Exclusive interview with Maksym Khylko, Chairman of the Board at the East European Security Research Initiative Foundation, Senior Research Fellow at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.
1) How do you assess President Trump's proposal to transfer negotiations from Minsk to Astana?
I believe that originally this idea came from Astana, and Donald Trump publicly supported it because Kazakhstan is much more important partner for the U.S. than today’s Belarus. American oil companies are interested in Kazakhstan, this large Central Asian country is strategically important, and Astana demonstrates intention to preserve sovereignty in foreign policy despite its close cooperation with Moscow. A significant contrast with economically weak Belarus which is considered in the West as continuation of Russian political-military space, especially after “Zapad-2017” military drills.
Obviously, Kazakhstan’s government believes that it also has (no less than Belarus) rights to get political dividends from hosting these important international negotiations. And that it is a proper time for this proposal, given the lack of progress in Minsk agreements implementation, as well as Kyiv’s discontent with unfriendly actions taken by Minsk, in particular, the detentions of Ukrainian citizens in Belarus territory both by Russian and Belarusian security services.
From the practical point of view, transferring negotiations from Minsk to Astana could not help to achieve progress and force Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukrainian territory. The perspectives for transferring peace talks to Astana might appear only if there are any additional important circumstances, such as decision to expand the Normandy Format with U.S. representative, or another extremely unfriendly action by Belarusian authorities.
2) What do you expect from the NATO summit this year?
Primarily, NATO will continue taking measures to strengthen the Alliance itself, enhancing capacities of collective defence, further adapting to the new security environment, improving command, logistics and mobility, strengthening cybersecurity and ability to promptly respond to hybrid threats. Further progress in deepening NATO-EU cooperation in security and defence should also be expected. Certain decisions to strengthen NATO presence in Black Sea region are possible, including as a response to Russia’s militarisation of the annexed Crimea. The Allies will discuss further steps in fighting terrorism, mission in Afghanistan, as well as developments in the Middle East.
Obviously, NATO will continue intensifying cooperation with the aspirant countries – Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Georgia, as well as with partner countries, such as Finland, Sweden, Ukraine, and others. Any significant expansion of current mechanisms of practical cooperation between Ukraine and NATO is unlikely, because the potential of the previously established instruments, such as the Comprehensive Assistance Package and Trust Funds for Ukraine, is far from being exhausted. A good political signal might be granting Ukraine with Enhanced Opportunities Partnership (EOP) – a more tailor-made relationship that was proposed to Georgia, Finland, Sweden, Jordan, and Australia in 2014. But so far, there is no confidence that Kyiv will apply for the EOP and be granted with it.
3) Is it possible to correct Moscow's position towards Kyiv until March 2018?
We should not expect any significant changes in Moscow's position until Putin's re-appointing as president for another term. If his level of public support remains high, he would not be interested in any substantial escalation in Donbas. At the same time, he is unlikely to dare on any concessions which might contradict his tough political image and with the Kremlin's hard-line strategy in relations with the West.
But Ukraine and its Western counterparts should already think about dealing with Russia after the so-called elections. Hypothetically, a window of opportunity may appear if the Russian ruling elite decide to avoid the risk of much tighter sanctions. And we should have a plan of further actions on the table.