The European Commission is questioning whether to drop its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and appears open to the possibility of closer cooperation with Russia.
The possibilities, spelled out in a draft document seen by RFE/RL, are part of an effort to come up by this autumn with concrete proposals for reforming the ENP.
The draft document, titled Towards A New Neighborhood Policy, will be presented to EU states on March 4 by foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini and Neighborhood Commissioner Johannes Hahn.
The ENP was launched in 2003 in order to forge closer relations with countries of interest that were not part of the EU's enlargement policy. Sixteen of the EU's neighbors -- including former Soviet states Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine -- as well as countries in North Africa and the Middle East are covered under the ENP.
The draft document quickly addresses whether the policy should continue to exist, a question likely to disturb countries that are actively seeking closer ties with the EU amid tense relations with Moscow, such as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia.
Potentially more worrying for the eastern partners is that closer relations with Moscow looms large in the discussion paper.
While Russia is not mentioned specifically, the document states that "some partners currently outside the neighborhood" may need to be "more closely associated" with the ENP.
And there are several other signs that could hint at more engagement with Russia.
The document asks whether the "current geographical scope" should be maintained and whether the ENP should "allow for more flexible ways of working with the neighbors of the neighbors?"
Another question asks: "How can the EU, through the ENP framework, support its neighbors in their interactions with their own neighbors?"
Russia openly enters the discussion when the document asks what could be done better "to ensure greater coherence between the European Neighborhood Policy and the EU's relations with Russia and with partners in Central Asia?"
The document comes amid tension between the EU and Russia over the Ukraine crisis, which was spurred in part by Russia's determination to prevent closer economic cooperation between Kyiv and Brussels and resulted in EU sanctions against Russia.
The document also follows a controversial discussion paper, endorsed by Mogherini, in which renewed cooperation with Russia in certain areas was addressed.
That document emerged just days before the shelling of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol and the subsequent offensive by Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and was dismissed by several EU foreign ministers.
The latest draft document on the future of the ENP does pose questions that are likely to be welcomed by neighborhood countries looking to one day join the EU.
The document asks, "Should the EU gradually explore new, even deeper relationship formats to satisfy the aspirations and choices of those who do not consider the association agreements as the final stage of political association and economic integration?"
The EU Commission also hints at the possibility of playing a larger role in frozen conflicts such as those in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region, or in Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
"It should also be considered how the EU should best respond [to] crises and conflict situations, included protracted ones," the document reads. "Taking into account the sources of influence and pressure on our partners that determine their political positions, including towards the EU."
Russia's foreign policy in the region is also directly mentioned.
"In the East growing challenges to a number of Eastern Partnership countries, from the crisis in Georgia in 2008 to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, have been caused by an increasingly assertive Russian foreign policy."
This, the document says, has "also resulted in exacerbating divisions between Russian and the EU."