Vladimir Putin’s call for the creation of a "harmonious economic community stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok" has been received with scepticism in Europe. According to various commentators, this is but a “smokescreen”, Moscow’s poisoned gift to lure the EU into its web. That reaction should come as no surprise. European Russophobia, which goes back at least to the 19th century, has been recently rekindled by the advent of the Central and Eastern European countries; right after joining the Union in 2004, those countries (with blessing from the US) helped torpedo the Russian attempt to forge ties with France and Germany. The ex-Warsaw Pact countries’ distrust is, of course, more than understandable.

Emotional factors are often writ large in international relations, but when it comes down to it, economic considerations almost always carry the day. And they paint a picture of a country in urgent need of an economic overhaul now that the crisis has drastically slashed receipts from exports of raw materials. Cooperating with the EU is clearly the preferred option, and not only for structural reasons. The power of the energy oligarchs is waning, and there are mounting calls to normalise relations with Europe in the name of a shared historical and cultural heritage.

According to Sergey Karaganov, an influential analyst, “Russia has no alternative to political and social rapprochement with Europe. We wouldn’t be Russians without Europe.” That necessity has already pushed Russia into taking surprising steps, as it did at the NATO summit in Lisbon and in condemning the Katyn massacre [1940 massacre by Soviet secret police of Polish officers and intelligentsia, now officially admitted by Russian parliament].

The upcoming presidential elections in 2012 will almost certainly see Putin pitted against Dmitri Medvedev, who has made opening up to the West one of the guiding principles of his presidency. From this angle, Putin’s volte-face merits close attention: in fact, the EU could become common ground rather than a dividing line between the two candidates.

What the EU stands to gain is not only the huge opportunities of the Russian market, but also the prospect of abating the rivalry over Eastern Europe and containing Russia within the framework of “normal” economic and political competition.

Most importantly, however, this would be a way of keeping Russia from inexorably slipsliding towards the Chinese alternative, which would push the global axis further east. Sceptics are right in urgining to read the fine print closely: there’s a very real risk of getting permanently burnt. But as the ups and downs of the Nord Stream and South Streamgas pipelines go to show, if EU countries insist on trying to handle Moscow on their own, they are bound to get hurt. Europe has a good hand now, and we shouldn’t be afraid to sit down and play at the Bear’s table – provided we make the rules.

Translated from the Italian by Eric Rosencrantz