Monday

20th May 2019

EU, Russian leaders meet in Minsk for high-stakes summit

  • Minsk international airport: Leaders arrive on Wednesday after a week of shuttle and telephone diplomacy (Photo: El Bingle)

The future of Ukrainian statehood and the risk of escalation beyond Ukraine’s borders hang in the balance as French, German, Russian, and Ukrainian leaders meet in Minsk on Wednesday (11 February).

The event comes amid renewed fighting in east Ukraine - Kiev said 15 civilians died when Russian forces shelled the town of Kramatorsk on Tuesday, while Russia-controlled rebels blamed the deaths on Ukrainian forces in what they called a pre-summit “provocation”.

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  • Belarus: One of the most repressive countries in Europe is angling for better EU and US ties (Photo: Marco Fieber)

The year-old conflict has already claimed more than 5,000 lives.

The fear in Ukraine and among Russia-wary states in the EU is that France and Germany will push Ukraine to accept a ceasefire deal which undermines Ukrainian sovereignty by creating a new frozen conflict on its territory.

The office of chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday the EU offer is based on last year’s “Minsk protocol”: withdrawal of heavy weapons; withdrawal of Russian troops; creating a new buffer zone; sealing the Russia-Ukraine border; introducing monitors from the OSCE, a multilateral body; and granting Russia-occupied areas limited autonomy under the Ukrainian constitution.

Russia has indicated it wants the new ceasefire line to endorse its recent territorial gains, to post UN peacekeepers to the conflict zone, and for rebel-held areas to gain quasi-independence in a federal Ukraine.

The wider fear is that if Russia gets too much it will embolden Russian leader Vladimir Putin to pursue destabilisation beyond Ukraine - in Belarus itself, but also in Kazakhstan, and in EU and Nato members Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

If there is no deal at all, the stakes could get even higher.

The US and some EU states - including Poland and the UK - have said they reserve the right to deliver modern weapons to the Ukraine military.

But the Kremlin has warned that if they go ahead it would be seen as an attack on Russia itself.

“The Americans are trying to draw the Russian Federation into an interstate military conflict, to achieve regime change through the events in Ukraine and to ultimately dismember our country”, Nikolai Patrushev, Putin’s security chief, who is on an EU blacklist, said on Tuesday.

Dmitry Kiselev, a Putin propagandist who is also on the EU list, has in recent days and weeks gone further - invoking the risk of a nuclear confrontation.

For its part, the EU has threatened to impose further economic sanctions.

But if it goes ahead it could prompt an economic crisis in Russia. It could also fail to reach internal agreement, creating a rift within the EU.

Kotzias in Moscow

Greece, which has emerged as a leading sanctions critic since the election of a new far-left government in January, will, also on Wednesday, post its Russia-friendly foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, to Moscow.

Russia has dangled an offer of economic aid to Athens.

Its foreign ministry noted on the eve of Kotzias’ trip that Greece is also “interested in Russia’s new gas pipeline project called ‘Turkish Stream’ and plans for a gas hub at the Turkish-Greek border” - a potential revenue-generator for decades to come.

It said the talks will as well cover the Cyprus conflict, co-operation in transport and education, and celebration of the two countries’ “1,000-year old” orthodox Christian heritage.

Kotzias said in a tweet on Wednesday morning that: “We fully support the Minsk initiative. There is no other solution.”

The EU’s foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini also called the event “a chance not to be missed”.

France the same day indicated it is willing to make territorial concessions to Russia.

“We should not stray far from the September 2014 documents [the old Minsk protocol], but the real situation on the ground has changed to Ukraine’s detriment,” French foreign minister Laurent Fabius told AFP news agency.

First step

Meanwhile, Germany indicated it would settle for “a first step in the right direction”.

“If this can be achieved by means of a cease-fire and some linked political agreements, that would be an important step in the face of the threat of spiralling military escalation”, Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told press on Monday.

Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko himself noted on Tuesday: “I am going to Minsk to immediately, unconditionally and without any strings attached call for a ceasefire and launch a political dialogue”.

The US and Russian presidents also spoke by phone.

The US said in a statement that: “if Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine … the costs for Russia will rise”. Putin’s office noted: "We hope that common sense will prevail”.

But a meeting between Ukrainian and Russian delegates, as well as representatives of Russia-controlled Ukraine rebels and the OSCE in Minsk on Tuesday failed to reach agreement on the outlines of a new accord.

UK reserves right to arm Ukraine military

The UK has followed the US in saying that if diplomacy doesn’t stop Russian aggression in Ukraine then it might start arming the Ukrainian military.

Lukashenko angling for better EU ties

On paper still Europe’s biggest pariah, the Belarusian leader is keen to mend fences with the EU amid concerns on Russian aggression.

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