The proposal of US President Donald Trump to relocate negotiations on Donbass conflict settlement from Minsk has caused mixed reactions in Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine. Kazakhstan's leader Nursultan Nazarbayev during his talks with Trump in Washington took up the initiative and announced his readiness to start a new round of consultations in Astana.
"We talked about the fact that Minsk 1 got stuck, what we need is Minsk 2," Nazarbayev said at a press conference in New York, summing up his visit to the United States. According to him, the issue of holding talks in Kazakhstan was discussed several years ago, and now this idea has again come to the fore. "In general, this was initially expected to happen. I went on special trips, held negotiations," noted Nazarbayev.
After that, Foreign Minister of Belarus Vladimir Makei commented on Nazarbayev's proposal, saying that it would not solve anything, while "Minsk, unlike others, is not seeking after the peacekeeper's honors.” He reminded that it was not Belarus that "asked for a platform for negotiations on Ukraine, and the leaders of the Normandy Quartet countries asked President Lukashenko to host participants of the meetings on settlement of the Ukrainian conflict." "It is unlikely that anything depends on location of the negotiations, negotiations on Ukraine can be moved even to Antarctica, if there is confidence in their success. But for this confidence to emerge, it is necessary that all parties involved in this conflict, as well as supposedly "external" but very much interested states, are sincerely committed to stopping bloodshed," said Makei.
The spokesman for the Russian president Dmitry Peskov noted that the commitment to comply with the Minsk agreements is more important than the venue of the meetings. "In this case, the place of negotiations is not so important. Significance of the commitment of the parties concerned to the idea of non-alternative Minsk agreements for lack of any other agreements, adherence to the Normandy Format, was in fact what was discussed today (January 19) at the meeting of the Security Council," Peskov said. At the same time, he stressed that everything that happens in Ukraine is an internal conflict, and the Russian Federation is not a party thereto.
Kazakhstan was quick to respond. Deputy Foreign Minister Yerzhan Ashikbayev said that he "does not question the importance of the Minsk venue" and respects the Minsk agreements on the settlement of the situation in Ukraine. "We do not interfere in the Minsk process," said Ashikbayev. "However, Kazakhstan is always ready to support the search for solutions." He said that if the parties to the conflict decide to appeal to Kazakhstan, the appeal will be considered "in an appropriate manner."
Alexander Vorobyev, a researcher at the Center for Central Asia, Caucasus and Volga Region Studies, the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, shared his opinion with EADaily on what could be behind the heated argument of the capitals.
The initiative voiced by Donald Trump on changing the negotiations venue may have several reasons. First, we are talking about increasing pressure on Russia in the framework of the Donbass negotiations, especially since the Minsk format implies participation of Germany and France in the settlement of the Ukrainian crisis. The American influence is certainly strong, but revision of the format, which such a statement implies, would strengthen the role of the United States in this process, and increase the pressure on Moscow. Today, this is seen as expedient both in Washington and in Kiev. This is what Trump hints at in his statement.
Secondly, Trump's initiative looks like feeling out what new allies the USA can have in Eurasia, with whose help it would be possible to exert restraining influence not only on Russia but also on China, and strengthen the US influence in the region. Kazakhstan is quite suitable for these purposes for Washington, since the country is involved in the Eurasian integration processes. It is one of the key participants in the Chinese initiative "One Belt, One Way" which Americans take frostily. Strengthening ties with Kazakhstan, where American companies work actively, satisfying Kazakhstan's economic and political needs, would greatly help the Americans strengthen their influence in the region. Trump’s policy is peculiar for its forceful approach designed to create levers of influence on the partner, strengthen the negotiating position and then the negotiations themselves, in which this same strongest lever of influence plays an important role.
Why would Kazakhstan want to support Trump?
Kazakhstan's interest in this initiative can be caused by a number of considerations. First, the country is naturally interested in increasing its own role in international affairs. And this is done not only for image reasons. Kazakhstan often finds it advantageous to be built into the relations between its major partners and play the role of an intermediary, a mediator in these relations. For example, Astana seeks such a role in relations between Russia, the EAEU, and China. Kazakhstan played a similar role in the relations between Russia and Turkey. This position of the mediator raises the importance of the country-intermediary and allows it having both political and economic benefits, both from one partner and from the other.
The second consideration is the government's understanding of the interests of the state. Being an ally of Russia, a member of the EAEU, the CSTO, Kazakhstan is not at all interested in bad relations with the US and the West, since this is fraught with political and economic losses for the country. Since the US and the West can have a sensitive impact which may be either negative or positive in terms of economic, scientific and technical cooperation, and investment activity. Hence, this what the demonstration of Kazakhstan's and Nursultan Nazarbayev's own understanding of the initiatives put forward by Trump is based on.
Let's not forget about the multi-vector policy inherent in Astana. The leadership of the republic strives to maintain constructive confident relations with all partners. This is easy to do when the relations between the partners themselves are good. As, for example, between Russia and China. And it is difficult, when they are bad, as in the case of Russia and the United States. In Astana, a certain revision of foreign policy and foreign economic priorities is taking place, within which the role of the Russian or Eurasian direction is somewhat reduced, and the economic and political role of the "external world" for Kazakhstan is growing to some extent. However, it is incorrect and unfair to say that Astana "opts for" Washington.
How do you see the relations between Kazakhstan and Ukraine?
They are generally constructive, there is mutual understanding on political issues. Since the Soviet times, the two countries have maintained good economic cooperation. Astana and Kiev cooperated in the field of mechanical engineering, bilateral deliveries of food were significant. Since the beginning of the crisis, the level of cooperation has declined. In addition, Kazakhstan is uncomfortable because of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In particular, since 2016 Moscow has introduced significant restrictions on the transit of Ukrainian cargos to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In January 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin extended the restrictions. Kazakhstan took these steps made by Moscow in stride, but objectively, they are not in the former’s interests, because they block trade and economic cooperation. Moscow's position does not always find understanding in the Kazakh society, as the interests of Astana are clearly hurt. Politically, Kiev and Astana are trying not to exacerbate the situation and maintain friendly relations that were inherent before the crisis began.
How successful, in your opinion, can the negotiations be in case of their relocation from Minsk?
Trump's initiative is not about Ukraine. Ukraine is here purely as a figure of speech. The very reason is still in the interests of the US and Kazakhstan, as it was discussed above. And given that Kazakhstan is the leading state in Central Asia, it turns out that these relations affect the whole region. As for the transfer of negotiations, this is not particularly promising, because the key participants in the process see no reason to change the negotiation platform. Therefore, this initiative is rhetorical, and not practical. These negotiations do not aim at coming to consensus. From Washington, as I said, this is a signal to increase pressure on Russia.
Trump’s statement and the understanding shown by the president of Kazakhstan do not serve as an excuse for Moscow's concern. But at the same time, they are a definite signal that the Russian Federation should work more actively within the framework of the EAEU and give a new momentum within the framework of this integration union and bilateral format, take into account their political and economic interests, and offer new formats for cooperation for Astana, Minsk, Yerevan, and Bishkek.
EADaily’s Central Asian Bureau