Putin meets with EU, restates Syria stance

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BRUSSELS -- Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on Friday added to recent signals that Moscow is slowly distancing itself from the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, its longstanding but now severely weakened ally.

Asserting that Russia's main goal is to avoid chaos, Mr. Putin restated Russia's position that Syria's civil war could be resolved only through talks between the parties involved. But he insisted that "we aren't a defender of the current Syrian leadership," and said Moscow wants "a democratic regime in Syria based on the expression of the people's will."

He made the remarks at a joint news conference in Brussels with European Union leaders at the end of mostly fruitless talks centered on quarrels over energy and trade at the headquarters of the 27-nation bloc.

European nations are themselves divided over what to do about Syria but have increasingly tilted toward providing at least diplomatic support for Mr. Assad's opponents.

Russia has been the Syrian government's main backer since an uprising against Mr. Assad began in 2011 and, along with China, has used its U.N. Security Council veto to block resolutions that would have imposed penalties on Syria. But a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official said recently that Mr. Assad's government could lose its struggle for survival, and that Moscow was making contingency plans to evacuate citizens from the country.

At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov said in an interview with Russia Today, a government news organization, that Moscow was still rejecting appeals from other countries to help persuade the Syrian leader to flee.

Mr. Putin described Russia's policy, which has put it at odds with Washington and also Arab nations that support Mr. Assad's opponents, as intended to avoid mayhem. "We will do what we can so that there will be order in Syria," he said. "Whatever changes are occurring in Syria, we would not like to see the same chaos there which we are seeing in other countries in the region."

Mr. Putin's talks in Brussels focused mainly on energy, an issue of far more immediate importance to his own hold on power in Russia, where earnings from natural gas exports to Europe are a central pillar of an economic and political system built around state control of natural resources.

Mr. Putin pressed the EU to exempt the natural gas behemoth Gazprom from rules aimed at promoting greater competition in the energy market. But he won no favors for the company, Russia's biggest.

Russia is Europe's main external energy supplier, and disputes over natural gas have dominated discussions between Moscow and the bloc for years. Friday's talks yielded no significant progress, said a EU official briefed on them. While the visit to Brussels produced no breakthroughs, it did avoid the angry polemics of some previous meetings. "We've had worse summits," the official said.

Mr. Putin, who started his third term as president in May after taking a four-year break to serve as prime minister, dropped the combative language that has characterized previous appearances in Brussels. At the news conference's end, he threw his arm over the shoulder of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. The two men had earlier sparred over EU energy regulations that Mr. Putin described as "discriminatory" but that Mr. Barroso defended as applying to all countries, not just Russia.

The bloc has demanded that Gazprom open its export pipelines that run through member countries to other gas producers.

Mr. Putin complained that European energy regulation violated an earlier accord on Russia-EU economic relations, a claim the Europeans rejected. "It creates confusion and undermines confidence in our mutual work," he said ahead of talks with Mr. Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, which represents the member states' governments.



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