The bloc's foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, have put off until the bloc's summit later this week a decision on whether Russia has complied with the terms of an EU-brokered cease-fire in Georgia.
Last month, the EU broke off partnership talks with Moscow, saying Russian troops must first pull back to preconflict lines.
Germany and France -- the current holder of the EU's rotating presidency -- want to resume talks with Russia as soon as possible. They argue that Russia's pullout from undisputed Georgian territory is a sufficient concession.
Britain, Sweden, Poland, and the Baltic countries object, however, pointing to the EU's emergency summit decision on September 1 to postpone talks with Russia "until troops have withdrawn to the positions held prior to 7 August."
After the meeting, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner defended the French view, implying the EU has no realistic hope of evicting Russian troops from either South Ossetia or Abkhazia.
"The partnership talks were delayed until the Russians complied with the terms of the six-point [Medvedev-Sarkozy plan of August 12]," Kouchner said. "As it were, in reality, they would not be resumed before Russian [troops] leave zones adjacent to Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- [which] we can say has been done."
But Kouchner was forced to conclude that the divisions within the EU mean the issue must be left to the EU summit, which will take place in Brussels on October 15-16.
The foreign ministers did adopt a declaration that carefully traces a middle way between the two positions. The ministers welcomed the Russian withdrawal from the so-called buffer zones as "an essential additional step in implementing the agreements of August 12 and September 8," mediated by the EU.
In other words, the EU is saying the Russian pullout from Georgia proper is not the end of the story.
But this compromise is not likely to endure, as even Georgia's most ardent supporters recognize that concern for the country's territorial integrity cannot indefinitely trump the EU's need to develop relations with Russia.
At best -- and pending another debate at the Brussels summit -- they have won a temporary victory. The EU will return to the issue at the next foreign ministers' meeting in November, when the bloc's executive European Commission will have concluded a broad "audit" of the EU-Russia relationship.
The next biannual EU-Russia summit in Nice on November 14 is widely expected to be the ultimate deadline for the EU to resume talks with Moscow -- or risk seriously damaging its relations with its largest neighbor.
In Luxembourg, Kouchner indicated Georgia itself is directing its attention to more practical concerns, looking for EU backing in securing access to traditionally Georgian-populated areas in South Ossetia, above all the town of Alkhagori.
Kouchner noted the Georgian population in these regions has largely fled, and that Russia only readmits Russian passport holders. The French foreign minister suggested there is little the EU can do, as administratively the area is part of South Ossetia, which has declared itself independent and recognized by Russia as such.
Russian and Georgian officials will launch talks on the future security and stability of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Geneva on October 15. The talks are already fraught with difficulty, with the two sides at odds over the status of separatist representatives, and are likely to drag on for years.
In a ray of light for Tbilisi, the EU has confirmed that an international donors conference for Georgia will take place in Brussels on October 22.
Crisis In Georgia