Russia and Ukraine said yesterday (19 August) that their presidents would meet together with top European Union officials in Belarus’s capital of Minsk on 26 August to discuss their conflict over Ukraine, which has plunged relations to an all-time low.
The meeting will put Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko in the same room for the first time since a passing encounter in France in June, though Ukrainian officials were at pains to say no face-to-face meeting there between the two men was planned as yet.
>> Read: Ukraine, Russia discuss peace plan
Nonetheless, with a Ukrainian military offensive making inroads against pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian officials were upbeat that the Minsk meeting could be a diplomatic opportunity for Kyiv, and provide a forum for bringing fresh diplomatic pressure to bear on Putin to end Moscow’s support for the rebels.
“Today a clear diplomatic roadmap is taking shape. We can come up with new approaches that will allow us to talk about a move from war to peace,” Valery Chaly, Poroshenko’s top foreign policy aide, said.
Putin will be accompanied at the talks by Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko and Kazkahstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose countries also belong to the Russia-led Customs Union which the pro-Western Kyiv leadership spurned in favour of EU integration when it came to power in February.
The EU team will be headed by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
A statement from Poroshenko’s administration said the meeting would discuss issues related to implementing the landmark association agreement Kyiv signed with the EU, energy security and “stabilising the situation in Ukraine”.
But Chaly clearly suggested that Poroshenko would press Putin to end what he views as Moscow’s support for, and arming of, the rebels who now seem increasingly in disarray. Moscow denies Kyiv’s charges that it is allowing supplies of heavy weaponry and sending Russian fighters there.
Rebel losses in the past few days appear to have increasingly pushed Putin into a tight corner.
If he remains silent and allows their defeat, he risks losing face before the “hawks” at home, and the Russian people who largely applauded Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March.
But by trying to maintain pressure on Kyiv’s pro-western leaders through further support for the rebels, Putin risks wider economic sanctions from the United States and European Union.
“I hope that this direct format of concrete discussion on many questions including ending aggression (will have results) because no trade and economic questions can be considered without this key question (being addressed),” Chaly said.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said only that the leaders “will discuss relations between Ukraine and the Customs Union and there will be a number of bilateral meetings.”
The Minsk meeting will form part of a hectic round of diplomatic meetings for Poroshenko in the next two weeks around Independence Day celebrations on Sunday, when he hopes to be able to celebrate battlefield successes against the separatists.
Poroshenko will host a key visit to Kyiv by Angela Merkel on Saturday, when he will expect the German Chancellor to voice strong support for his policy to crush the separatist rebellions.
Separately, Poroshenko’s website said he had accepted an invitation by the EU to visit Brussels on 30 August, and would attend also a summit of the US-led NATO alliance in Wales in early September, when he may meet U.S. President Barack Obama, his aides said.
“We cannot say for certain yet, but I think that it would be correct if a meeting between the presidents of Ukraine and the United States took place at this summit,” Chaly said.
In the meantime, Ukrainian media reported the incursion yesterday of some 40 heavy military vehicles from Russian territory into Ukraine, entering the city of Luhansk.
Asked by EurActiv what the Commission expected to achieve at the 26 August meeting in Minsk, Commission spokesperson Chantal Hughes said that Commission President José Manuel Barroso was unable to respond to the invitation of Russian President Putin to attend, but the EU executive would be represented by Vice President h Ashton, Vice-President Günther Oettinger, responsible for energy, and Commissioner for Trade Karel de Gucht.
“The purpose of the Commission is threefold […]: to discuss the implementation of the EU-Ukraine Association agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, to explain once again why we believe these agreements are positive for the region, secondly to explore the possibility of re-launching energy talks possibly in a trilateral format [EU-Ukraine-Russia] in September […] and finally to discuss the wider political security concerns and to reiterate the EU’s concern regarding the security and humanitarian situation in Eastern Ukraine”.
Asked why the meeting was at the invitation of the Russian President, although it took place in Belarus, she said this was a meeting of the Customs Union, and that the issue had been discussed and agreed with Ukrainian President Poroshenko.
The crisis in Ukraine erupted after its former President Viktor Yanukovich cancelled plans to sign trade and political pacts with the EU in November 2013 and instead sought closer ties with Russia, triggering protests that turned bloody and drove him from power.
Moscow annexed Crimea in March following a referendum staged after Russian forces established control over the Black Sea peninsula in the biggest East-West crisis since the Cold War.
Pro-Russian militants control buildings in more than ten towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their uprising on 6 April. On 11 May pro-Moscow rebels declared a resounding victory in a referendum in Donetsk and Luhansk, which the West called illegal and illegitimate.
The fighting has escalated sharply after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered on 1 July an assault on separatists. The EU resolve to punish Russia strengthened after the downing in Ukraine on 17 July of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane, killing all 298 people on board. 194 of the passengers were from the Netherlands.
Western leaders say pro-Russian rebels almost certainly shot the airliner down by mistake with a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile. Moscow has blamed Kyiv for the tragedy.
- 23 Aug.: Angela Merkel to visit Kyiv;
- 26 Aug.: Poroshenko to attend Customs Union summit in Minsk;
- 29 Aug.: EU leaders hold summit in Brussels;
- 30 Aug.: Poroshenko to meet with EU leaders in Brussels;
- 4-5 Sept.: Poroshenko to attend NATO summit in Cardiff.
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