Brussels, Mar 14: The European Union must stand up to Russia to defend core political and security interests but can still try to find common cause on issues such as the Syrian conflict, the bloc's foreign ministers said today.
The ministers gathered in Brussels for a regular monthly meeting which for the first time in a year reviewed relations with Moscow which have been strained to breaking point by the Ukraine crisis.
EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini, who as Italian foreign minister before taking up her EU post in 2014 was widely seen as backing closer links with Russia, said they had "unanimity among the 28" on five broad principles.
First, Moscow must fully respect and implement the Minsk ceasefire accords in Ukraine and Brussels would not recognise its "illegal" 2014 annexation of Crimea, Mogherini told a closing press conference.
The 28-nation bloc should boost ties with other east European and central Asian countries, many ruled from Moscow during the Soviet era, and strengthen EU resilience in areas such as energy where Russia is a key supplier for many member states, she said.
On the other side of the coin, ministers recognised "the need for selective engagement with Russia on foreign policy issues such as Iran, the Middle East, Syria... but also in other areas where there is a clear EU interest," she said.
The bloc will also seek to boost contacts with Russian civil society, especially with youth, Mogherini added. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said as he arrived for the meeting that the EU should be under no illusions about Russia.
"We have to have relationships with Russia but we can't lose sight of the challenge that Russia represents to our values and to our security, and we have to be robust in making our case and defending our principles, our values and our borders in Europe," Hammond said.
The EU has imposed damaging economic sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and suspected further intervention in eastern Ukraine, sending ties into a deep freeze reminiscent of the Cold War.
In recent months, however, there have been growing calls to see if the two sides can work together to solve shared problems, most notably the Syrian conflict which is destabilising the whole region and driving Europe's worst migrant crisis since World War II.
Hammond stated bluntly that Russian President Vladimir Putin should telephone long-time Moscow ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "to get control of his protege" so that he delivers on commitments Russia had made to sustain the current fragile ceasefire in Syria.