* EU scraps traditional dinner with Putin
* Relations with Russian president strained over Ukraine
* Russia tries to improve image before Olympics
By Adrian Croft
BRUSSELS, Jan 16 The European Union has
cancelled a traditional dinner with President Vladimir Putin at
an EU-Russia summit in Brussels later this month to show there
is no "business as usual" after a tug-of-war with Moscow over
Putin will visit Brussels on Jan. 28 for his twice-yearly
summit with the EU's top officials, despite relations being
under strain. The summit is usually over two days but will be
over in one this time, without the dinner on the night before.
Tensions arose late last year after the EU accused Russia of
putting undue pressure on Ukraine to reject closer ties with
Brussels and forge tighter relations with Moscow instead. Kiev
stunned the EU in November by pulling back at the last minute
from signing a wide-ranging trade and cooperation agreement.
The summit will now consist of a few hours of talks between
Putin, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso,
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and their key
advisers, followed by a working lunch, EU diplomats said.
One diplomat said the EU had suggested the change in format
as "a way to be able to speak a bit more frankly, to have a more
strategic discussion, instead of the normal theatrical summit."
The change was also partly to show "it is not business as
usual", he said.
Moscow and Brussels traded accusations of interference in
Ukraine's affairs after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich
backed out of the trade and cooperation agreement with the EU.
Instead it signed a deal to get financial assistance and
cheaper gas from Russia, its former Soviet overseer.
The volte-face led to weeks of pro-EU demonstrations in Kiev
and a crackdown by Yanukovich against protesters.
Yanukovich's supporters pushed a sweeping law through
parliament on Thursday intended to tighten rules on
While EU officials have repeatedly made their displeasure at
Russia's actions clear, Europe remains strongly dependent on
Russia for energy, while trade between the EU and Russia
totalled 336 billion euros in 2012 - important to both blocs.
At the same time, the EU has opened a World Trade
Organization dispute with Russia over allegations it illegally
protects its carmakers and has opened an anti-trust probe of
Russian energy giant Gazprom.
The EU will use the summit with Russia to talk "honestly and
frankly" about problems in the relationship, including raising
human rights issues, the diplomat said.
In an attempt to improve Russia's image on human rights
before hosting next month's winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin has
freed members of the Pussy Riot punk group, dropped charges
against Greenpeace activists arrested in a protest over Arctic
oil drilling and released former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky,
one of his best-known opponents, after 10 years in prison.
Asked if Russia was ready to discuss Ukraine with EU
leaders, Vladimir Chizhov, Moscow's ambassador to the EU, said
this week: "I am pretty confident President Putin will be
perfectly ready to discuss any issue that might be of interest
to presidents Van Rompuy and Barroso."