Low expectations for meeting in Minsk

By bne IntelliNews August 26, 2014

Ben Aris in Moscow -


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian peer Vladimir Putin are due to sit down in Minsk on August 26 for their first formal meeting since the fighting in eastern Ukraine kicked off. Expectations for a peace deal are low, but what exactly can each side put on the table to try to end a conflict that is killing thousands and smashing to pieces the most productive part of the country? 

The goals of both sides are pretty clear. For Ukraine, any deal has to start with a ceasefire followed by the withdrawal of Russian support for the insurgents fighting the Ukrainian army and pro-Kyiv militias.  

This should be the easiest bit to agree on. The fight is not going the separatist's way; the rebels have steadily been losing ground in the face of a renewed onslaught by Kyiv's forces. At the same time, the endemic support for Russia in the region is evaporating in the face of the mounting casualties and destruction being rained down on residents. 

To save face, Russia would likely demand the right to send more humanitarian aid into the region. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced on August 25 that a second such convoy is already being prepared. Another Russian demand is likely to be an amnesty for all separatist fighters so that it is not seen to be leaving its proxies in the lurch. 

For his part, Poroshenko needs peace as soon as possible as the economy is flat on its back and he needs to start an Augean stable-sized reform program. Ukraine is one of only two countries in the former Soviet Union that has yet to recover its 1991 level of GDP. (The other is Kyrgyzstan.)

Much more difficult will be to reach agreement over Crimea, and Ukraine's future relations with the EU and Nato. 

Moscow got into this fight as it has two extremely important strategic assets in Ukraine: the main pipeline carrying gas exports to Europe and Russia's only warm water naval port at Sevastopol. There are few countries in the world (the US the least of them) that would be willing to lose control over its major energy and military assets without a fight. 

Of the two, as far as the Kremlin is concerned the naval port is now secure after Russia annexed Crimea in March. However, no sovereign nation will ever willingly concede territory to a neighbour unless forced. That said, the consensus in Europe seems to be that the Crimea is lost. If Poroshenko is ready to concede this, then rhetoric will turn to the "eventual" return of the peninsula.

A workable-fudge over Ukraine's possible membership of the EU and Nato will also be hard. Putin has repeatedly expressed alarm (rightly or wrongly) over Nato expansion, and this cuts to the core of the current showdown. 

On the one hand is the principle of self determination. Every country should have the right to decide how to run its economy and which partners it wants to tie up with. Ukraine has clearly decided to move westward and adopt European values. 

On the other hand there are the demands of realpolitik. Small or weak countries ignore the interests of their larger more powerful neighbours at their peril. Finding a workable deal with Russia will depend on how successfully Ukraine can strike a balance between these two extremes. 

The Germans, which are leading Europe's effort to resolve the crisis, have said repeatedly that neither Nato nor EU membership are on the cards for Ukraine. However, the Kremlin wants stronger assurances than that. 

The problem is that neither the EU nor Nato can sign a piece of paper saying "never"; that would defy the principle of self determination for Ukraine. Kyiv has to have the right to apply, even if rejection is a forgone conclusion. Professor Mark Galeotti at New York University suggests that both institutions could fudge the issue by ruling out a Ukrainian application for "technical reasons" for a few years, and this might be acceptable to the Kremlin. 

That still leaves the problem of how to organise trade relations between Russia, Ukraine and the EU. An increasing number of commentators (albeit still in the minority) have pointed out recently that the decision by the EU to offer an exclusive deal to Ukraine that precluded any sort of partnership with Russia was naive. 


German Chancellor Angela Merkel has softened her tone on the eve of the meeting in Minsk. "I want to find a way, as many others do, which does not damage Russia," she said on August 23. "We [Germany] want to have good trade relations with Russia as well. We want reasonable relations with Russia. We are depending on one another and there are so many other conflicts in the world where we should work together, so I hope we can make progress."

Importantly a delegation from the EU will attend the talks in Minsk, including Brussels' foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, trade commissioner Karel De Gucht, and energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger, so there is no reason why the three-way trade talks cannot thrash out a special regime to govern tariffs. Indeed, the attendance of the EU officials is a climb down by Brussels from its previous us-or-Russia offer to Ukraine. Ukraine's now-deposed president Viktor Yanukovych suggested three-way talks in November, as the row cranked into life, only to see it rejected out of hand. 

Moreover, a new element has been introduced into the discussion on trade. Ukraine has already signed an EU free trade deal (DCFTA) which expressly precludes Ukraine's membership of Russia's Customs Union. However, this week the EU hinted that while Ukraine can't join the Customs Union, it may be able to join the Russian-lead Eurasia Economic Union that will replace the CIS trade club at the start of 2016. 

A second plank of restraining Ukraine's momentum towards the West is Russia's insistence on some sort of federalisation, giving more autonomy to the regions, especially those in the east. This would allow Russia to build up relations with the friendlier bits of Ukraine, rather than the whole country, and would also stymie the full accession of the country with the EU. 

It looks like Kyiv might concede on this point too, after Merkel called for it to consider a federal solution to end the fighting. That would be a big concession to the Kremlin. Lavrov has echoed the call for federalization in the run up to the Minsk summit.

The last issue is gas. Russia will be looking for transit guarantees from Kyiv, but that issue will become moot should the EU halt its efforts to block Russia's proposed construction of South Stream - its planned pipeline to bypass Ukraine altogether. The thornier issue is the row over Ukraine's outstanding gas bill, and the price it is supposed to pay Russia for gas. The gas war died down over the summer as demand fell, but with temperatures already dropping, the friction is likely to restart soon. 

Striking a deal will be hard. Russia's Gazprom claims Ukraine still owes $5bn from the start of the year. Ukraine has pumped some 15bn (cm) into storage ready for winter, but analysts estimate that it still needs another 10bn cm. That will cost it just under $2bn however, and Kyiv will struggle to pay its bill, regardless of what the price it ends up agreeing with Moscow (the various figures being thrown around run from $285 - $485 per 1,000 cm). 

There is no easy solution. Kyiv can make any agreement it likes with Russia, but still has the problem of where to find the money. Last week, the government asked the International Monetary Fund to accelerate the next two tranches from its $27bn Stand-by Programme and increase the overall size of the package. However, that will require a whole new set of negotiations with the international lender. 

Merkel said on August 25 Ukrainian “decentralisation”, a deal on gas prices, and Ukraine’s “trade relations” with Russia are elements that could bring about an accord, but deliberately played down expectations. At best, observers are hoping for a deal that will end the bloodshed and destruction and set out a road map for remaking relations between Russia and Ukraine. 

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