The contest between the Kremlin and the west for influence in the volatile space between Russia and the European Union stepped up a gear yesterday when the EU launched a new effort to draw half a dozen countries away from Moscow`s orbit.

A summit of 33 countries in Prague brought the EU`s 27 governments together for the first time with the leaders of the post-Soviet countries of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus to inaugurate the so-called "Eastern Partnership".

The attempt to ringfence Russia`s clout in a region that Moscow views proprietorially as its "near abroad" has been triggered by the destabilising events of the past nine months, notably Russia`s invasion of Georgia last August and its gas war with Ukraine in January.

"This is only happening because Russia has annoyed everyone," said Michael Emerson, a Brussels analyst and former European Commission chief in Moscow.

Yesterday`s summit also coincided with a fresh bout of worsening tension, with Russia and the west engaged in tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats and spies over the past week, Moscow raging at Nato military exercises in Georgia starting this week and the west incensed at Russian assertion of border controls in Georgia`s two breakaway regions.

Senior Czech officials organising yesterday`s summit openly acknowledged that the eastern partnership was aimed at countering Russia`s influence in its backyard.

"Foreign policy is always about the projection of interests," said Alexandr Vondra, the outgoing Czech deputy prime minister. "You can project your interests, but you must give the respective countries the freedom to make choices."

Amid soaring tension with Russia, Georgia hailed yesterday`s event as a "step towards integration with Europe" and help in "securing the freedom to pursue our own path as a sovereign, democratic nation".

Another senior Czech official organising the summit said: "We`re not living in a vacuum. Russia might be hostile to the eastern partnership, but that`s their problem. They see the world through zero sum game lenses."

The policy launched yesterday breaks new ground by seeking to entice the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. The instability in Georgia, the recent unrest in Moldova, and the permanent feuding among Ukraine`s political elites all point to the formidable challenges for a policy that the European Commission describes as "a strategic imperative".

The new policy treats the six countries as a regional bloc, aiming to establish free trade areas between them and the EU, to tap their energy resources, and to promote human rights and democracy-building projects. But while the initiative is aimed at bringing the six countries in, it is also intended to keep them out. The declaration adopted yesterday was changed to call the six countries "east Europeans" rather than "Europeans" lest the latter description encourage applications to join the EU, as pushed by Ukraine and Georgia and opposed by western Europe.

Eastern clamour for visa liberalisation to make it easier to travel to the EU was also blocked, with the issue parked for the long-term.

By Ian Traynor, The Guardian