Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko briefly met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at D-day commemorations in France on Friday.
Russian-backed separatists wrecked havoc on Ukraine’s restive east this week — a few hours before the meeting, separatists seized a hospital in Donetsk as fighting intensified around the Russian-Ukrainian border.
A Kremlin spokesperson claimed that the two leaders called for “a speedy end to the bloodshed” during a 15-minute meeting.
But Putin has denied that Russian soldiers are in Ukraine. And it seems as if Russia has no interest in backing off of its aggressive stance towards its southern neighbour. Putin doesn’t want to publicly acknowledge his role in spreading chaos in Ukraine, any more than he wants to let up the pressure on Kiev.
So what could the two leaders really have been talking about?
It’s possible that the meeting today was largely cosmetic. Poroshenko wants to make it seem as if he’s open to a negotiated solution to the conflict. Putin might be taking advantage of a chance to appear statesmanlike — at the D-Day commemoration, Putin stood alongside the same western leaders who kicked him out of the G8 after Russia’s Crimea incursion.
“If you’re in the Ukrainian position you almost have to take any approach by the Russians to calm the situation down,” explains Hannah Thoburn, a Eurasia researcher at the Washington-based Foreign Policy Initiative. “It looks really bad for you optically if you just cast it aside.”
And Russia remains the much stronger party, with client militias whose fighters are more capable than most of the Ukrainian military’s uniformed forces.
Putin could always motion towards a provisional resolution to the crisis by publicly or covertly ordering Russian nationals fighting in Ukraine to return home. Even then, progress between Ukraine and Russia depends on Putin’s definition of peace and what the Kremlin really means when it calls for “a speedy end to the bloodshed.”
“Putin may think that things have gone a bit took far, gotten too violent in eastern Ukraine, and he may want to calm things down,” says Thoburn. “But he is also likely to want to maintain pressure on Ukraine, to let them know that if they make a misstep, he can call the dogs back on.”
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