As concerns grow about a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia Direct interviewed experts to discuss the implications of the Putin-Poroshenko meeting in Minsk.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton at the Minsk Summit. Photo: RIA Novosti
The August 26 meeting between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko, is hardly likely to be a game-changer for Ukraine, even if the two conflicting sides came up with the decision to establish a contact group on the peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ukraine.
The conflict is far from resolved given the nearly constant news reports of Russian incursions – whether planned or accidental – into Ukraine. Just hours before Putin and Poroshenko met, for example, there were reports of Russian paratroopers being captured behind enemy lines.
And, in the days after the meeting, there were reports of Russian armored units and soldiers crossing the Ukrainian border and opening up new fronts in Ukraine. All of this, of course, has aggravated the problem, resulting in more distrust between Russia and the West.
To make sense of these sometimes conflicting reports, Russia Direct interviewed experts to discuss how the Putin-Poroshenko meeting will change the situation on the ground in Ukraine.
Mary Dejevsky, Columnist at The Independent, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham
I would describe the talks as more positive than negative, starting with the fact that they took place at all and that neither Poroshenko nor Putin walked out. There also appears to have been preliminary agreement to talk about a roadmap to an agreement and talks on resuming Russian gas supplies to Ukraine – both can be seen as concessions on Russia's part.
And I think that this suggests one aspect that has been generally missed: Russia has as much of an interest in an end to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine as Kiev does, probably even more. There is a general assumption in the West that Russia's objective is, if not to take over Eastern Ukraine, then to preserve its disruptive influence there.
I'm not sure this is what Putin wants at all. The longer the conflict goes on, the more pressure there could be from public opinion in Russia to “finish the job” and anything less than a takeover of Eastern Ukraine will make Putin looks weak at home. He needs a face-saving formula as much as anyone, and a promise of “federalization” or “devolution” - or whatever it comes to be called - would be part of it.
The big problem, of course, is how far Putin can 'deliver' the rebels in the East. He denies Russia controls them, and there may be more truth in that than many in the West believe. Putin was not able to get them to secure the Malaysian plane crash site, for instance. It is also forgotten that when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reached a perfectly sensible settlement, it failed to stick because neither side was able to honor it.
Kiev couldn't persuade people occupying buildings in Kiev and western Ukraine to vacate them, and Moscow couldn't get the occupiers and fighters in the east to stop, so the whole thing fell to pieces within hours.
The rebels' military position is weaker now. This is more evidence - despite the border-crossings - that Russia wants this to be over, but without a humiliation that would make difficulties for Putin at home.
Pavel Verkhniatskyi, Director of the Kiev-based Center for Operational Strategic Analysis (COSA)
The August 26 meeting between the presidents of Ukraine and Russia indicates that they are ready to talk, but are still reluctant to come up with a compromise. Thus, the Minsk meeting may be seen as a failure because there are no real results.
The most important thing is the reluctance of Russian President Vladimir Putin to talk about the war. He tried to shift the meeting agenda to economic issues and, particularly, to the negative consequences for Russia as a result of the Ukraine-EU association agreement. Yet, Ukraine’s president won’t change his policy of integration with the EU.
When Putin had to talk about the war, he used long-time clichés about Russia’s alleged non-involvement in the civil war in Eastern Ukraine. After the Crimea incident and numerous cases of crossing the Ukrainian-Russian border by Russian soldiers, few can be surprised by such statements. All this exacerbates the problem, explaining why Putin enjoys zero credibility.
Putin seems to wait for Kiev’s total surrender and is not going to use his heft to influence the rebels. As it was with Crimea, the Kremlin policy is to assure the world that it is not involved in the conflict and at the same time to conduct a military-political shadow operation. Take Putin’s alleged misunderstanding about the Russian paratroopers [captured] within Ukrainian territory. His explanation “they lost their way” looks like his response to Larry King about the sunken Kursk submarine - “It sank” - 14 years ago.
The only person who benefited from the meeting seems to be Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko who was in the spotlight of the world community. The fact that Poroshenko proposed calling a contact group on Ukraine in the format Russia-Ukraine-OSCE in Minsk indicates that there is still trust between the presidents of Ukraine and Belarus.
Paul A. Goble, American analyst, former special adviser on Soviet Nationality Issues and Baltic affairs to U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, former CIA analyst, former senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents in Minsk was neither the Munich some had predicted nor the occasion for a resolution of the conflict many had hoped for. But that does not mean it was unimportant.
On the one hand, it underscored that Kiev has no intention of being pushed into an accord that sacrifices its interests in restoring its full sovereignty over its territory. And on the other, it showed that Moscow wants to continue to act in Ukraine in ways that will keep the European Union and the United States from imposing more sanctions.
There are three other ways in which the Minsk meeting was important as well. First, it opened the way for future conversations. Even if the sides are as far apart as Russia and Ukraine, talking is better than not talking, despite the fact that the fighting will continue. Russia has in fact increased its military involvement over the last few days, and Ukraine shows no signs of backing away from its deployment of forces against the insurgents in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Second, it demonstrated that the conflict in Ukraine is not going to be resolved unilaterally by either European or Eurasian arrangements. The EU and more generally the West sees Moscow and its Eurasian partners as too important to ignore, but the Minsk meeting showed that even Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Union cannot solve this conflict without involving the West. That too will play a major role in the way things will develop from now on.
And third, the Minsk sessions showed that Ukraine, whatever its weaknesses and limitations, intends to be the key player in its fate. It is not about to sit still for any agreements made between Moscow and the West in which it is not a participant, and it will fight. That makes this conflict potentially more dangerous - not less - than others in the post-Soviet space, even in the wake of the Minsk meeting.
Jack Snyder is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University
Putin has expressed doubts that Ukraine is a real nation, separate from Russia. In the past few months, his support for military action inside Ukraine has gone a long way towards creating the Ukrainian patriotism that he has doubted exists. It is in Russia's interest for Putin to make the concessions that are needed to extricate him from this counterproductive adventure.