Terror attacks overshadow EU foreign ministers meeting

BRUSSELS - EU foreign ministers meet Monday with the deadly Paris attacks and the jihadist cell uncovered in Belgium dominating the headlines as they try to resolve sharp differences over ties with Russia strained to breaking point by the Ukraine crisis.

The Paris assaults by three French citizens linked to various jihadist groups in Syria and Yemen and the major Belgium counter-terror operation have concentrated EU minds on the need for much more cooperation to combat the threat posed by returning 'foreign fighters.'

Ministers will take no decisions but discuss a range of options as the bloc prepares for a special summit next month dedicated to fighting terrorism, EU diplomatic sources said.

Against this backdrop, they will also look at the situation in Libya -- "a semi-forgotten crisis which has got even worse," according to one EU diplomat.

The European Union on Saturday welcomed an accord between Libya's warring factions to work toward a unity government but warned there was still a "long way to go" to bring peace to a country on the brink of collapse.

The main agenda item Monday -- a review of relations with Russia -- could be problematic and a potential minefield for EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini.

Problematic meeting for Mogherini

Mogherini circulated a discussion paper for the meeting which asked ministers to consider "possible elements for selective and gradual re-engagement" with Moscow, citing areas of shared concern such as Syria, Iraq and the threat posed by the Islamic State jihadist group.

Crucially, it suggested making a distinction "between the Crimea-related sanctions and sanctions related to the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine."

The EU would accordingly focus on securing full implementation of the Minsk peace accords backed by Russia in September and meant to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine which has cost some 4,800 lives.

For critics, however, such wording comes dangerously close to a tacit acceptance of Russia's March 2014 Crimea annexation, which President Vladimir Putin insists will never be reversed.

The fact the paper was widely leaked to the press last week added insult to injury for those already wary of Mogherini who faced charges of being soft on Moscow as Italian foreign minister before she took the EU post.

"We are not in the mood to be shifting stance at this stage," one EU diplomatic source said, saying of the paper that "it was not terribly helpful that it was leaked."

To give ground now, the diplomat said, would "risk sending the wrong message... in effect rewarding Putin for his behaviour" even as he continued to flout basic norms of international conduct in Ukraine.

"It is not possible to decouple EU-Russia relations from what is happening in Ukraine," said another diplomat.

An EU source said there appeared to have been some misunderstanding over the paper.

"It is not about changing policy at this point," the source said, recalling the official position on Crimea -- that it must be returned to a fully sovereign Ukraine.

EU President Donald Tusk has put Russia top of the agenda for the EU leaders summit in March when they must decide what to do with the first Ukraine sanctions against Moscow coming up for renewal.