on separatists, he said.
Barroso added that the EU must "maintain credible pressure on Russia," referring to the sanctions which the EU still means to strengthen if Russia allows the situation to escalate. But it's unclear what the G7 means by escalation. A Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine would certainly be one such case.
Below this threshold, opinions in the G7 differ on whether extensive economic sanctions, like a ban on gas or oil imports, should be imposed. These would hit some European countries hard , but not have much of an effect on the US and Canada - the reason for US President Barack Obama's tougher stance toward Moscow.
Merkel supports continued talks
On her arrival in Brussels, German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the G7's handling of the situation, saying leaders have "held together very well in recent weeks on the issue of Ukraine and Russia."
She hopes to keep it that way: after all, a schism between the seven leaders would only benefit Putin. Merkel was the only one to voice support for resumed talks with Russia, though she didn't rule out further sanctions.
Merkel has been one of the few leaders to regularly speak with Putin by phone, which some have regarded with suspicion. It's still unclear whether Putin will meet with Obama at the sidelines of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy on Friday (06.06.2014). Meetings with Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron, however, have already been scheduled.
EU planning Ukraine donor conference
Speaking with reporters, Barroso presented the Ukraine crisis in a wider European context. He noted that Poland had just commemorated the 25th anniversary of its first democratic election, which he said had accelerated the democratic transition in the rest of Central and Eastern Europe.
Barroso said that events in Ukraine have shown "that this transition is not yet complete and that many on our eastern borders still struggle to be able to make free choices as sovereign countries."
He emphasized that G7 leaders needed to reconfirm their "two-track policy," which involved "maintaining a credible pressure on Russia to deter it from further interferience in Ukraine's internal affairs and from supporting armed separatist forces."
At the same time, the West needed to give "political and economic support to the [Ukrainian] government… [contributing] to the country's stabilization and economic recovery." To that end, Barroso announced plans for an EU donor conference in July.
As for future dealings with Russia, all eyes will now be focused on Friday's D-Day ceremonies. How will Putin behave, who will speak with him, shake his hand? Even the smallest of gestures will be interpreted as symbolic.