There are growing signs that the May 18 talks in Samara may not result in much progress. As has become the norm, there are no plans to issue a joint statement underlining areas of agreement, and the EU appears most concerned with minimizing potential damage.
Overall, not much has changed since the two sides last met in Finland in November. Efforts to come to an agreement on a new strategic-partnership accord remain on hold, with Warsaw vetoing the talks as a result of Russia's ban on Polish meat imports.
EU external-relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, speaking after the ministerial conference, called for the two sides to see "beyond" the import spat.
"I think it's important to also see beyond this question at this very moment when the [EU's German] presidency and the [European] Commission are still working to try to solve this question," Ferrero-Waldner said, adding: "I'm speaking about the Polish meat question."
However, Russian Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeyev has effectively ruled out a pre-summit solution to the dispute. He told the European Commission in a letter last week that in Moscow's eyes, the original grounds for the ban, imposed 17 months ago, still stand.
Matters have been further complicated by Vilnius's threat to veto the partnership talks as a result of Russia's disruption of oil deliveries to a Lithuania-based refinery sold to a Polish entity last year.
Estonia, too, has upped the ante. Foreign Minister Urmas Paet this morning asked his EU colleagues for renewed support pertaining to the country's recent standoff with Russia over the removal of a Soviet-era World War II memorial from central Tallinn.
Estonia sees the summit as an opportunity to raise issues it has with the Kremlin's alleged role in attacks on Estonian government websites and violent protests that took place outside the Estonian Embassy in Moscow during the dispute.
EU sources say Paet was given "strong support" today. The German presidency was also said to be drafting a joint EU response to a missive sent by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in which he characterized Estonia's removal of the Bronze Soldier monument as an unacceptable attempt to "revise" history.
EU officials have noted that Russia itself is showing little interest in coming to terms on a new agreement, and appears content to extend the current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement when it expires later this year.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a strong signal of this when he indicated in late 2006 that a new treaty should not cover energy -- a key EU concern.
However, commissioner Ferrero-Waldner today stressed that the summit still provides a unique opportunity for the two sides to discuss issues of mutual interest.
"The important thing is that we meet on a summit level," Ferrero-Waldner said. "That is highly important, as I said, for all the political questions. I mean, normally we discuss all the foreign-policy items, it's important for education and research. It's for those things were we bring something forward -- we still have the four "common spaces."
However, the four spaces -- on internal and external security, economy, and education -- agreed upon a year ago in St. Petersburg, are all experiencing their own problems.
Areas Of Concern
In the sphere of "external security," the EU's room for maneuver at the summit will be limited by its need to secure Russian cooperation on a number of key global issues. Foremost among those is Kosovo, where Russia opposes Western plans to grant the Serbian province independence. Iran and the Middle East also feature prominently as sticking points, as do Russia's policies in the Caucasus, the EU's eastern neighbors, and Central Asia.
On the economic front, outstanding issues threaten to prevent the EU from signing off on Russia's entry to the World Trade Organization. EU officials have in recent days expressed fears Russia may be going back on a key agreement that securing EU air carriers tariff-free overflights of Siberia as of 2013.
The issue of "internal security," meanwhile, is proving to be contentious in the lack of EU moves toward lifting visa requirements for Russian citizens -- perhaps the most important policy goal for Moscow in its relations with the EU. Most EU member states currently oppose any moves in this direction.
In the end, the expected formation of a new working group on cooperation in the field education may emerge as the only tangible result of the May 18 summit.