By Kenneth Rapoza
Vladimir Putin will meet with Ukraine’s new president Vladimir Zelensky next week during peace talks held with mediators France and Germany, Russian media reported on Friday.
Any sign of goodwill between Russia and Ukraine is good news for both countries, but is especially good for Russia. While U.S. sanctions are not expected to come off anytime in the medium term, France’s president Emmanuel Macron said this week that it was time for a détente with Russia. Macron was immediately pounced upon, with British media calling his comments “controversial” and The Chatham House, part of the British foreign policy establishment, called him “mistaken”.
Putin said at last month’s Russia Calling investor forum that he spoke with Zelensky by phone this fall after he assumed the presidency in a landslide win, calling him “sincere”.
His Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, told the Tass news agency today that the meeting would be “certainly useful.”
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter divorce since 2014 following the fall of the government of Viktor Yanukovych. At the heart of next week’s conversation will be the separatist movement in the Donbass region of Ukraine, with two cities declaring autonomy from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. Russia has been supporting ethnic Russian separatists in the region in their fight with Ukrainian military since the fall of that government. Putin indicated last month that he was not convinced the Zelensky government had a solution to the crisis there.
“We really want to understand how, after all the ambiguous, contradictory statements from Zelensky’s office, the Ukrainian leader sees a move towards the implementation of the Minsk agreement,” Lavrov said on the Russia-1 TV network this week.
The Minsk agreement was made under the previous administration of Petro Poroshenko. Part of the agreement centered around giving a vote to two Donbass breakaway republics, Donetsk and Luhansk, though Poroshenko believed a vote would ultimately lead them becoming officially autonomous, with the possibility of splintering off into Russia.
Crimea was once an autonomous part of Ukraine. Its government orchestrated a referendum to secede from Ukraine in March 2014 after Yanukovych’s ouster. Following results in favor of secession, Russia moved in and took it over.
The U.S. and Europe do not recognize Crimea as part of Russia. It is unclear if Ukraine’s new government will take that up as an issue. Crimea’s return to mainland Ukraine politics is not part of the Minsk accord.
Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France — the so-called Norman Four — meet in Paris on December 9. It will be attended by the presidents of the four countries.
Ukraine and Russia’s separation partially began because of a gas deal, with many locals upset over Yanukovych’s rejection of a European trade agreement in favor of cheaper gas from Russia’s Gazprom. Gazprom and Ukraine’s state-owned gas firm Naftogaz have been at loggerheads ever since, with ongoing lawsuits in The Hague and in Stockholm.
Natural gas consultations between Russia, Ukraine and the EU might take place next week as well, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak told Kommersant on Friday, one of Moscow’s biggest business dailies.
“The question is how to find solutions to the issues on the agenda. Primarily (Naftogaz) debt settlement and litigation,” Novak said.
Ukraine has been a traditional supply route for Gazprom gas into southern Europe. The imbroglio between the two countries led Gazprom to push through with two alternative pipelines, one with Turkey and the other with a consortium of EU companies, primarily German. State owned Naftogaz considers Russian transit as an integral part of its revenue stream. Russia’s move to choke off Ukraine as a source of its gas is a financial blow to Kiev.
Current contracts for Russia gas into Ukraine are good until December 31.
Gazprom suggested Naftogaz extend the existing contract or create a new one, but said a new one was subject to the canceling of all court claims in the Stockholm arbitration court, Kommersant reported today. Naftogaz is unlikely to agree to this.
Putin says Russia is ready to keep with its tradition of gas transit through Ukraine, but hedged by saying the current conditions were “unacceptable”, suggesting a long winter ahead and a long day for the Norman Four on Monday.