by Dish Staff
Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko met face-to-face in Minsk today, for the first time since June, to discuss the crisis in Ukraine and how to resolve it:
Putin devoted most of his opening remarks to trade, arguing that Ukraine’s decision to sign an association agreement with the EU would lead to huge losses for Russia, which would then be forced to protect its economy. Russia had been counting on Ukraine joining a rival economic union that it is forming with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Ukraine is set to ratify the EU association agreement in September. On the fighting that began in April between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russia separatists, Putin said only that he was certain the conflict “could not be solved by further escalation of the military scenario without taking into account the vital interests of the southeast of the country and without a peaceful dialogue of its representatives.”
Poroshenko would be unlikely to agree to Russia’s frequent call for federalization — devolving wide powers to the regions from the central government — but could agree to allow them to have some expanded powers. He also has spoken against holding a referendum on Ukraine’s joining NATO; Russia’s desire to keep Ukraine out of the alliance is seen as one of Moscow’s key concerns.
Just prior to the start of the talks, Ukraine announced that it had captured ten Russian paratroopers on its territory, proving that Russian forces have been deployed on the ground there. The Kremlin admits the soldiers are Russian but claims they ended up in Ukraine accidentally:
“The soldiers really did participate in a patrol of a section of the Russian-Ukrainian border, crossed it by accident on an unmarked section, and as far as we understand showed no resistance to the armed forces of Ukraine when they were detained,” a source in Russia’s defence ministry told the RIA Novosti agency. Ukraine said it had captured 10 Russian soldiers, though it did not state how they were caught. Weapons and fighters are able to cross the porous border freely, but until now there has never been confirmation that serving Russian soldiers were active inside Ukraine, despite repeated claims from Kiev and some circumstantial evidence.
To Ed Morrissey, this revelation is just another sign that Putin is preparing for all-out war:
For most leaders, this would provide enough of an embarrassment to force a halt in their strategies. Not Vladimir Putin, though. If anyone believes that Putin will slow his roll into eastern Ukraine just because he’s been caught red-handed with paratroopers on the other side of the border, think again. Putin has taken his measure of the West and thinks he can live with the economic pain for the short period of time in which sanctions will bite. Fall is coming, and with it the need for Russian gas in eastern Europe. Nothing in the past few weeks other than the lack of an all-out invasion to relieve the rebels gives any indication that Putin’s plans have been deflected to any significant degree. Don’t expect a few POWs to shame Putin into backing down now.
While the country is more stable politically since the May elections that brought Poroshenko to power, it remains in a tremendous military and economic crisis. … The more elections Poroshenko gets under his belt, the more legitimacy he hopes he will have, as Russian president Vladimir Putin effectively challenges his right to rule. In the last couple of weeks, Putin has appeared to retreat from his most vitriolic rhetoric regarding Ukraine, but the likelihood is that he will only reluctantly stand down from his ultimate goal, which is to keep Ukraine so destabilized that it cannot join NATO or be a fruitful economic partner of Europe’s.
Belarus, meanwhile, hopes to benefit just from hosting the talks:
[Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko’s iron-fisted internal politics haven’t changed but he has always remained open to overtures from the west despite his close ties to Russia, said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs and chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defence policy. “The geopolitical situation has changed and now Lukashenko doesn’t seem as awful as he did a year ago,” Lukyanov said. Because of its relatively neutral position with regard to both Russia and Ukraine, Belarus has become essentially the only place where leaders from both sides can meet without losing face. “Being a country that’s connected with Russia but can preserve fairly independent politics makes Belarus an important player between Ukraine, the EU and Russia,” Lukyanov said. “The EU is forced to relate to [Lukashenko] differently.”