RIGA, Latvia — The last time European leaders gathered to discuss the future of the nations that lie between E.U. borders and Russia, the talks sparked a biting Russian response and the crisis in Ukraine. This time, they trod lightly.
Fearful of provoking Russia, E.U. leaders who gathered Thursday and Friday in this old-world Baltic capital dialed back their ambitions about how closely to partner with countries that were part of the Soviet Union. Former communist countries used to line up to join the European Union, considering it their ticket to prosperity. But the door to E.U. membership that was open before the Ukrainian crisis has slammed shut, despite once-grand aims to lure countries such as Moldova and Georgia toward a European path of development.
When E.U. leaders last met to discuss their outreach 18 months ago, Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of a proposed trade deal just hours before he was to sign it, after coming under fierce Russian pressure. The capitulation fueled protests that led to his ouster. Russia annexed Crimea, fueled a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and helped drive relations with the West to their worst since the Cold War.
This time, E.U. leaders tiptoed around Russia, wary of a repeat. In the final declaration agreed on Friday, E.U. leaders recognized the “aspirations and European choice” of their neighbors but offered nothing more. Former Soviet countries that had entertained hopes of joining the European Union as full partners now feel they are being shut out.
The newfound caution hands the Kremlin a victory as pressure eases slightly in the Ukrainian crisis. European advocates of a more open-armed approach toward former Soviet nations warn that concessions will only encourage Russia to be more aggressive with its neighbors in the future.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has long asserted that he has a right to defend Russia’s interests in countries with large Russian populations — a territory that covers most of the former Soviet Union. He has supported pro-Russian separatists in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, the three countries that are most interested in bolstering their ties with the European Union but who now feel as though they are being kept at arm’s length.
Top E.U. officials said Friday that their work with their former communist neighbors was never intended to extend to E.U. membership. Now leaders of some former Soviet republics such as Georgia say they think the barriers to their deeper integration with Europe are rising, not falling.
“I cannot really deny that there have been some discussions within the European Union” about how to react to Russia, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said. Latvia joined the European Union and NATO in 2004 alongside seven other ex-communist states. It has taken a lead role in the negotiations for the summit because it holds the European Union’s rotating presidency.
“The focus currently is to implement what has been achieved” in previous agreements with other former Soviet nations and not to range far beyond, Rinkevics said.
The European Union deepened its efforts to reach out to former Soviet republics after the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, when Russian troops goaded Georgian forces into attacking in the breakaway enclave of South Ossetia. Now Georgian leaders fly E.U. flags in Tbilisi, their capital, as symbols of their aspirations, but the dreams have been met with caution in E.U. corridors.
Apart from Georgia and Ukraine, the other countries in the E.U. outreach efforts, known as the Eastern Partnership, are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Moldova. Moldovan citizens have flocked to the European Union to travel since visa requirements were eased for them last year, but they also ousted their pro-European leaders. The three other countries have been even more cautious about their discussions with Europe, held back in part by Russian pressure to stay true to their old Soviet ruler. Last year, Armenia spurned plans to sign an E.U. pact, opting instead to join the fledgling Eurasian Economic Union, which is dominated by Russia.
E.U. leaders never offered solid promises to Ukraine and its neighbors that they might eventually become full members of the European Union, but those nations’ hopes were fueled by former communist countries that had joined before them. Serious talk of expanding the NATO defense alliance, which Russia describes as a major geopolitical threat, was shelved after the Russia-Georgia war. NATO is a separate organization but has at times grown in tandem with the European Union.
Even aggressive advocates of E.U. expansion say that none of the countries that signed a deal to bolster cooperation with Europe has made the political and economic reforms necessary to start talking about membership. But they say that E.U. leaders are fearful even of suggesting that the flirtation with Ukraine and its neighbors could one day turn into a more serious relationship.
“We are extremely frustrated by what we are seeing today,” said an E.U. diplomat who was involved in the negotiations ahead of this week’s summit, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks. “We are arguing about whether European states should have a European perspective,” the diplomat said, meaning whether they should eventually be able to join the European Union.
The diplomat said that E.U. leaders were not moving “a centimeter” beyond agreements reached at the 2013 summit where Yanukovych backed out of the E.U. deal.
Despite the European caution, Russian leaders still warn them against taking any steps that could be viewed as counter to Russian interests.
“Attempts to present the situation as either-or, as a zero-sum game, leads to undesirable and unfavorable results. Our European partners understand this,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday.
Some Russian policies have backfired. After Yanukovych was ousted, his successor, President Petro Poroshenko, scrambled to sign the E.U. deal that the former president had rejected. Ukrainian public opinion in favor of joining both the European Union and NATO has risen since the crisis started.
Now, “Russia figures a lot more prominently in these discussions,” said Kadri Liik, a London-based senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “People understand that the deals cannot be something just between the target countries and the E.U., and that Russia will have an opinion and considerable obstructive power that needs to be taken into account. How, exactly, is a matter of debate.”
Some officials in the former Soviet countries are worried that Russia’s hard-line response to stronger E.U. ties has already paid off.
In Georgia, a majority of citizens remain in favor of joining the European Union and NATO. But opinion polls show a growing minority in favor of stronger ties with Russia — a change that analysts say is the result of frustration that they have seen little concrete benefit from their contacts with European institutions.
“It’s a dangerous signal, especially for small countries,” said Natalie Sabanadze, Georgia’s ambassador to the European Union. “We don’t want somebody over our heads to decide that we will never join, that we will never be part of the Euro-Atlantic community.”