Though Belarus is part of a Customs Union with Russia and Kazakhstan, it is cooling toward Moscow. As Minsk hosts Russia-Ukraine talks, much is at stake in the old Soviet orbit.
MINSK — Amid growing tension between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists, presidents Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin are meeting for a summit today in Minsk, Belarus, where top leaders from the European Union, the host country and Kazakhstan will mediate the talks.
As Poland's influence has waned since the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict, new regional players have stepped up on the political scene. Belarus and Kazakhstan, both in the Eurasian Customs Union with Russia, intend to weigh in on efforts to de-escalate the conflict in Eastern Europe.
Polish opposition leaders heavily criticized the absence of a Polish representative during the Aug. 17 talks in Berlin between the Russian, German, French and Ukrainian foreign ministers. But those who believe that Polish national interests are being harmed are wrong. If Putin agreed to continue negotiations with the French and Germans — as initiated in June during the D-Day commemoration in Normandy, France — it was only to buy some time. While discussing a possible ceasefire, he was fueling the Donbas rebels and looking for a pretext to send a regular army to eastern Ukraine.
Putin is well aware of the prevalent anti-American sentiment in Germany, and he counts on German political and economic elites eager to make a deal on ruling together over Europe. The U.S., on the other hand, is a thorn in his side, so he continues to try to drive a wedge between Americans and the EU.
But these attempts are futile. Germany won't consider breaking its alliance with the U.S., and Russia's actions in Ukraine have only strengthened NATO unity and resolve.
Matters don't look so bright on the other side either. Growing resistance in Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia have encouraged Belarus to speak up. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko orchestrated today's meeting, and his efforts have been applauded by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Many layers of diplomacy
The summit in Minsk evolves around three main issues: Ukrainian ambitions to cooperate with the EU and its consequences for the Customs Union, energy security, and possible solutions for ending the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Even though no breakthrough is expected in Minsk, the fact that Belarus and Kazakhstan are involved in the talks guarantees more constructive negotiations and less baring of teeth.
Russians fear that the accession of their neighbor to the EU would have fatal consequences on their economy. Brussels and Kiev have been trying to mitigate those apprehensions, but without success. European officials have even suggested creating a tax-free trade zone between the EU and the Eurasian Customs Union. The idea has been enthusiastically embraced in both Minsk and Astana, Kazakhstan's capital.
Lukashenko realizes that his country is a potential target of Russian expansion, a sign that Putin's faithful vassals feel threatened by Kremlin ambitions and by the doctrine that Russia believes gives it the right to intervene in territories inhabited by a Russian-speaking population.
Several recent decisions by the Belarus head of state demonstrate an estrangement in the Russian-speaking family. In April, Lukashenko disregarded a Russian boycott of Ukraine's post-Maidan government and met with Oleksandr Turchynov, who was then acting president of Ukraine. The Belarus president told his counterpart that Russia already had a plan of invasion on Ukraine in May 2013. Lukashenko's subsequent participation in the presidential inauguration of Petro Poroshenko and the introduction of a five-year prison sentence for Belarusians who join the separatists in Donbas are two other examples of Minsk distancing itself from Moscow.
Last week, Belarus lifted restrictions on commerce with Ukraine and offered its oil pipelines to provide its neighbor with oil supplies from the West. In addition, Belarus, like Kazakhstan, has imposed no food sanctions on the EU or U.S. like those in Russia.
Belarus and Kazakhstan advocate for a peaceful solution to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. They are therefore supporting the diplomatic attempts of Poroshenko, but in a discrete manner. Lukashenko appears heartened that, despite EU sanctions against Belarus, three high-ranking EU politicians, including EU High Commissioner Catherine Ashton, are attending the talks in the country's capital city. It's a good opportunity to talk about reactivating EU-Belarus relations, which would further reduce the latter's dependency on Moscow.