Moscow plays nice with free trade as Ukraine sounds alarm over Russian troops

Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has announced a breakthrough in negotiations with Russia over Kyiv’s duty-free trade deal with the European Union – a much needed ray of hope in the ongoing war.

But the announcement came amid scandal, as Ukraine offered what it called irrefutable evidence that the Kremlin has continued to send troops to stoke the war in the eastern Donbas, despite the Minsk peace agreement in February.

The timing of these two recent developments brings Western leaders to a fork in the road: either heed the alarm bells being sounded by Ukraine’s Defence Ministry or give Russian President Vladimir Putin the benefit of the doubt in light of its new concessions.

“The capture of these allegedly Russian servicemen will not change the situation at all. Those who believe Russia is involved in Donbas already believe this, Russia officially will fully deny any responsibility and disavow these people, and the West right now is primarily interested in preventing a full disintegration of the cease-fire and a summer offensive. So they won’t make much noise about these Russian officers,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Russian political and military analyst.

Felgenhauer said that the West is not” selling out Ukraine,” but rather trying to prevent further escalation. He said the recent visit to Moscow by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland was meant to “bait Putin into not launching an offensive.”

Moscow has been just as clever in its recent moves, said Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta Centre for Political Studies.

Moscow’s decision to back down over Ukraine’s free trade pact with the European Union was not so much a breakthrough as a strategic manoeuvre on the part of the Kremlin in order to appease the international community, he said.

Ukraine has spent more than a year wrangling with Moscow to get some leeway in its free-trade pact with the EU, and the deal was previously postponed under pressure from the Kremlin, which threatened to cut off Ukraine’s access to Russian markets.

This time around, however, there were no calls for changes to the deal, no threats, and no demands for postponement.

At trilateral talks in Brussels on May 18, Russian Economic Minister Alexei Ulyukayev didn’t even bring up the issue of postponement – an unexpected about face.

“This is just a tactic, It doesn’t mean that Russia will not create problems in negotiations further down the line. They definitely will. But right now Moscow is primarily concerned with being constructive in talks with European partners, especially in order to get the sanctions removed,” Fesenko said.

Political analyst Taras Berezovets said the decision to back down in trade talks was probably a long time in the making and not an overnight decision.

“It probably had more to do with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s recent talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel,” he said.

During that meeting, held in Moscow on May 10, Putin called for a return to normal relations with Europe, an appeal that many analysts tied to Moscow’s desire to have sanctions eased.

Western and Russian leaders alike have all expressed exhaustion with the ongoing peace process, acknowledging that the Minsk agreements reached in February have not been fully effective but stopping short of doing anything about it.

While Moscow has increasingly sought to be conciliatory and constructive – a bid some say is meant to make Ukraine seem like the aggressor in the conflict – Ukraine has desperately sought to attract attention to what it describes as Russia’s continued build-up of troops in the east.

On May 18, Ukraine’s Defence Ministry called a dramatic press conference to show the world the presence of Russian soldiers in the war-torn east.

Colonel General Viktor Muzhenko, chief of the general staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, told a crowd of journalists that Ukraine now had “undeniable proof” of involvement by Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, in eastern Ukraine. Muzhenko showed a weapon confiscated from the two men detained over the weekend, both of whom had identified themselves as Russian officers in a widely circulated video.

“When we found them, they were wounded and the Russian side was firing at them. The Russians were firing at their own men. One of them had been abandoned and left to die. We decided to help them before taking them into custody,” commander Viktor Nikolyuk, who took part in the operation to help the men, said at the press conference.

The men are now set to be charged with terrorism, a crime which carries a life sentence.

While Russia’s Defence Ministry has denied that the men were acting servicemen, saying instead that they had already left the service, the men’s detention is the latest red flag offered up by Ukraine as proof that the February ceasefire deal is long dead.

Analysts agreed that Ukraine’s panicked press conference would do little to sway the West to take a harder line against Russia, however.

Despite the repeated violations, the Minsk agreements are still “the only basis for the prevention of violence,” Felgenhauer said.

Berezovets said the fiasco with the Russian soldiers would probably only put a dent in the ongoing peace process if further information on troops came out.

“They probably are panicking behind the scenes, worrying that these two guys might spill more information,” he said.

At the Defence Ministry briefing in Kyiv, Muzhenko said there had been at least 14 other Russian servicemen in the same unit as the two officers detained.

Source: The Kyiv Post

(Photo: Ukraine defence ministry)