European diplomats called the meeting at a lavish estate on the outskirts of Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg a chance to get reacquainted with the Russian leader, in power for 12 years and now formally in charge of foreign policy again.
But the crisis in Syria, where Moscow has blunted Western efforts to condemn President Bashar al-Assad and push him from power, may overshadow talks on trade and other issues at the twice-yearly summit.
Both Russia and Europe still have hope in Kofi Annan’s UN-backed peace plan to end 15 months of bloodshed that Western nations blame on Assad.
But EU nations wish Russia would press the Syrian leader to withdraw weaponry and halt attacks as demanded by the plan, and want him to step aside to make way for a political transition.
“We need to make sure that Russia is using fully its leverage in convincing the regime to implement (the plan),” said an EU official, declining to be named.
“The Russian side has certainly not been very helpful in finding solutions in terms of a political way out.”
Russia says it is not protecting Assad, who has given Moscow its firmest Middle East foothold, but that the Syrian leader’s exit cannot be a precondition for political dialogue.
Putin ceded no ground in remarks during visits to Berlin and Paris on Friday, placing an accent on rebel violence, criticizing sanctions and saying political decisions could not be forced on Syria from outside.