Can Zelenskyy “stop the war in Donbas” and how will the Steinmeier formula affect Ukraine? An FAQ

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy (R) and FM Vadym Prystaiko. Kyiv, 16 September 2019.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy came to power riding upon promises to end the war in Donbas and indirectly blaming Ukraine’s then-President Petro Poroshenko of failing to do so, presenting himself, in the words of Russian analyst Andrey Piontkovsky, as the “party of peace” fighting against the incumbent “party of war” which is responsible for the conflict in eastern Ukraine dragging on into its fifth year. This idea resonated with Ukrainians, who are tired of war – in June 2019, half of Ukrainians expected Zelenskyy to “stop the shooting in Donbas,” a Rating sociological poll found.

However, achieving that goal is proving to be no easy task. During his presidential campaign, Zelenskyy told foreign journalists that everything must be done so that Ukrainians stop dying: “you need to stop shooting,” he said, adding that the Minsk agreements don’t work, that the United Kingdom and the USA need to be invited to the negotiating table. But immediately after the comic star won the election, his chief of HQ Dmytro Razumkov declared that “there is no possibility” to end the war quickly, no such promise should have been made in the first place, and that the Minsk agreements, imperfect as they are, cannot be scrapped. Six months later, after attempts to “stop the shooting” in Donbas by prohibiting Ukrainian soldiers from shooting even if they are attacked by the Russian-separatist forces failed miserably (as they had many times before), the “Steinmeier formula” for implementing the Minsk agreements was unexpectedly brought back to life by Zelenskyy and the new Ukrainian foreign Minister Prystaiko. This formula has caused an uproar in Ukraine, with multiple security and policy experts warning Zelenskyy against using it in an appeal titled “No to capitulation!.”

So, what is this formula, and how can the war in Donbas be actually ended?

How does one end a war?

Any war ends when one side defeats another and the winner achieves some or all of his goals such as “the desired territorial, economic, military or other benefits expected following the successful conclusion of a war.”

In inter-state conflicts throughout history, the aggressor has been typically trying to grab lands and resources and/or take political control of the country while the victim’s primary goal is to defend its own land and defeat the invader. Thus restoring the status quo – the pre-war state of affairs – is a defeat for the aggressor and a victory for the victim.

Meanwhile, in internal conflicts, insurgents aim at taking power in the country or some of its regions. However, an external aggressor can use the insurgency as warfare against the victim country to enfeeble the enemy’s economy and benefit from the political instability in the victim country, for example, by installing an own loyal government or by later invading the country enfeebled by the internal conflict.

Anyway, every war has sides of the conflict and when a war ends the winning side achieves at least some of its initial goals.

Read also: Stages of Russian occupation in a nutshell

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What are the goals of Russia and Ukraine in the war between the two states?

Russia’s ultimate goal is to keep Ukraine in its orbit of influence, effectively turning Ukraine into a de-facto colony as it was in the Russian Empire and the USSR. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s quest is to keep the country together, repel the Russian forces from its territory, and prevent Russian aggression in the future.

Russian goals

Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the collapse of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Geopolitically, Russia considers the post-Soviet countries as belonging to its sphere of influence and takes hard every move of theirs away from Russia. That’s why Russia invaded Georgia back in 2008 in response to the country’s NATO aspirations.

Read also: “Russia is not ready to let Ukraine go” – Sentsov’s first public speech after Russian prison

And that’s why Russia unleashed the war against Ukraine as it became clear that the pro-EU Euromaidan uprising was about to overthrow the pro-Russian President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych. Russia took advantage of the weak state institutions in Ukraine immediately before, amid and after Yanukovych’s escape to Russia, and seized the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, then Russia used the pro-Russian locals supported by Russian mercenaries to instigate war in the south-eastern regions of Ukraine, however, the efforts succeeded only in two easternmost oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, known as the Donbas.

With the Ukrainian offensive, the Russian-backed paramilitary groups risked losing all Russian gains in the Donbas in summer 2014. That’s why Russia engaged its regular troops. The large-scale Russian invasion forced Ukraine to accept the so-called Minsk-1 peace deal, which demanded autonomy for the ORDLO or the “certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts” what became an official term for the occupied part of the region.

Back in 2014, Russia strived to split off the “Novorossia” from Ukraine a pro-Russian protectorate would have united all Ukrainian southern and eastern regions. However, as the plan failed due to Ukraine’s resilience, unexpected by Russia, and the goals changed. Russia started demanding federalization of Ukraine and granting the autonomy for two Russian-controlled Donbas oblasts.

The ORDLO has now been Ukraine’s sore spot for more than a half-decade. Ukraine didn’t re-integrate the occupied territory on Russian conditions under the Minsk agreements since Russia hasn’t ever tried to fulfill its part of the deal – it never withdrew its forces and equipment. No large-scale military operations took place in the Donbas since winter 2015, however, the military actions at the front inflict almost daily casualties.

Russia still wants Ukraine to grant autonomy to the ORDLO, creating in this way a Russian-controlled internal source of political instability within Ukraine to be able to advance the Russian agenda from inside the country. One of the consequences of the ORDLO’s autonomy would be the lifting of Donbas-related international sanctions from Russia.

As well, Russia needs Ukraine to relinquish its rights for Crimea and recognize it as Russian. In case Ukraine would recognize Russia’s claim to Crimea, the international community would have to do the same which would cause the lifting of Crimean-related sanctions.

Ukrainian goals

The key Ukrainian goals in the war are to survive as a state, preserve and restore its territorial integrity, returning the occupied territories of Crimea and Donbas, and prevent the possibility of the Russian aggression in the future. The only way to prevent the possibility of a future Russian invasion, as it is seen by Ukraine, is joining the NATO.

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Candidate Zelenskyy campaigned promising to “stop the war”; can he do it as incumbent President?

Yes, he can. Volodymyr Zelenskyy can’t “stop” the war using only his presidential powers, but now he also controls the legislative body or the Verkhovna Rada. Any decisions agreed at the meetings within the framework of the Minsk process can be approved by the parliament without any delay now if Zelenskyy would desire it. However, this “stopping the war” would equal Ukraine’s defeat and Russia’s victory.

The president can’t declare wars and ratify international treaties in Ukraine, these powers belong to the scope of the parliament. However, as a result of the recent parliamentarian elections, Zelenskyy’s party took the majority in the Verkhovna Rada and the first month of the new parliament at work showed that President has nearly absolute power over his legislators who unanimously adopt anything Zelenskyy submits to the Rada.

So, technically, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is able to withdraw from the war leaving the Crimean and Donbas issues unresolved or accepting the Russian demands.

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How is the Minsk process and Normandy Format supposed to help stop the war?

The Minsk process is a framework for Russia-Ukraine negotiations on the Donbas war matters within the frame of the so-called Minsk Agreements signed in fall 2014 and winter 2015, which are an intended peace plan. The Minsk process includes the so-called Normandy Format of negotiations which is a negotiation platform of senior representatives of Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine intended to resolve the war in Eastern Ukraine. The meetings of the group include either the foreign ministers of the top leadership of the respective countries.

You can read in detail about the Minsk Agreements in our FAQ. Another article describes the diplomatic missions involved in the Minsk process – the Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine-Russia-OSCE, TCG), the Normandy Four, and the unofficial Russia-US dialog.

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What are Russia’s demands and what would Russia gain suspending war on its conditions?

If the Donbas war would be suspended on Russian conditions, Ukraine would legalize two regions under the full Russian control as autonomies, the burden of financing the ORDLO will be shifted from Russia to Ukraine, the pro-Russian militants would get the right to get the rights to vote and get elected, the Russia-controlled special services and military would retain their control of the territory, and, finally, Donbas-related international sanctions on Russia would be lifted.

Russia is attempting to achieve its goals in Ukraine by pushing through an implementation of the Minsk agreements where the political part of the agreements, i.e. the conduction of elections in the ORDLO and Ukraine’s ensuring a special status for the region, must come before the security part, i.e. the establishment of a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and Russian troops, disarmament of illegal groups, Ukraine’s regaining of control over its border. As well, Russia is pushing for a full amnesty of all participants in the conflict; Ukraine maintains this is impossible for those having committed grave war crimes. Ukraine has insisted that the security part comes before the political part.

Read more: 12 months of Minsk-2. Examining a year of violations

If Ukraine would accept the Russian demands on the Donbas, the region’s autonomy would be established with the current occupation authorities gaining recognition via local elections and a possibility to be elected to the Ukrainian parliament, the members of the occupation forces would be granted full amnesty in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the state of Ukraine would have to finance both Russia-controlled regions and restore their war-damaged infrastructure. Ukrainian citizens wouldn’t be safe while in ORDLO since the occupation forces thereafter renamed as local militia would keep their control of the territory.

The international sanctions imposed on Russia because of the Donbas developments would be lifted since the conflict would be considered as resolved.

Summing up, signing an armistice on Russian conditions, Ukraine would grant Russia with leverage to influence Ukrainian internal affairs and would help Russia to restore its international positions. Fulfilling the Minsk agreements would not affect the situation with Crimea.

Read also: Portnikov: Kremlin wants Ukraine’s capitulation, Putin expects a “concrete result”

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What is the Steinmeier formula and how it would affect Ukraine once implemented?

The so-called Steinmeier formula is an idea voiced by then German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in fall 2015. He said that if OSCE monitors verified that the elections in ORDLO were held without violations, then the “law on special status” giving autonomy to these areas would come into immediate effect. If the formula would be applied before the withdrawal of Russian-separatist troops and Ukraine’s control of the Russian-Ukrainian border, Ukraine would de-facto recognize the occupation authorities and their sovereignty over ORDLO.

The Steinmeier formula rejected by the previous Ukrainian government returned to the political agenda in mid-September 2019.

Read also: Are the new Minsk talks guiding Ukraine to capitulation?

On 13 September, at the 16th Annual Meeting of the Yalta European Strategy (YES) in Kyiv, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said,

“We are proposing now that elections be held simultaneously across the entire territory [of Ukraine], including the occupied areas. Let’s see whether this works exclusively in terms of time.”

On the same day, Leonid Kuchma, former Ukrainian President and Ukraine’s representative to the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) at the Minsk talks said that the Normandy Four leaders were going to take an agreed decision on the Steinmeier formula, which was being discussed in Minsk at meetings of the TCG political subgroup.

Kuchma noted that there are certain points regarding the Steinmeier formula which cross the red line. One of the things Ukraine absolutely requires is the withdrawal of Russian troops and military hardware from the occupied region prior to the elections so that Ukrainian authorities could return.

What’s the Steinmeier formula and how did it emerge?

The Ukrainian local elections in 2015 were planned for October and the possibility of holding the elections in the occupied territories was negotiated by the Minsk Group and the Normandy Four since such elections are one of the cornerstones of the Minsk-2 peace deal signed in winter 2015.

Then “DNR head” Aleksandr Zakharchenko ordered to conduct voting in Russia-controlled area of Donetsk Oblast on 2 July, which he stated would have been held “in accordance with the Minsk agreements.” The poll was planned under the Ukrainian law “On temporary self-rule status of ORDLO” adopted by the Ukrainian parliament in fall 2014 following the signing of the Minsk-1. Then “LNR head” Igor Plotnitsky repeated the same order but planned the elections in the occupied part of Luhansk Oblast for 1 November.

Then-President of France François Hollande convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to “use his influence” to postpone the elections planned in both occupied Ukrainian regions.

Following the postponement, then Foreign Minister of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier put forward his ‘formula” in fall 2015, envisaging the temporary implementation of Ukrainian legislation on autonomy for the time of local elections in ORDLO and then applying it on a permanent basis after the OSCE would publish its report confirming that the elections were held in accordance with Ukrainian law and Minsk-2.

The elections under Ukrainian laws were never held in ORDLO, and after several postponements, the occupation authorities conducted sham local elections in fall 2018. These were condemned by Ukraine, the EU, the OSCE, as well as the US and by a number of other countries.

How the implementation of the formula would affect Ukraine

Applying Steinmeier’s formula would mean holding the election under full control of the occupation forces without any Ukrainian participation or any security guarantees for the residents, especially for those who had to flee the occupied region. This may fully legalize the presence of the occupation troops which, according to the Minsk accords, should be withdrawn back to Russia. The Russia-controlled areas would return to Ukraine as they are now and all participants of the illegal armed groups would be granted amnesty under the autonomy law.

Read also: Piontkovsky: Ukraine is being prepared for disguised surrender to Russia

However, former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin argues that the key component of the Steinmeier formula is that elections should be held by OSCE standards, by which they cannot be conducted in the presence of foreign troops and mercenaries. Proper safety conditions are required.

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Don’t elections in occupied Donbas even without Ukrainian control mean the end of the war? What’s wrong?

Such elections would stop the fighting. However, the conflict would be rather frozen than resolved since its reason – Russian aggression – will remain intact. Russia would effectively retain its full control of the territory which would become a Russian-controlled autonomy incorporated into Ukraine under Steinmeier’s formula.

According to the Minsk accords, the local elections in ORDLO are believed to be one of the key steps to resolve the conflict, however, this step does not remove the source of the conflict which is the Russian aggression. Attaching such great importance to the ORDLO elections plays into the hands of Putin, whose propaganda includes a false narrative of “the Donbas peoples who rose in rebellion against Kyiv.”

After five years of the full Russian control over the information space in the region, the results of the local elections in the Donbas are easily predictable, whether they will be held under the Steinmeier formula or after the withdrawal of the Russian forces when Ukraine would gain control of its borders and of the territory. All of the winners of the elections would be pro-Russian.

However, Ukrainian control over the border and regained control over the territory of ORDLO, disarmament of the locally-formed military groups, withdrawal of soldiers, mercenaries, and military equipment back to Russia prior to the elections would largely root out the main source of the war – Russian military presence. In this way, even with predictably pro-Russian electees, the region would have a chance of restoring normal life, unlike all the Russian-occupied regions in Georgia and Moldova.

On 16 September, answering a question about the upcoming Normandy Four meeting, President Zelenskyy stressed,

“We must understand that there will be a clear schedule for the withdrawal of all troops from the occupied territories before the elections.”

The meeting of the Ukrainian, Russian, German, and Russian leader hasn’t been planned yet, however, the preparatory meeting in the Normandy format at the level of advisers to the heads of state took place on 2 September.

According to himself, Zelenskyy stands firm on defending Ukrainian interests. However, there are fears that Russia and the Western partners may be preparing Ukraine for disguised surrender to Russia.

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