Since the emergence of the Russian Empire as a continental power in the time of Peter the Great, Europe has been wondering: how should we live with this large and formidable neighbour, which is careful to preserve its ascendancy, stingy with its reassuring gestures and periodically overwhelmed by sudden excesses of warlike fervour?

A year ago, on the pretext of defending the self-proclaimed republic of South Ossetia, Russian troops invaded Georgia. In May, Russia boycotted talks on the Eastern Partnership between the EU and six former Soviet bloc states — on the basis that the EU was attempting to establish new "spheres of influence." Recently, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin threatened to go to war with any state that dared to compromise the independence of of pro-Russian breakaway republics. Finally, at least once a year, Moscow makes use of its right to veto decisions of the NATO-Russia council or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), making it clear that any opposition will result in the suspension of natural gas supplies.

In dealing with Moscow, the European Union tends to respond in an equivocal or piecemeal fashion. Torn between the need to sustain good relations for its security, an obligation to maintain heating gas supplies, and a desire to condemn abuses and crimes that shock public opinion — Europe is struggling to adopt a clear and firm policy. It as though Europe has accepted as inevitable Winston Churchill's contention that Russia is "a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." However, Russia – just like China – would prefer to deal with determined negotiators, even if they are hostile, rather than indecisive ones. So should the Union up the ante in talks with Moscow? Yes, when it is necessary. It would get more respect. I. B-G.