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That is due in part to concessions from the hard-liners. Before the Brussels summit, Polish President Kaczynski had complained that "the real decisions in this organization are being made between Berlin and Paris," and called the idea of a common policy toward Russia "laughable." But the more moderate Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk left for Brussels with an admonition for E.U. unity on his lips. "We want to lead the way," he said, "but we don't want to be radical." In the end, Kaczynski and the Baltic leaders came around to the widely held position that economic sanctions against Moscow would be pointless or even counterproductive. "Even the most hawkish E.U. members recognize the limits of potential sanctions," says Antonio Missiroli, director of studies at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre. "Their leverage is limited, and sanctions could backfire. Russia is not Zimbabwe."
Britain, whose relations with Russia have been in a chill since the 2006 murder in London of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, also took a robust tone after Russia's invasion of Georgia, though it was David Cameron, the Conservative opposition leader, who raced to Tbilisi in mid-August to blast the Russians while Brown vacationed uncomfortably in Scotland. British Foreign Minister David Miliband took the baton and traveled to Ukraine, another country deeply worried about Moscow's expansionist ambitions. Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, inhabited mostly by ethnic Russians and home to the Russian Black Sea fleet, is one of several areas with allure for Russian irredentists. (It was only in 1954 that Ukrainian-born Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev shifted administrative control over the Crimea from Moscow to Kiev.)
Not to be outdone by Cameron and Miliband, Brown argued in Brussels for a spirited response to Moscow. Along with several other leaders, he put his weight behind the suspension of negotiations over an often delayed E.U.-Russia partnership agreement intended to ease commerce and economic cooperation. "Yesterday was a strong demonstration of European unity in the face of Russian transgression of core international values," Miliband told TIME. "There was not only strong support for Georgia but a profound reassessment of the right way to deal with Russia. Europeans are committed to territorial integrity and rule-based governance, and these principles have been violated by Russia."
Moscow responded with cool disdain to the E.U.'s deliberations. The Russian Foreign Ministry called the results "sufficiently predictable." It deplored the suspension of the trade talks, but suggested that Russia had grown accustomed to "artificial obstacles on the path to this document." On the eve of the summit, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev told Sarkozy not for the first time that Russian troops intended to pull out of the buffer zones in Georgia proper, raising the possibility that the ultimatum for the suspension of talks would quickly be rendered moot. "The majority of E.U. countries have manifested a responsible approach and confirmed their intention to continue the partnership with Russia," the Foreign Ministry statement concluded.
Far from accepting that Europe is impotent in the face of Moscow's nonchalance, however, Sarkozy insists that the E.U. is charting a wise course between provoking Russia and upholding vital principles. "Is it a paper tiger that negotiates a cease-fire, gets a partial withdrawal and is the only body which can solve the situation and is able to help Georgia?" asked Sarkozy, who chaired the Brussels proceedings because France currently holds the presidency of the European Council. "We did not see the Berlin Wall fall, the end of the Soviet dictatorship and the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact to open another Cold War. I say we should keep our sangfroid."
If Russia keeps pushing, though, future crises may demand answers that go beyond mere words. The E.U stood on high principle last week, insisting that Russia cannot decide its neighbors' borders and foreign policies. But saying that doesn't make it so.
With reporting by Leo Cendrowicz/Brussels, Bruce Crumley/Paris, Eben Harrell and Catherine Mayer/London, Beata Pasek/Warsaw, Andrew Purvis/Berlin and Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow