The presidents of Russia and Ukraine met face-to-face Tuesday for the first time since June to talk about the fighting that has engulfed Ukraine’s separatist east. From their opening remarks, it appeared unlikely that Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko would find common ground.
The meeting in the Belarusian capital of Minsk came as Ukraine said it had captured 10 Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine and shelling spread to a new front in the country’s southeast.
Ukraine has repeatedly accused Russia of supporting and arming the pro-Russian rebels fighting government troops, which Russia always denies.
“The fate of peace and the fate of Europe are being decided in Minsk today,” Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate magnate, said as the talks began, his manner unusually restrained.
The two leaders sat on opposite sides of a large round table and were joined by the presidents of Belarus and Kazakhstan and three senior officials from the European Union. Contrary to some expectations, they did not meet one-on-one ahead of the talks, according to an aide to the Ukrainian president, Iryna Herashchenko. They did stage a handshake for the cameras. Under pressure to seek a negotiated settlement and not a military victory, Poroshenko said the purpose of his visit was to start searching for a political compromise and promised that the interests of Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine would be taken into account.
Putin devoted most of his opening remarks to trade, arguing that Ukraine’s decision to sign an association agreement with the 28-nation EU would lead to huge losses for Russia, which would then be forced to protect its economy. Ukraine is set to ratify the EU association agreement in September.