On 7 August, Georgian troops invaded the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which is – like the other disputed province of Abkhazia - officially part of the territory of Georgia, but in fact autonomous and largely under Russian influence. Tensions in both regions have been increasing since Kosovo declared independence last February.
Russia responded with massive military action, invading part of Georgia and prompting fears in the West that it may seek to use the occasion to topple Mikheil Saakashvili, the pro-Western Georgian president, and turn Georgia into a vassal state like during Soviet times. According to Russian officials, about 2,000 civilians have died in South Ossetia. Both sides accused each other of genocide.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, helped broker a cease-fire agreement between Russia and Georgia, in which Russia agreed to withdraw all its troops to their pre-war positions by 22 August. On 25 August, Russia announced that its withdrawal was complete, but the West kept pressuring Moscow for a full withdrawal.
Despite reports from UN representatives that Russian soldiers are preventing Georgians from returning to their homes in South Ossetia, France, the current holder of the rotating EU Presidency, said it will refrain from proposing sanctions on Russia (EurActiv 29/08/08).
Under an EU-brokered ceasefire (EurActiv 29/08/08), Russia and Georgia were supposed to return their forces to prewar positions. But Moscow has interpreted one of the agreement's clauses as allowing it to set up security zones, which are now marked by Russian checkpoints.
Echoing the French tone of appeasement, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa told reporters on Sunday (31 August) that "there will be no proposal (at the summit) to apply sanctions to Russia. The French Presidency was quite clear about it. I am personally also in favour of this point of view".
On Friday (29 August), Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivaylo Kalfin said his country was against imposing sanctions on Russia. In his words, dialogue with Russia and not sanctions and isolation would help resolve the Georgia crisis.
A tougher stance
However, a number of EU countries, among which Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden and the UK, are pushing for a tougher line with Moscow. In a strong-worded article published in the Observer , British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for a "root and branch review" of relations with Russia. Brown indicated that Russia's membership of the G8 group of big industrial nations could be frozen. He also warned of the dangers of energy dependency on Russia (EurActiv 1/09/08).
Both French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have been reportedly carrying out intensive telephone diplomacy, urging Poland not to call for sanctions at the summit in Brussels.
Closer Georgia ties
While imposing sanctions on Russia appears to be a remote option, EU leaders are expected to offer more humanitarian, economic and moral support for Georgia and signal that normal relations with Moscow are impossible with Russian troops violating a cease-fire agreement.
French and Belgian officials also have said that EU leaders may name a special envoy to Georgia to ensure that the ceasefire is observed. They said the EU might send a high official - perhaps French President Nicolas Sarkozy - on a shuttle mission to the region.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said the EU summit was a sign of a strong global support for Georgia. "Russia today has found itself more isolated than the Soviet Union ever was," he said in a televised statement. Some EU countries had indicated a desire to invite Saakashvili to the summit as a guest, but many rejected the idea. However pro-Western Saakashvili appears, he is also seen as responsible for triggering the current crisis by ordering the shelling the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali on 7 August.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, speaking on Russian television on 31 August, warned European nations against echoing tough US policy on Russia and "serving someone else's political interests". Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia may consider introducing economic sanctions against unfriendly nations, but would prefer to avoid this.