BRUSSELS -- European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini initiated an internal debate last month with a group of fellow European commissioners on how to improve cooperation with Russia, causing concern among EU members that want to keep up the pressure on Moscow over its interference in Ukraine, sources have told RFE/RL.
The discussion was held in mid-January among European Commission members whose portfolios involve ties with countries outside the 28-nation EU. Its purpose, according to a source with insight into the meeting, was to prepare a "concept where we perhaps can have some cooperation without endangering our position on Russia sanctions."
The meeting came at the start of a year that could bring crucial developments in the standoff between Moscow and the West over Ukraine. Russia wants relief from EU sanctions imposed in response to its interference in Ukraine, and appears to hope Europe's resolve will flag before they come up for renewal in July.
Details of what such cooperation could look like are scarce, but one source said it might entail boosting economic cooperation at a time when the Russian economy is faltering.
The exercise is worrying member states such as Sweden and Poland, which fear that EU unity over Russia's actions in Ukraine -- its seizure of Crimea and support for armed separatists in the Donbas region -- is slowly eroding.
It comes a year after a discussion paper endorsed by Mogherini that suggested a proactive approach toward Russia, just as the separatists were launching an offensive near the crucial government-held city of Mariupol. She has kept a low profile since then on issues involving the EU's eastern neighbors, and it is unclear how much traction the new initiative will pick up.
One EU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that most of the European commissioners who took part in the debate where skeptical.
"Why should we envisage a scenario [of greater cooperation] now, when Russia isn't moving?" the official said. The remark was a reference to perceptions that Moscow has done little to fulfill its obligations under Minsk II, a February 2015 deal to end the war that has killed more than 9,000 people in eastern Ukraine and restore Kyiv's control over its border.
Mogherini's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment lodged by RFE/RL on February 8.
While participants in the discussion were asked to come back with suggestions, the official said there have been few concrete contributions on the topic since the mid-January meeting.
But the issue is likely to come back to the fore this spring, with countries such as Italy and Austria expected to step up pressure on EU institutions to consider bringing Russia in from the cold.
According to sources in Brussels, EU diplomats have been briefed in recent weeks by U.S. diplomats who have indicated that Russia might become more constructive about resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine in the coming months.
No Guarantee Of Extended Sanctions
The American optimism stems from a five-hour meeting last month in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad between Victoria Nuland, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, and Vladislav Surkov, an influential aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to RFE/RL sources, the pair spoke in great detail about preparations for elections in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, partially held by the Russia-backed rebels, which eventually could pave the way for a settlement of the conflict.
The European External Action Service will also prepare a discussion paper on the EU's relationship with Russia, to be discussed when the bloc's foreign ministers meet in Brussels on March 14.
Member states eager to keep up the pressure on Russia are hoping that will be the final debate on the issue among foreign ministers, and that heads of government will take over the talks -- especially on economic sanctions, which expire on July 31 if they are not renewed.
European Council sources say that renewal of the sanctions last extended in December is far from guaranteed this time, and that the issue is likely to be the subject of tough debate at the EU summit in Brussels in late June.
EU diplomats have said that EU leaders may start discussing the issue of extending sanctions at European Union summit in March, taking the initiative away from EU foreign ministers.
A council source told RFE/RL that some nations fear EU foreign ministers who are both more sympathetic to Moscow and tired of the lack of progress of reforms in Kyiv will present a list of proposals for EU-Russia cooperation – and that some of the proposals will have to be accepted in exchange for extending the sanctions.