Little chance to end fighting, as Putin and Poroshenko prepare for Minsk meeting

A view of Minsk. Photo: Minsk travelguide

The Belarussian capital. [Minsk travelguide]

Divided by mistrust and mutual recrimination, the Russian and Ukrainian leaders will hold rare talks today (26 August) that offer only a slim hope of progress towards ending five months of separatist war in Ukraine.

Since Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko last met on 6 June in France, Ukraine has turned the tide of the conflict and largely encircled pro-Russian rebels holding out in two cities in the east of the former Soviet republic.

But the diplomatic crisis has only deepened, especially since the downing of a Malaysian airliner over rebel-held territory last month with the loss of 298 lives.

Ukraine accused Russia yesterday of sending soldiers across the border to open a new front, a charge that Moscow dismissed as the latest salvo in a campaign of misinformation.

Poroshenko expressed “extraordinary concern” at the alleged move, his press service said.

Russia has consistently denied arming or fighting alongside the separatists. Stung by US and EU sanctions against its finance, oil and defence sectors, it has hit back by banning most Western food imports, in a trade war that is hurting both the Russian and European economies.

With East-West tensions at their highest since the Cold War, Russian and NATO forces have both stepped up exercises in recent months.

Tuesday’s talks, expected to begin after 11 GMT in the Belarussian capital of Minsk, will include European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan, partners in a Russian-led customs union.

But expectations on all sides appear low, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel among those playing down any likelihood of a breakthrough to end the fighting, in which more than 2,000 people have been killed since April.

‘Complete pointlesness’

At a news conference on Monday, Russia’s Lavrov said the West must not expect Moscow to solve the crisis as if by magic, and suggested it needed to rethink its view of the conflict.

“I think that with regard to Ukraine, a recognition will come of the complete pointlessness of betting on supporting a civil war, of betting that Ukraine, by using its army, will defeat part of its own people and peace will reign in Ukraine,” he said.

In the latest twist in a protracted conflict, the Ukrainian military said a group of Russian forces, disguised as rebels, had crossed into southeastern Ukraine with 10 tanks and two armoured infantry vehicles. It said border guards had halted the column outside Novoazovsk, Ukraine’s most south-easterly point on the Azov Sea.

“This morning there was an attempt by the Russian military, in the guise of Donbass fighters, to open a new area of military confrontation in the southern Donetsk region,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told journalists.

Donbass is the name given to the industrialised and mainly Russian-speaking east of Ukraine, where two regions — Donetsk and Luhansk — have declared independence from Ukraine in an attempt to join Russia.

Lysenko later added that two tanks in the column had been destroyed and several members of “an intelligence-sabotage group” had been seized.

“The area is now blocked by Ukrainian troops,” he said.

Elections on 26 October

In the meantime, Poroshenko dissolved the Parliament and announced that early general elections would be held on 26 October. In an address to the Ukrainians, he said that 80% of citizens supported the need for early elections.

Indirectly responding to Western calls for political dialogue, Poroshenko said: “With whom shall we talk? Illegal armed formations can be treated only by force, until they lay down their arms.”

He said he considered the victory of Ukrainian forces in Eastern Ukraine and the victory of democratic reformatory forces in the Parliament as interrelated processes.

The President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko had a phone conversation with President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy, the website of the President of Ukraine announced.

Poroshenko expressed deep concern over the crossing of the Ukrainian border by Russian armored vehicles and the intention of Russia to send the so-called “humanitarian” convoy to Ukraine once again. The President of Ukraine urged the President of the European Council to take joint measures to stop the war in the center of Europe.

The parties agreed that the Ukrainian issue could become an object of special discussion by the Heads of States of the EU on 30 August.

Herman van Rompuy reaffirmed the readiness to meet with Petro Poroshenko on August 30 in Brussels to discuss the situation and the position of the EU in details.

According to the Ukrainian press, Poroshenko expressed his concern over an announcement by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov that Moscow would send a second humanitarian convoy to Eastern Ukraine. On 22 August a first convoy crossed the border without the authorisation of the Ukrainian authorities. 

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.

  • 26 Aug.:  Poroshenko to attend Customs Union summit in Minsk;
  • 30 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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