Ukraine’s crisis took president Petro Poroshenko and Russian president Vladimir Putin to Minsk, Belarus on Tuesday for what was billed as a meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Eurasian Customs Union of which Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan are founding members. The “elephant in the room” was the on-going war in the east of Ukraine, and the driving reason for Ukraine’s Poroshenko to travel to Minsk.
Minsk is the capital of Belarus and President Alexander Lukashenko, a dictator who has been in office for 20 years, agreed to host the parties in a neutral setting. Upon arrival, Poroshenko and Putin shook hands in what was a short but awkward moment. The last time the two men were together was during June D-day observances in Normandy.
Representing the European Union at the summit were European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and several other EU representatives. Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev was there to represent the CIS and the Customs Union.
Ukraine’s Poroshenko challenged the forum to adopt his peace plan as a way to bring the crisis in Ukraine to a close. That brought an almost immediate reaction from pro-Russian separatists in the east who vowed never to accept Ukrainian authority.
Poroshenko pledged to work with Russia to stop fighting and find a political compromise to the Ukraine crisis if the Russians would negotiate in good faith. Speaking to the assembled representatives, Poroshenko said his plan would be “an effective means to stop the bloodshed” and to begin rebuilding the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine.
Poroshenko raised some eyebrows when the said “the fate of the world and Europe” might well be decided there in Minsk. Agreeing that a truce was essential to solving the crisis in Ukraine, Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev urged that the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan be allowed to provide joint humanitarian aid in cooperation with Kiev. Ashton’s spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, said that the EU was interested to see if the summit could build the kind of momentum needed for a “new political solution to the crisis in Ukraine.”
When it was his turn to speak, Russian president Vladimir Putin defined his view of the Ukraine crisis as a result of Ukraine’s decision to sign the EU Association Agreement. Contradicting himself from earlier statements about Ukraine, Putin said, “Russia has always respected the sovereign choice of any nation to organize its political life and make all sorts of unions, both military and economic, and we will continue to do so.”
Putin emphasized that Ukraine is “deeply integrated into the CIS economic space” and in his words spoke of Ukraine as “an inseparable part of the largest economic complex in the world, which took ages, rather than years or decades, to create.” He said that Russian capital resources make up almost 32 percent of Ukraine’s banking system.
Putin went on to say that 30 percent of Ukrainian exports were to Customs Union trading partners. He said that Russia was willing to “significantly step up our cooperation,” but then questioned how those levels could be continued if Ukraine continued on the path to EU partnership. Surprisingly, he admitted that sanitary norms and technical regulations were higher in Europe, and expressed concern with how those would negatively impact Russia’s economy. He said that adoption of those higher standards would “close the Ukrainian market for our goods, for goods from the Customs Union and Russia.”
Putin accused the EU of using the crisis in Ukraine to hurt Russia and the Customs Union, declaring the European Union has cultivated the Ukrainian market already and “would like to get hold of whatever is left and squeeze out everyone else.” Putin estimated that the damage to the Russian economy, should Ukraine begin EU integration, would be in the billions.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had earlier expressed hope for a truce, but at the end of the day, there was no peace or end in sight to the Ukraine crisis. Tensions remained high with each side listing demands from the other. Poroshenko demanded that Russia stop supplying the pro-Russian rebels. Putin demanded that Ukraine cease movement toward the EU, and allow Russia to meet with representatives of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine’s east. Perhaps it was a start as the Ukraine crisis allowed Poroshenko and Putin to meet face to face in Minsk.
By Jim Hanemaayer