Putin, European Officials in Diplomatic Efforts over Ukraine
June 25, 2014 • 9:13AM

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a state visit to Austria yesterday, during which Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller and Austrian gas officials signed contracts on Austria's segment of the projected South Stream natural gas pipeline. Putin took the occasion of press appearances after talks with his host, President Heinz Fischer, to address the fast-developing situation around the ceasefire announced two days ago in eastern Ukraine. Tomorrow, Russia's diplomatic role in attempts to calm the fighting there will continue, with a scheduled conference call among Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Francois Hollande, according to Poroshenko's office. Putin had conferred with Merkel and Hollande over the weekend, on the eve of yesterday's surprise meeting in Donetsk of intermediaries — including Russian Ambassador Mikhail Zurabov, OSCE official Heidi Tagliavini, and ex-President Leonid Kuchma on Poroshenko's behalf — after which the June 20 - 27 ceasefire was made mutual, between Ukrainian Armed Forces and the militias of the Donetsk People's Republic and Lugansk People's Republic.

Putin also conferred in Vienna with the current chair of the OSCE, Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, who called their direct contact "extremely important" in the current "very delicate phase." At the same time, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was in Kiev for talks with Poroshenko, including on concretizing the "humanitarian corridor" side of the latter's peace plan. Steinmeier said afterwards, Segodnya.ua reports, that he proposed an expanded OSCE mission in Ukraine, and that the inclusion of Russian representatives as part of it would be important.

Putin cited his formal request to Russia's Federation Council, earlier yesterday, to repeal its March 1 Resolution on the Use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the Territory of Ukraine. Underscoring that he had sought those powers in connection with the situation in Crimea and had not exercised them, because provision of security for the March 16 Crimean referendum had involved only Russian forces already stationed in the peninsula by treaty, Putin said that he had now asked them to be rescinded, "to help normalize the situation and achieve reconciliation in the east of Ukraine."

While calling the ceasefire a positive step, Putin said he concurred with Fischer that "seven days are clearly not enough." He expressed hope that it would be extended, and that the time would be used for "substantive" negotiations. "To state that we'll stop combat for seven days, and anybody who fails to disarm within seven days will be annihilated, is not a pathway to peace," said Putin. Replying to a question about what "substantive" means, Putin stressed the unlikelihood of the militias in the east laying down their arms, as long as the battalions attacking the region, those dating back to the Maidan and those formed later, do not. "But I count on the peace process developing," he added, "toward solutions that respect the legitimate rights of citizens living in the east," including Constitutional revisions to guarantee those rights.

The Austrian President also said, "Kiev, too, must make a contribution, which is something I especially want to underscore. There must be talks with the separatists, and serious efforts on Constitutional reform, reaching out a hand to eastern Ukraine. So we have certain wishes with regard to Russia, but also with regard to Kiev."

Putin noted that, unfortunately, serious fighting had been reported around the city of Slavyansk today. From Russian Ukrainian media reports, it was unclear who opened fire (there are several quasi-independent battalions functioning in the Donbass in loose coordination with Kiev's National Guard and Army forces), but one of the results was the downing of a Ukrainian military helicopter. This evening, Poroshenko's press service announced he had just met with security officials and stated that he did not exclude an early termination of the ceasefire, "in view of its being continually violated by guerrillas controlled from outside." Some Kiev politicians, including key Maidan and coup instigator Yuri Lutsenko, are charging that yesterday's Donetsk talks were nothing but a ploy to torpedo Poroshenko's plans to sign the economic portion of Ukraine's Association Agreement with the EU, this Friday.

Putin phoned President Barack Obama Monday evening, touching on the Ukrainian settlement process. According to the White House, Obama lectured Putin that "words must be accompanied by actions" and threatened further sanctions. At yesterday's State Department briefing, the spokesperson once again said that reports of large numbers of refugees fleeing Ukraine for Russia were "incorrect." Russian Representative to the United Nations Vitali Churkin today told the Security Council that the total number of such refugees is now around 450,000, cumulatively, while the Russian Federal Migration Service projects between 120,000 and 150,000 applications for asylum from Ukrainians. Russian TV is broadcasting nightly interviews with weeping refugee families, noting that "the State Department says these people don't exist."

NATO Meeting in Brussels To Discuss Ukraine, NATO Expansion

NATO Foreign Ministers are gathering in Brussels for two days of meetings. According to the statement published two days ago on the NATO website, the ministers are to discuss the September NATO summit in Wales, where issues to be taken up include progress towards membership of four aspiring countries and the measures that the alliance has taken in response to the crisis in Ukraine. There will be a separate meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council. The summit will close with a discussion on the way ahead in Afghanistan. According to various press reports, part of the Ukraine discussion will include consideration of NATO aid to Ukraine, in the form of a "trust fund" to help rebuild the Ukrainian military and perhaps finance the training of Ukrainian officers at NATO academies. Iraq is not listed as an agenda item, but since US Secretary of State Kerry arrived in Brussels from Baghdad, it could be discussed somewhere along the way.

As for new NATO members, while Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (the same guy who, yesterday, accused Russia of conspiring to "destroy" fracking) has been a champion of bringing Georgia into the alliance as quickly as possible, some NATO members aren't so sure. Reuters reports that Georgia's membership in NATO is increasingly unlikely to be approved at the Wales summit. The reason given, is that NATO members are split on the question, with some saying Georgia should be allowed in now, and others worried that making Georgia a NATO member is unnecessarily provocative to Russia. NATO should not show weakness, but it should also not take steps "that would irritate Russia without bringing anything to the alliance," one unnamed NATO diplomat is quoting as saying. The split is 50-50, reports Reuters, not nearly the consensus required to approve Georgia's membership.