Russian President Vladimir Putin, who despite his best efforts has continued to be somewhat of an international pariah since his annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine, might be getting a start on his rehabilitation program. Of course, he is not giving Crimea back to Ukraine or withdrawing weapons and soldiers from Donbas. Rather, he is working the diplomatic track.
An EU spokesman confirmed today that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on Thursday or Friday of next week. This will be Juncker’s first meeting with Putin since November 2014, and is set to take place less then two weeks ahead of the EU summit where an extension of sanctions on Russia is to be voted upon.
Even though reports have been leaking over the past few days that a six-month extension of the sanctions is all but confirmed for the upcoming summit, Putin is probably in decent spirits. Earlier this week, the French Senate passed a non-biding resolution urging French government to “gradually and partially” lift sanctions on Russia. The bill was approved 302-16. The Senate’s argument was that Russia’s ban on European food import enacted as a countermeasure to EU sanctions is hurting the EU economy, and that the EU should not blindly follow U.S. policy on Russia. The timing of Juncker’s trip adds to the impression that the collective will to keep this going much longer is fraying badly.
Quoting Jean-Claude Junker, the EU spokesman said the EC’s President finds it “very important to try, at least in economic questions, to move towards Russia.” This is not a new stance for Juncker: earlier in November of last year, he wrote a letter to Vladimir Putin calling for closer trade ties between the EU and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, once a ceasefire is implemented in Ukraine. He said he had asked Commission officials to study options to bring the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union closer together.
Juncker’s idea of how to negotiate with Russia is quixotic, to put it politely. As frequent TAI contributors Benjamin Haddad and Hannah Thoburn argue in an excellent piece in today’s WSJ, the economic situation in Russia, which is due in part to the sanctions, “is what led Moscow to the negotiating table at Minsk in the first place, largely freezing the situation on the ground. Removing the sanctions now, without progress, only encourages the renewal of hostilities.”
While Juncker wants to tie economic cooperation to progress on the implementation of Minsk, there are at least two points in the ceasefire agreements—clauses 9 and 12, which call for local elections in the Donbas in full accordance with Ukrainian laws, as well as full restoration to Kyiv of control over the full border with Russia—that appear unlikely to be implemented as long as Putin is in power. As David Kramer has argued in these pages, Minsk is a deeply flawed document, and Putin is determined to exploit it to the maximum. Indeed, the Kremlin has nothing meaningful to move things in a positive direction. Instead, Russia’s President has kept himself to low-cost gestures, like granting amnesty to the Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko. (Even so, he was rewarded for the move, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calling Savchenko’s release “an important part of fulfilling Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements”.)
The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum will also be attended by another high-profile European politician: Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The Russian Ministry of Communications recently announced that the EU Commissioner for energy Günther Oettinger would visit the Forum as well, but his trip has not been confirmed at time of writing. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will be at the opening ceremonies, and will also meet Vladimir Putin.