Despite recent disagreements, the EU has handed an olive leaf to Moscow by reopening partnership talks. That's commendable -- just as long as the problems don't get swept under the rug, says DW's Christoph Hasselbach.
Over the past few weeks, Russia has provoked the European Union often enough. First, Russia's response to Georgia's military effort to recapture two separatist provinces was completely excessive.
When French President Nicolas Sarkozy then tried to negotiation a ceasefire agreement, Russia pulled its troops out of Georgia proper, but concentrated even more soldiers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It's also recognized both territories as independent states.
So it's understandable that the EU called off negotiations over a new partnership treaty out of protest. The new EU member states in eastern Europe, which had suffered under Soviet rule themselves, called in particular for a halt to talks. They wanted to hold Russia at bay.
What has the EU achieved with its protest? Nothing significant in the Caucasus issue.
Missile threat from Moscow
Then Russia's President Medvedev announced that he would set up short-range missiles in the enclave Kaliningrad in response to the United States' plan for a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Even if that doesn't have anything to do with the European Union directly, Russia showed once again that it responds in a big way to provocations -- whether they're real or just assumed.
Now the EU has swallowed its anger and, without any effort from the Russia side, offered to restart negotiations. The Baltic, Poland and the Czech Republic gnashed their teeth, but gave in to the political pressure of the big powers in the EU.
Was this the right step? Didn't it show Moscow it could get away with anything without being punished for it?
Finance crisis changed situation
Yes, it was right -- particularly because the situation has changed fundamentally for all parties involved.
Since the war in the Caucasus, the financial crisis has taken center stage. It has hit the US hard, and the EU as well, but Russia is affected even more.
As long as the global economy is running smoothly, Russia can charge high prices for gas and oil, its main exports. But now, with the world slipping into recession and energy prices falling, the Russian economy is showing its vulnerable side. In addition, the EU is now trying to become less dependent on Russian energy.
When the economic situation in Russia takes a downturn, it can quickly lead to political discontentment and instability. And that is a threat to the stability of eastern Europe, and essentially the continent as a whole. That's a reason for concern.
Even though Russia is still ranting and making threats, the government in Moscow has known since this fall at the latest just how dependent both sides are on each other.
For that reason, it should pay off for both that the EU has now taken the first step. Still, it's essential that problems be talked about openly as part of the new dialogue.
After all, it's the beginning of a long, difficult discussion process.
Christoph Hasselbach is DW-RADIO's Europe correspondent. (kjb)