The leaders of Russia and the European Union are meeting in London this week for a summit held against the background of deepening dependence on Russian gas and oil in the energy-hungry EU bloc.
Russia's huge oil reserves mean close attention from the EU
While serious differences remain, such as over Iran's nuclear program, the combination of Europe's energy demand and Russia's colossal supply is pushing the two neighbors toward increasingly broad cooperation over issues such as visas and terrorism.
President Vladimir Putin arrived in London on Monday for the summit Tuesday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson.
Russian President Vladimir Putin
On Wednesday, Putin meets separately with Blair to cover Russian-UK issues. Britain currently holds the shared EU presidency.
Anthony Brenton, the British ambassador in Moscow, told journalists that energy would be one of the main themes.
"Russia is a huge and expanding energy exporter and Western Europe is a large and expanding energy importer," he said. But work is needed in "removing glitches in our scope for energy cooperation."
About half the gas and one-third of the oil used in the 25-country bloc already comes from or via Russia. According to the International Energy Agency, EU gas demand could rise by 50 percent in the next 15 years.
The issue is especially timely in Britain, where North Sea oil and gas resources are winding down. Next year, for the first time in three decades, the country is expected to become a net importer of gas.
Putin last week trumpeted rapid economic growth that analysts say has more to do with oil prices of around 65 dollars a barrel than any meaningful reforms. Russia is "among the leaders," he claimed, noting that oil and gas reserves across Russia "are bigger than we think. These reserves are enough for us and future generations."
He denied Monday that Moscow wants to use energy sold to western Europe as a way to apply political pressure. The participation of Western companies in building a gas pipeline under the Baltic and of Russian companies' in distributing gas and electricity in Europe "will help to create a very stable system," he told a news conference.
Construction on the Torshok-Tjumen Gas pipeline in der Russian region of Yaroslav
The geo-politically sensitive gas pipeline is to be built under the Baltic Sea to ship fuel directly to Germany, bypassing much of eastern Europe and recent EU members such as Poland, where relations with Moscow are more tense.
However, officials on both sides are going out of their way to stress common points.
Ambassador Brenton played down Russia's recent scuppering of an EU attempt to censure Iran over its civilian nuclear activities, saying: "My feeling is that this was no more than a tactical divergence."
Both sides "are firmly committed to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons."
WTO, visas and anti-terrorism
Meanwhile, the EU ambassador to Moscow, Marc Franco, expressed support for Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization and for a relaxing of EU visa rules for Russia.
For students, bureaucrats, journalists and others needing to travel because of their occupation, "it will be much easier in the future to get multiple-entry and long-term visas," he told journalists.
Another major item on the agenda -- and the top item in Wednesday's Britain-Russia talks -- will be cooperation in anti-terrorism policies, diplomats said.
Although London and Moscow are talking up cooperation in this area, the Kremlin remains infuriated by its failure to extradite Akhmed Zakayev, a leading Chechen separatist representative given political asylum in Britain.