Yekaterinburg (Russia): The European Union and Russia launched a full day of talks Tuesday dominated by a far-ranging dispute over the Syrian crisis and Brussels' decision to lift its arms embargo on President Bashar al-Assad's foes.
EU dignitaries said Russia's human rights record would also come under the microscope at the talks in the industrial Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to build on his rapport with the visiting EU duo of President Herman Van Rompuy and Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso when he hosted a dinner late yesterday ahead of the full day of talks.
Moscow is also hoping to eventually secure visa-free travel to Europe and win a release for its natural gas giant Gazprom from new rules that forbid it from owning pipelines and other facilities in EU states.
Yet no other issue has been as divisive as the European Union's strong backing of the Syrian opposition and Putin's continued support for a regime with which Moscow has been allied since the Soviet era.
"The subject of Syria will be one of the priority areas at the talks," Moscow's EU envoy Vladimir Chizhov said ahead of the meeting.
Russia's Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu even went so far as to suggest that the move to arm Syrian rebels untied Moscow's hands to supply arms to Assad heretofore banned by international treaties.
The Geneva 2 conference is is meant to get Assad's camp and the main opposition group involved in direct talks for the first time.
It is less clear how the two sides will resolve their growing differences over the powerful role enjoyed by Russian natural gas giant Gazprom in the European market.
Russia accounts for about a third of the 27-nation bloc's gas supplies -- a dominance that has allowed Gazprom to dictate prices for many years.
The dispute culminated in an EU decision in September to launch a probe into Gazprom's pricing strategy.
Putin's foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov called the action against Gazprom "discriminatory".
But the tensions could soar even higher when EU leaders raise the issue of Russia's rights record under Putin's 13-year rule.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Brussels was particularly concerned about a new crackdown on non-governmental organisations with foreign funding. They are now forced to wear a "foreign agent" tag.