BRUSSELS (AP) -- As the European Union struggles to respond to what it perceives as Russia's aggressive meddling in Ukraine, Italy and Poland are staking their claims to provide the bloc's new foreign-policy chief -- kicking off a race in which the candidates' views of Moscow will likely be decisive.
Incumbent Catherine Ashton's term as the 28-nation bloc's top diplomat ends in October. The position has gained profile in recent years with Ashton taking the lead in six-power negotiations on Iran's nuclear program that also involve the United States.
Italian Premier Matteo Renzi's office said Friday it officially nominated Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini for the position, while the Polish government advertised its foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, as "just right" for the task.
Several eastern European governments reject Mogherini, a 41-year-old center-left politician who has been a minister only since February. They think she lacks experience and is too Moscow-friendly because of Italy's close business ties with Russia and the country's reliance on Russian energy supplies.
Sikorski is esteemed by many eastern Europeans for his outspoken and critical stance toward Russia, but that makes EU leaders fear his appointment would make reconciliation with Moscow still harder.
The 51-year-old, Poland's conservative foreign minister since 2007, established a pragmatic working relationship with Moscow despite his distrust of Russia. Since Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, however, Sikorski repeatedly called on NATO to set up a permanent base in Poland, which Moscow would consider a provocation.
Overall, Mogherini's chances seem higher than Sikorski's, also because the bloc's center-right leaders already secured other top EU jobs.
Potential compromise candidates reportedly include Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans and EU Development Aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva of Bulgaria, though they haven't been nominated by their governments.
A summit of the EU's 28 leaders on Aug. 30 is set to pick the new top diplomat, who will take office in November with the rest of the new EU Commission.
Vanessa Gera in Warsaw and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed.
Follow Juergen Baetz on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jbaetz
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.