President of the Center for Systems Analysis and Forecasting Rostislav Ishchenko speaks about prospects of the forthcoming meeting of the Customs Union (CU) countries with EU and Ukrainian leaders in Minsk in an interview with Rossiya Segodnya
The presidents of the three Customs Union (CU) countries – Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – are due to meet with the leaders of the European Union (EU) and Ukraine represented by Petro Poroshenko.
Indicatively, the sides have different views about the meeting even during the preparation stage. President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso said he was invited to attend a meeting of the Customs Union leaders with Ukraine. Initially, Russian and Ukrainian sources unanimously treated this meeting as trilateral but in the last few days Moscow has emphasized that the meeting will be held in the CU-EU format while Ukraine’s place will be somewhere on the summit’s sidelines.
Who invited whom and for what?
This interpretation of the format is not just a game; it will determine the summit’s agenda and prospects of its success. Yet these prospects are vague, to put it mildly.
The CU leaders are going to meet with politicians whose status is far from clear. Poroshenko is only legitimate to some extent and Russia has not ultimately recognized him as Ukraine’s president. Moreover, he does not fully control the situation even on those territories that formally recognize his authority.
Barroso and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton are leaving their jobs and will be replaced by other eurocrats before the end of the year. Both were personally involved in organizing a coup in Ukraine and have actively supported Kiev’s policy of Russophobia and genocide of Russians in Ukraine.
In effect, fully-fledged and responsible leaders (Vladimir Putin, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Alexander Lukashenko) will meet with officials who have never honored their commitments even when they had real opportunities of doing so. This time the EU and Ukrainian representatives will only be able to make promises but have no levers for implementing them.
Moreover, the issue that is being given such weight by Brussels and Kiev (cooperation with the CU after Ukraine signs the EU association agreement) is not worth a pin, and not only because Barroso, Ashton and Poroshenko are pathological liars and are not authorized to discuss seriously any options of cooperation with the CU. The point is that the EU is no longer interested in this agreement. It is not rushing to ratify it and takes only ostentatious moves like unilateral opening of its markets to Ukrainian goods that are unfit for them by definition.
Ukraine is simply unable to comply with this agreement because its commitments to implement virtually all EU norms and rules (from toys for pigs to the width of railway tracks) will cost it at least $15 billion in the first year alone (expenses for the following years are unknown) even in the estimate of thrifty Nikolai Azarov (Ukraine’s last legitimate prime minister). Now with the civil war raging, industry in ruins, empty coffers and disappearing gold and currency reserves, Kiev will need external financing of up to at least $50 billion per year, if not more. The need for mounting external financing will exist as long as the Ukrainian state is there.
Sanctions and counter-sanctions
We know that EU countries are concerned over their losses from Russia’s retaliatory sanctions and high risks of discontinued gas transit via Ukraine in winter. These risks are real. Despite Kiev’s refusal to pay for the consumed gas Gazprom promptly paid for gas transit in July and announced this for all to hear. Now Ukraine will have no legal excuse to accuse Russia of stopping gas supplies and violating its commitments.
In other words, Moscow is preparing in advance irrefutable evidence of Kiev’s liability for discontinued gas transit and the EU is fully aware of this. Obviously, this is why EU Commissioner for Energy Gunther Ettinger (albeit also outgoing) plans to take part in the meeting.
Whereas Barroso and Ashton may wish to discuss the association agreement (only for personal reasons – with a view to improving their reputation that was heavily smeared by the Ukrainian crisis), the leading EU countries (Germany, France and Italy) are interested in talking about specific issues, such as sanctions, gas transit and settlement of the Ukrainian crisis as an essential condition for resolving the first two issues. However, unlike these eurocrats, the countries will not take part in the summit. So, the EU position on Russia will not be as benevolent as it could have been if the presidents of the leading states represented the EU.
Putin and Novorossiya
Incidentally, President Vladimir Putin should not expect unanimous support from his CU partners, either. Nazarbayev’s position has been reserved and markedly neutral throughout the Ukrainian crisis. Lukashenko is bargaining with everyone, which has become a tradition for Belarus in the past decade. Formally he is also neutral but sometimes he makes strong pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian statements in a bid to get some trade and economic benefits from Russia. So, Putin has no grounds to expect vigorous support from his CU colleagues.
In other words, the issues that interest Russia cannot be resolved at the summit by definition. Moreover, the Russian president will be creating a PR opportunity for second-rate European politicians and their buddy Poroshenko.
Therefore, the only reason why Putin should take part in this event is to assuage the fears of his CU allies who are worried over a sharp turn in Russian foreign and economic policies (Kazakhstan’s worst nightmare is the prospect of a close Russian-Chinese military, political and economic union).
However, he will have to stand alone against the joint EU-Ukrainian front that relies on Kazakhstan’s sympathetic neutrality and Belarus’ self-serving conduct. Under the circumstances, Russia’s negotiating position is bound to be subjected to consolidated pressure and public perception of the summit may not be the best for the Russian president.
Only a major change on Novorossiya’s frontlines may redress the situation. Self-defense fighters have practically stopped the onslaught of Kiev’s punitive troops and are dealing successful local counter strikes. If they continue like this, they may be able to corner Kiev by winter but their successes are so far too minor to fundamentally change the course of the forthcoming meeting.
However, if self-defense fighters break through the front and start a serious offensive with resolute goals (to threaten Kharkov, for example), the anti-Russian game in Minsk would stop and the players would have a new agenda to deal with. The question is whether self-defense fighters are ready (morally and physically) for a decisive onslaught in such a small span of time.