Updated at 11:30,08-12-2016

Putin heads to Belarus, EU in first foreign visit

President Vladimir Putin this week travels to Russia's main EU partners Germany and France as well as isolated Belarus for his first trip abroad since returning to the Kremlin for a historic third term.

The three-nation tour will mark Putin's return to the world stage as Russia's president and number one foreign policy mover despite unprecedented opposition protests against his 12-year rule. The destinations themselves are highly symbolic: ex-Soviet and autocratic Belarus which is still very much under Moscow's sway, and two powerful EU nations that are the key economic partners of Putin's Russia. Putin conspicuously avoided the chance to make the United States his first destination with his no-show at the G8 summit at US President Barack Obama's Camp David residence earlier this month.

On Thursday, the Kremlin chief will visit Minsk for talks with the Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko. From Belarus Putin will travel to Berlin for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, followed by an ice-breaking meeting with new French President Francois Hollande on Friday.

The Syria crisis is set to loom large over the talks in Berlin and Paris as the West seeks to persuade Russia to take a harder line against President Bashar al-Assad amid escalating violence. But many analysts see Putin's visit to Belarus, whose leader has been called "Europe's last dictator" by Washington, as a calculated snub to the United States amid tensions over missile defence and the Russian protest movement. "First and foremost, this visit demonstrates Putin's priorities during his new presidential term -- he's refused to go the G8 but is going to dictatorial Belarus," said independent Belarussian analyst Ales Lagvinets.

Russia, Belarus and the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan agreed late last year to create a Eurasian economic union, an EU-style project championed by Putin to bring together ex-Soviet states. "He accords Belarus a privileged status in this new, post-Soviet entity which Putin is putting together and which Russia is preparing to head," said Lagvinets.

Putin said last year that it would be desirable for Russia and Belarus -- which is battling a severe economic crisis and ostracised by Europe for a crackdown on the opposition -- to merge into one country. Putin's visits to Germany and France demonstrate his intention to continue investing in bilateral relationships with EU heavyweights Berlin and Paris rather than the European Union as a single bloc, analysts say.

"He's enjoyed very comfortable ties with former French presidents and with the current and former German chancellors," said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Naturally, he's going to Paris and Berlin because these are important energy policy partners and main realpolitik actors," she said.

A fluent German speaker, Putin spent five years as a KGB agent in Dresden under communism and once confessed he felt nostalgia for the former East Germany.
Over the years he has developed a working relationship with Merkel although the two are not known to have a close personal rapport, compared to her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder who was a guest of honour at Putin's May 7 inauguration. Commercial ties between the two countries have grown strongly in recent years despite criticism of Russia's human rights record. Trade and energy as well as Syria and the eurozone crisis are expected to top the agenda at the talks with Merkel and German President Joachim Gauck.

A similar agenda is expected to frame the talks in Paris where Putin will seek to develop a rapport with Hollande although analysts are sceptical the socialist French leader will yield to the Russian strongman's charms. "They are unlikely to become friends, Hollande is too democratic although Putin could play on his anti-Americanism," said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the Institute of the USA and Canada think tank.