EU foreign ministers will meet to prepare for an EU-Russia summit they hope will ease tensions heightened in recent months by issues as diverse as independence for Kosovo, US missile defense plans and human rights.
An ugly row between Estonia and Russia over a statue has strained Moscow's ties with the EU
It was hoped that the two-day EU-Russia summit in Samara near the Volga river starting on May 18 would mark the launch of talks on a new wide-ranging partnership agreement, which the Europeans see as key to securing reliable oil and supplies from their giant neighbor.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Tuesday.
In both cases, Western leaders are likely to encounter energy-rich Russia's increasingly combative stance -- and return home with little to show.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has struck an increasingly belligerent tone in recent months
"It is important that we try to calm things down and get back to a factual level for our discussions," one EU diplomatic source said ahead of the Brussels talks on Monday. "We know that the Russians are getting hot and bothered as well."
German Foreign Minster Frank-Walter Steinmeier, however, said it would be impossible to predetermine exactly what the EU-Russia summit results would be.
"The situation is complicated but particularly in time of difficulties is important to talk," he said before the preparatory meeting of EU ministers. "We are going to try right up to the summit to resolve the conflict concerning Polish meat. I can't say whether we'll be successful."
Steinmeier added that neither the EU nor Russia could afford to stop working together.
"I am convinced the EU needs Russia to solve international conflicts and Russia is going to continue to be dependent on Europe, so I am absolutely sure that on both sides reason must prevail," he said.
Analysts however are skeptical that things will calm down.
"Neither the Rice talks nor the Samara meeting will bring any concrete steps to overcoming disagreements," said Yevgeny Volk, an analyst for the Heritage Foundation. "It was only in the Cold War that relations were like this. It's like 20 years ago."
Plenty of irritants
Topping Rice's agenda on Tuesday will be fierce Russian opposition to a US plan for deploying a limited missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
She has little chance of making progress. Washington says the system is aimed at averting attacks from countries like Iran or North Korea, but Moscow sees the system as a direct threat that could trigger a new arms race and has announced a freeze on a landmark Soviet-era arms limitation treaty.
Last month EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson warned that mistrust and a lack of respect in the relations between the European Union and Russia are at their worst levels since the Cold War.
"Neither thinks they enjoy the respect and goodwill from the other they are entitled to expect," he said, in comments which his EU colleagues have since been at pains to play down.
The World II statue that is the source of much friction between Moscow and Tallin
Tension will also be high at the Russia-EU summit following a row over a Soviet war memorial between Moscow and Estonia, a former Soviet republic that is now a member of the EU and NATO military alliance.
The foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday will also hail Serbia's creation on Friday of a pro-European government.
The 27 EU nations hope the Serbs' move will help push forward plans for supervised independence in the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo, a measure which Russia has threatened to block at the UN Security Council.
Russia on Saturday dismissed as "unacceptable" a draft UN Security Council resolution, introduced by Western powers, endorsing the Kosovo independence plan of UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari.
Political freedoms and human rights
Hanging over both the US and EU meetings will be growing Western criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin's handling of political freedoms and human rights -- a sensitive issue thrown into relief by plans for an opposition rally in Samara on the day of the EU summit.
Police have violently broken up several earlier protest marches by The Other Russia coalition, bringing condemnation from Western governments.
On Friday, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who currently holds the rotating EU presidency, urged Russia to authorize the Samara protest, saying: "We start from the principle that critical voices should be able to be expressed."
A crackdown on protestors in St Petersburg last month sparked Western criticism
Ahead of her visit, Rice attacked what she called the "turning back" of freedoms in Russia under Putin and said "everybody around the world" was concerned.
Other bones of contention include constant delays in Russia's bid for membership of the World Trade Organization, Russian opposition to independence for Serbia's Kosovo province, and a meat trade dispute with EU member Poland.
"Worst summit in history"
The Russia-EU meeting "will be the worst summit in history because there's actually nothing that can be achieved in Samara," said Fyodr Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
Prospects for Rice were "not much better," he added.
Analysts said that much of the bad feeling is based on political maneuvering rather than concrete problems.
"I think that Russia and the European Union tripped up on a step that should have led to better relations," said Mark Entin, professor at Moscow's European Studies Institute. "The step is Russia becoming richer, faster, more confident. At the same time, the European Union is becoming bigger. This is not seen as an opportunity, but as a challenge. It's a problem of mentality."
Lukyanov also pointed to a "psychological" divide exacerbated by the run-up to presidential elections in the United States and Russia next year.
"The Russian leadership is completely preoccupied with power and they use foreign policy to strengthen their position," he said.