Nato chief unveils new plan for eastern Europe
A summit in Minsk on Tuesday (26 August) failed to produce a breakthrough on the Ukraine conflict, while Nato announced a bold new plan for eastern Europe.
The event saw the leaders of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, which have formed a Customs Union, meet with the president of Ukraine and three EU commissioners, before the Ukrainian and Russian chiefs broke off for two-hour long talks.
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The modest outcome saw Russia and Ukraine revive a “Contact Group,” which is to meet in the coming days, most likely in Minsk.
They also agreed to hold minister-level talks, together with EU mediators, on trade in Moscow on 12 September and on gas in Brussels on 5 September.
The Minsk summit took place amid ever-escalating tension in east Ukraine: Ukrainian forces captured 10 Russian paratroopers on its territory the same day, while Reuters reported that “green men” - paratroopers with no state insignia, but believed to be Russian - have arrived in the Ukrainian village of Kolosky.
Poroshenko said the Contact Group will discuss: the possibility of a ceasefire; the closing of the Ukrainian-Russian border; and the freeing of “illegally detained Ukrainian citizens” in Russia.
Putin continued to claim Russia has no involvement in the fighting.
On the captured Russian paratroopers, he said: “I have not yet received a report from the [Russian] ministry of defence, the general staff. But the first thing I heard is that they were patrolling the border, that they could have been on Ukrainian territory [by mistake]”.
He added that he has no influence on pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine: “It [a ceasefire] is not our business, it is an internal affair of Ukraine itself”.
He also threatened to close Russian markets to Ukrainian agriculture and to impose higher tariffs on Ukrainian goods in general if it ratifies an EU free trade pact in September.
“We understand our European partners; they have already developed the Ukrainian market rather well, and would like to get hold of whatever is left and squeeze out everyone else”, he said.
For their part, the EU delegates underlined the need to help Ukrainian civilians and to clinch a gas supply deal before the winter.
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said: “We’re in the summer now. But the winter is coming and there are places [in east Ukraine] that don’t have any power, don’t have the capacity to provide heating”.
EU energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger said Ukraine and Russia should aim for an "interim" deal on gas prices to prevent a gas cut-off to Ukraine and to EU transit customers.
Nato speaks out
Going into the talks, Poroshenko, who shook Putin’s hand in a symbolic gesture, said: "In Minsk at this meeting the fate of the world and Europe is being decided”.
His statement, on the grave implications of Russia’s attack on its neighbour, was echoed by Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
The Nato secretary general told The Guardian, a British daily, in an interview also on Tuesday the alliance is planning to set up permanent new bases in eastern Europe.
He indicated the Nato summit in Wales next week will see the creation of a rapid reaction force to counter any Russian action against Nato countries such as Estonia or Latvia.
“The point is that any potential aggressor should know that if they were to even think of an attack against a Nato ally they will meet not only soldiers from that specific country but they will meet Nato troops”, he said.
Asked whether the force will have “permanent” facilities in the east, Rasmussen said: “The brief answer is Yes … Our eastern allies will be satisfied when they see what is actually in the [new Nato] readiness action plan”.
Nato and Russia in 1997 reached a “basic agreement” on the non-deployment of permanent new bases in Nato's ex-Iron-Curtain member states.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on a recent visit to Latvia the treaty is still in force.
But for others, such as Estonian president Toomas Ilves, Russia’s war on Ukraine has made a mockery of the pact.
He tweeted on Wednesday the 1997 accord stipulated “no permanent bases in new members, ‘in the current & foreseeable security environment’.”
He added that the “onus is [on Russia] to prove [the] security environment of 1997 has NOT changed. That after [Russian invasions of] Georgia, Ukraine, Crimea, we're still in lala-land”.