Crude comments about rape by Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to overshadow a summit with European Union leaders Friday which is already burdened by concerns over Moscow's human rights and energy policies.
Putin was due to meet leaders of the 25 EU states in the southern Finnish city of Lahti following intense media coverage over admiring remarks he made concerning Israel's President Moshe Katsav who faces sexual harrassment charges.
"He turned out to be a strong man, raped ten women! I never would have expected it of him. He has surprised us all, we all envy him!" the Kommersant newspaper quoted Putin as saying at a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Moscow on Wednesday.
Katsav faces possible charges that he sexually harassed several former females employees. Israeli police have recommended he be indicted for rape, molestation and wiretapping.
This is not first time Putin's crude comments have impacted on an EU meeting. In 2002, he caused a stir with a diatribe against radical Islam at Brussels press conference where he told a French reporter to get circumcised in Moscow, where the operation would be done in such a way as to make sure that "nothing grows back."
Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, asked the Russian president to meet EU leaders for an informal dinner to focus on Europe's sometimes troubled political and economic ties with one of its leading oil and gas suppliers.
Vanhanen vowed to raise human-rights and democracy issues with Putin and ask for an independent inquiry into the killing of renowned Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
But some diplomats accused Vanhanen of being diplomatically naive in calling the meeting.
The encounter, they warned, will expose deep divisions within the EU on how best to deal with Moscow and provide the Russian leader with a high-profile stage to fend off criticisms of Moscow's human rights record.
There are fears that Putin will use the summit to rage against Georgia. Tbilisi recently detained and then expelled several Russian army officers it accused of being spies. Moscow responded with fury, cut all transport and postal links with Georgia and organized mass expulsions of Georgians living in Russia.
Buoyed by years of record energy prices, the Putin government is showing less and less inclination to accomodate EU concerns.
In a move that caused brief energy shortages across Europe, Russia cut off gas supplies earlier this year to Ukraine. The move starkly highlighted both the EU's excessive dependence on Russian energy and Moscow's unreliability as an oil and gas supplier.
Since then, Russian authorities have seemed intent on driving out foreign energy giants from the country.
There have been clashes with Royal Dutch Shell over the oil company's alleged environmental breaches in the far-east Sakhalin project. The decision of Gazprom, Russia's state gas monopoly, to reject foreign partners in the giant Shtokman natural-gas project in the Barents Sea is also seen as a prime example of Moscow exerting total state control over its energy sector.
Whatever the rhetoric, the EU and Russia are tightly bound in economic terms. Russia is the EU's fifth-largest trading partner while the EU is Russia's main trading partner, accounting for more than 50 per cent of its trade.
About 25 per cent of all European natural gas comes from the country. This figure is set to double when a new Russian-German Baltic Sea gas pipeline begins operation in 2010. (DPA)