Russia sent its humanitarian convoy across the border, bound for the city of Luhansk, on Aug. 22, arguing that the Ukrainian government had unnecessarily delayed the convoy's customs clearance process. The convoy is all part of the negotiations for Russia. Kiev has declared that it will not attack the convoy, constraining the Ukrainian military's ability to carry out some of its operations in the region and increasing the Kremlin's leverage in discussions over the future of eastern Ukraine.
Sanctions and Natural Gas
The Russian economy is already feeling the effects of Western sanctions. Investment in Russia has dropped by half, and credit to the Kremlin's top firms has been restricted. Indeed, Putin will personally attend the negotiations in Minsk in hopes of avoiding any further European sanctions. In mid-September, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev will present his draft budget for next year, and the budget has to take into account the impact of sanctions.
European leaders, including attending representatives from the European Union, Belarus and Kazakhstan, are also looking for an advantage ahead of the talks. European governments, and especially Germany, have repeatedly cited de-escalation in eastern Ukraine as the most important goal of negotiations between the two countries. Still, the composition of the EU delegation to the Minsk talks signals that the European leadership intends to use the meeting as a forum to address some of its own immediate concerns regarding the Ukraine crisis.
Besides EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger and Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht are scheduled to attend the talks. De Gucht's attendance highlights European concerns about Russia's ban on EU food exports, a ban that has had a significant impact on food producers in countries such as Poland. More important, Oettinger's presence indicates that one of Brussels' most pressing agenda items will be the ongoing natural gas cutoff to Ukraine. The cutoff has not yet affected European supplies, but with the winter months ahead, many European governments fear that a prolonged cutoff will lead Ukraine to siphon off natural gas bound for European markets. Consequently, Merkel, who will be visiting Kiev on Aug. 23, will likely emphasize to Ukraine's leaders that Brussels' continued political and financial support hinges on Kiev's willingness to help Europe avoid an energy crisis — and thus its willingness to deal with Russia.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's position in the negotiations is weakening. With parliamentary elections likely taking place in late October, the Kiev government now has only a small window to negotiate with Moscow before Ukraine enters the tumultuous post-election period of constructing a coalition government. Moreover, as Russia's natural gas cutoff enters its third month and as the weather cools, pressure is mounting for Ukraine to come to at least a temporary deal to restart natural gas imports and ensure that Europe's own supplies are not cut off. Ultimately, in order to keep receiving political and financial support from the European Union, Kiev must demonstrate that it is committed to finding a resolution to the conflict.
Seeking Another Partner
In previous negotiations, Ukraine has looked to the European Union and especially to countries such as Germany as mediators that could improve Ukraine's negotiating position. There are new indications, however, that Kiev is worried about Brussels' ability and willingness to serve as an effective advocate for Kiev's interests.
As European concerns about energy and trade grow, there is more pressure on the European Union to prioritize its own relationship with Russia during trilateral negotiations over the future of Ukraine. Fearing for Brussels' commitment to Kiev's side, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Aug. 22 that he believes the only effective format for talks is one involving the United States in addition to the European Union and Russia. Washington will not be formally involved in the Minsk talks, however, indicating that Brussels and Moscow will be well-positioned to begin eliciting some concessions from the Ukrainian leadership.
Expectations for the Minsk Talks
On the battlefield, despite making military gains in the east, taking military control of Luhansk and Donetsk, which are currently under separatist control, remains a top priority and ongoing challenge for Kiev's campaign in the region. At the same time, the Kremlin is continuing its efforts to weaken Kiev and prevent Ukraine from becoming a viable candidate for further integration into Western institutions. Its main means of doing so are increased deliveries of arms, equipment and personnel for the separatists and the use of economic and energy pressure against Ukraine.
Ukrainian, Russian and EU leaders consented to talks in Minsk in order to address their short-term goals in the Ukraine crisis. Long-term, complex issues, such as Russia's active support for the armed separatist movement or the future status of eastern Ukraine, will probably be discussed but not resolved, especially because immediate issues like the status of Russia's humanitarian convoy could influence the trajectory of the crisis. Neither Russia nor Ukraine currently has an incentive to address the larger questions.