Ben Aris in Moscow -
There was little concrete progress in bringing about a ceasefire in the conflict ravaging eastern Ukraine, following a two-hour tete-a-tete between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko behind closed doors at a regional summit held in the marble-clad presidential palace in the Belarusian capital on August 26.
Instead, the most important thing to come out of the summit, which included the heads of the members of the Customs Union and a top-level EU delegation, was that the EU appears to have abandoned its us-or-Russia stance on Ukraine's trade relations and has agreed to tri-party talks between Russia, Ukraine and the EU on trade issues going forward.
But before the economic problems can be dealt with there needs to be peace, and a deal to end the fighting remains out of reach. Ukraine's Poroshenko said a "roadmap" would be prepared to agree to a ceasefire to end the fighting as soon as possible.
"A roadmap will be prepared in order to achieve as soon as possible a ceasefire regime which absolutely must be bilateral in character," Poroshenko said in a statement after his talks with Putin.
The main sticking point is that Russia continues to deny its direct involvement in the fighting, despite multiple reports of the presence of regular Russian army forces operating inside the territory of Ukraine that appeared on the same day as the Minsk summit. This leaves Putin in a position where he cannot formally sign a peace deal on a conflict he denies he is involved in.
Poroshenko said Putin accepts the principles of a peace plan for Ukraine, but the Russian leader insisted that only Kyiv can reach a ceasefire deal with the pro-Moscow separatists. "This is not our business," Putin said of any ceasefire plan. "This is Ukraine's business."
"[Russia] can only help to create an atmosphere of trust for this important and necessary process… We in Russia cannot talk about any conditions for the ceasefire, about any agreements between Kyiv, Donetsk, Luhansk," he said, referring the two rebel regions.
Poroshenko added that there was no indication from the Russian side that a quick way to end to the fighting could be found.
The meeting followed formal consultations held in the context of the Customs Union, a Russian-led trade group with Kazakhstan and Belarus that's a rival to the EU. Thus the summit was also attended by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazerbayev and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who hosted the event and appeared to be enjoying himself. The wider talks were devoted to questions of interaction between the Customs Union and Kyiv after Ukraine signed a free trade and association pact with the EU in March.
The Putin-Poroshenko meeting became the first negotiations between the presidents of the two countries. The two leaders had a brief less than a 10-minute-long meeting in Normandy last June that was held in the presence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.
Tensions remain high
Nato warned yet again that the Russian military has moved artillery units manned by Russian personnel inside Ukrainian territory in recent days and was using them to fire at Ukrainian forces last week. This was followed by reports that 10 Russian paratroopers had been captured by Ukrainian forces inside Ukraine. The Russian military authorities admitted their men were inside Ukraine, but claimed they had simply "got lost."
In Minsk Putin did not directly address the issue of the lost soldiers but tacitly recognised it: "I haven't received a report from the defence ministry and the general staff yet, but the first thing I have heard is that that they were patrolling the border and may have found themselves on the Ukrainian territory," Putin said.
Other reports also surfaced on the day of the summit in Minsk of regular troops operating in Ukraine. Geoffrey Pyatt, the US ambassador to Ukraine, said in a Twitter post: "The new columns of Russian tanks and armor crossing into Ukraine indicates a Russian-directed counter-offensive may be underway."
The invasion hype continues, but as Professor Mark Galeotti of New York University pointed out in his Stolypin column for bne: if Russia were to invade, it would be massive, sudden and devastating.
Chris Weafer, CEO of Macro Analysis, suggests instead that all these military movements are political and designed to keep the pressure on Kyiv rather than any sort of preparation for an invasion.
"The time for a full military invasion has probably passed," Weafer tells bne. "Winter is coming. If it was going to happen, then it would have happened by now. All this military material being moved about on the Russia-Ukraine border is more about keeping the pressure on Kyiv."
The lost soldiers were particularly embarrassing for Putin, as the president claimed in Minsk that Russia couldn’t start peace talks on the Ukraine conflict as Russia was "not party to the fight" and it is an "internal affair." Russia has constantly claimed it has no men or materiel on Ukrainian territory, despite evidence to the contrary.
Since mid-August, Nato has received multiple reports of the direct involvement of Russian forces, “including Russian airborne, air defence and special operations forces in Eastern Ukraine,” said Oana Lungescu, a spokeswoman for Nato, according to reports.
“Russian artillery support — both cross-border and from within Ukraine — is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces,” she added.
Trade talks progress
Despite the lack of concrete progress toward a peace deal, the presence of a top-level EU delegation was a major step forward. In the runup to the conflict following the failure of the EU to persuade former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to sign up to its trade deal in November, the ousted president suggested three-way talks between Russia, Ukraine and the EU to find a compromise, which was rejected by Brussels out of hand. A growing number of analysts say that the EU's decision to offer Ukraine an us-or-Russia deal was naïve. The presence of the EU officials in Minsk suggests that a tri-party solution to the conflict is now on the table.
In his public remarks before the formal Custom Union session got started, Putin concentrated on the economic aspects of the conflict, and the cost to Russian and CIS trade in particular. Putin argued that Ukraine's decision to sign an Association Agreement with the 28-nation EU would lead to huge losses for Russia, which would then be forced to protect its economy.
"We once again drew the attention of our partners both European and Ukrainian ones to the fact that the implementation of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU is fraught with considerable risks to the Russian economy," Putin pointed out.
Thus, putting the whole trade issue into trilateral discussions is a big step forward in solving the economic aspects of the confrontation.
"We had an opportunity once again to formulate our concerns [on trade issues], and we agreed that we would intensify the work of the trilateral working group consisting of Russia, Ukraine, and EU representatives and do our best before September 12 to formulate and present proposals relating to Russia's and Customs Union's concerns I spoke of", Putin told reporters after the formal Customs Union session, which included Poroshenko and the EU delegation.
Poroshenko met with top EU diplomat Catherine Ashton in a private meeting following the summit. Ukraine has promised to have parliament ratify the EU free trade and association pact in September before general elections are held in October.
The participants in the Minsk summit decided to continue negotiations on settling the situation in Ukraine in the same format, Lukashenko said at the close of business on August 26.
"The Kazakh president's proposal on continuing the negotiations on Ukraine in today's format [the Belarusian-Kazakh-Russian Customs Union members, Ukraine and the EU] has been supported," Lukashenko said in summing up the summit's outcomes.
Gas war back on the agenda
Following a summer lull, as temperatures in Central and Eastern Europe start to fall noticeably a potential war between Russia and Ukraine over gas supplies is back on the agenda. Putin said he had agreed with Poroshenko to restart the energy dialogue between Russia and Ukraine. "We believe, just as President Poroshenko, too, that it is essential to resume our dialogue on energy, including gas-related problems," Putin said in comments to the press. This matter is currently "in a deadlock", "but all the same it is necessary to discuss it", Putin added.
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