The European Union will try to shift Russian President Vladimir Putin's stance on Syria and explore his commitment to closer ties at a summit his wary neighbors say is unlikely to produce big breakthroughs.
Putin hosted EU leaders for dinner on Sunday ahead of the talks on Monday at a lavish estate on the outskirts of his hometown of St. Petersburg, the first Russia-EU summit since his return to the presidency on May 7.
European diplomats called the meeting a chance to get reacquainted with Putin, who is formally back at the forefront of foreign policy.
But the crisis in Syria, where Moscow has blunted Western efforts to condemn President Bashar al-Assad, may sour the mood and overshadow talks on trade and other issues.
Both Russia and Europe still have hope in Kofi Annan's U.N.-backed plan to end 15 months of bloodshed that Western countries blame on Assad. But EU nations wish Russia would press the Syrian leader to withdraw weaponry from cities and halt attacks as demanded by the plan, and want Assad out of power.
"We need to make sure that Russia is using fully its leverage in convincing the regime to implement (the plan)," an EU official said. "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, and 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.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before the Sunday dinner, said in a statement: "Russia's role is crucial for the success of Annan's plan."
The EU wanted to "work closely with Russia to find a way to end the violence and support" the plan, said Ashton. The statement said she spoke to Annan by phone on Sunday and that they agreed the crisis had reached "a critical point".
Lavrov, in his own phone call with Annan, said Moscow was open to considering ways to coordinate international efforts in support of the envoy's peace drive, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
However, when asked whether he expected the summit to narrow the gap on Syria, Lavrov told reporters: "I don't think so."
TIED BY TRADE
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Ashton will try to gauge Putin's attitude toward the EU as he enters a six-year term.
"This is about checking whether we have the same vision - where we want to go with our strategic partnership," the EU official said of the talks at the Constantine Palace, a renovated Imperial-era estate on the Baltic Sea.
Russia and the EU, its biggest trade partner, are deeply intertwined, with Europe relying heavily on Russian energy exports and Russia buying EU products from German cars to Greek olive oil and IKEA furniture for a growing middle class.
But they wrangle over issues ranging from energy supplies, trade and market access to human rights, hampering efforts to clinch a new pact to govern ties after four years of talks.
"Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is no common strategy," said German political scientist Alexander Rahr.
On Thursday, Russia's EU envoy Vladimir Chizhov reiterated criticism of EU regulations aimed at liberalizing its gas market by barring suppliers including Russian giant Gazprom from controlling transit pipelines.
Chizhov also said Russia wanted faster progress towards visa-free travel - a goal Putin, keen to shed an image as unwelcome neighbor, has long pursued.
The criticism over market access cuts both ways.
Russia is to join the World Trade Organisation this year, binding it to global rules, but the EU wants the Kremlin to lower barriers for Western companies and investment by curbing corruption and improving the rule of law.
Some EU officials are concerned Putin's return to the Kremlin will mean more state interference in the economy and slower reforms.
Putin, who has faced the biggest opposition protests of his 12-year rule, has warned against Western meddling.
He has said integration among former Soviet republics would be a priority, and made Belarus the first foreign trip of his new term, backing an authoritarian leader under EU sanctions.