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The real problem with “Steinmeier’s formula” and the Russo-Ukrainian war

Mass protest “Let’s stop capitulation”‘ on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti square in Kyiv, 6 October 2019. Photo: Olena Makarenko/Euromaidan Press
The real problem with “Steinmeier’s formula” and the Russo-Ukrainian war

Since 1 October, Ukraine has been in turmoil. “Steinmeier’s formula” is the reason. This proposal for Minsk negotiations called to end the Donbas war voiced by then-German Foreign Minister Steinmeier in 2015 was called back to life on 1 October when President Zelenskyy announced that Ukraine accepts it. This event received diametrically opposite appraisals, from some headlines labeling it “Ukraine Peace Talks Get Breakthrough as Kyiv Accepts Compromise” to other experts stating that the formula legitimizes pro-Russian terrorists and removes liability from Russia. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, protests against the formula have gathered the largest crowds since the Euromaidan revolution and a movement “against capitulation” has been founded.

A holy war is raging between believers and non-believers in whether the formula means Ukraine’s capitulation to Russia, often translating to a war between supporters and opponents of Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Although the formula does not mean Ukraine’s immediate capitulation, it nevertheless weakens its position. Most importantly, it returns Ukraine back to the narrative that there is no alternative to the Minsk agreements. And that is a dangerous step to make.

What Steinmeier’s formula is and what it is not

Darka Olifer, the press secretary of Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine’s representative to the Trilateral Contact Group, a group of representatives from Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE facilitating the Minsk process, published an image of the document that Kuchma signed. The document is signed only by Kuchma and addressed to the special representative of the OSCE in the Trilateral Contact Group Martin Sajdik. Other participants of the meeting in of the group in Minsk, including representatives of the Russian-backed “republics” in Donbas, sent similar letters to Sajdik. The formula slightly differs from Steinmeier’s 2015 version.


To the special representative of the Chairman of the OSCE in Ukraine, OSCE representative to the Trilateral Contact Group Mr. Martin Sajdik,

Respected Mr. Sajdik!

In the attachment to your email from 13 September of this year, a text regarding the implementation of the so-called “Steinmeier formula” into the Ukrainian law, agreed by diplomatic advisors of the states and governments of Ukraine, Germany, France, and Russia on 11 September 2019, was disseminated in the following edition:

“The law enters into force at 20:00 local time on the day of voting in early local elections in certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts which are appointed and conducted in accordance with the Constitution of Ukraine and a special law of Ukraine governing local elections in the mentioned districts. It will act on a provisional basis until the date of the publication of the final findings of the OSCE ODIHR Election Observation Mission, based on the established OSCE ODIHR practice, on the conformity of the early local elections with OSCE and international standards for democratic elections, as well as with Ukrainian legislation and which will answer the question agreed in the Normandy format, approved by the Tripartite Contact Group and forwarded by Ukraine in its invitation and by the OSCE Chairman-in-Office to the ODIHR Director.

This Law continues to apply on an ongoing basis if, in accordance with established practice, the OSCE ODIHR Final Report concludes that early local elections in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were generally conducted in accordance with OSCE standards and Ukrainian legislation, answering the question agreed in the Normandy format approved by the Tripartite Contact Group and forwarded by Ukraine at its invitation and by the OSCE Chairman-in-Office to the ODIHR Director.”

The Ukrainian side accepts the text of this formula.


Ukraine’s representative to the Trilateral Contact Group Leonid Kuchma

The formula refers to the law on the special status of Donbas mentioned in Article 11 of the Minsk Protocol, which outlines the political side of the regulation of the conflict. This law was adopted in 2014 and is valid until the end of 2019.

Apart from a permanent law on the special status of Donbas, Article 11 envisions a Constitutional reform to implement decentralization which would take into account the peculiarities of the “republics” agreed with their representatives. This formula would temporarily come into effect after local elections in the “republics” and would become permanent as soon as the OSCE ODIHR would establish that they were democratic. Local elections in Donbas are another political component of the Minsk Protocol, mentioned in its Article 9.

Previously, Ukraine had insisted that the security component of the Minsk accords, such as a ceasefire, pullout of heavy weapons troops and Russian troops from Donbas, and restoration of Ukrainian control over the Ukrainian border, should be implemented before any political part of the accords.

Currently, it is these steps that participants of the protests against Steinmeier’s formula demand must happen before any elections take place. Ukraine’s capitulation, they claim, will happen if local elections take place before the security component is met, as otherwise, elections in the now-occupied “republics” would lead to the legitimization of their puppet leaders directed from Moscow, and their incorporation into Ukrainian politics, allowing Moscow to easily meddle in Ukraine’s political life.

Another sensitive topic is amnesty for the Russian-backed militants outlined by Article 5 of the Minsk Accords: the demand for those having committed war crimes not to be amnestied is pretty uniform in Ukrainian society.

Steinmeier’s formula does not mention any of the security components. In his briefing, Zelenskyy vaguely explained that, despite the formula Kuchma signed, Ukrainians have nothing to fear because a new law on the special status of Donbas will be elaborated by the parliament “in close cooperation and public discussion with society,” in which “no red line will be crossed.” Steinmeier’s formula will be implemented into this new law. As well, Zelenskyy claimed that if democratic elections are to be held on the temporarily occupied territory of the “republics,” they must be held in accordance with Ukrainian law, with Ukrainian control over the “republics’” border with Russia, Russian troops being withdrawn, and no troops (including the militia of the “republics”) being present at all. Regarding amnesty, there was no clear answer.

Does it actually have any negative impact then

Basically, Zelenskyy covered all the trigger points stressed by the previous Poroshenko administration, which had for several years insisted that Russia is sabotaging the Minsk process by refusing to uphold a ceasefire and implement a troop withdrawal, therefore, there can be no talks about the political part of the Protocol. This led to many stating that criticism of Ukraine’s signing of the formula is unwarranted, as Zelenskyy promises to uphold Ukrainian interests.

The formula simply clarifies how a segment of the political part of the Minsk Protocol should be implemented.

However, there are many questions left unanswered – and drawbacks to the formula.

If security comes first, why did Ukraine sign a formula relating to the final, political, part of the protocol? Why did it secure in writing its political obligations, with Russia’s security obligations receiving no mention?

If implementing the political part of the protocol is impossible before the security component is met, the signing of “Steinmeier’s formula” is a useless step.

The only ostensible reason for this step was Russia’s demand for Ukraine to sign the formula in order for the next meeting in the Normandy format, i.e. a meeting of senior representatives of four countries – Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and France, to be held.

But Russia’s ability to procure better bargaining positions is well known. On 2 October, Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov put forward additional conditions – he announced that the date of the Normandy four summit would be determined only after a Ukrainian troop withdrawal would be completed in Petrovske and Zolote. A massive disengagement is happening in Donbas at present, but residents of those settlements fear for their lives, as previous troop disengagements had led only to increased shelling by Russian-backed forces. It has now been put on pause because of shelling from the Russian-separatist side.

Then, on 7 October, Russia’s representative to the OSCE Oleksandr Lukashevich told that another condition is necessary for the Normandy summit to be held – for the Steinmeier formula to be implemented in Ukrainian law. This caused Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko to observe that Russia is probably not interested in a Normandy meeting at all and is content with the situation in Donbas. A rather naive statement considering that Russia had started the conflict in Donbas and for the last five years has aimed to reap the maximum out of it, with the end goal being Ukraine’s return into Russia’s sphere of influence.

“Today, the fact that the issue of local elections has been taken out of context indicates that Russia is obviously not interested in withdrawing its armed forces from the occupied territories. They are only interested in having someone in Ukraine sign his name under the word “elections,” and then everything will proceed as planned by the Kremlin. It was not by accident that Lavrov announced that the Kremlin was interested in implementing a Transnistria scenario in Ukraine, the same scheme that was used in Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh,” wrote Ukraine’s former representative to the Trilateral Contact Group Roman Bezsmertnyi in an article entitled “The Steinmeier Formula: Zelenskyy’s huge mistake.”

So, “Steinmeier’s formula” switches attention from Russia’s obligations and the security part of the Minsk Protocol and creates new obligations for Ukraine to enshrine the formula into law and hold elections. As well, it opens the door for Russia to make more and more demands for the Normandy summit to be conducted.

It is easier for Ukraine’s western partners to pressure Ukraine to make concessions to Russia. As Ukraine had demonstrated an ability to accommodate its enemy, and taking into account the recent positive statements of French President Emmanuel Macron regarding Russia, the next Normandy format negotiations could end in an unfavorable deal for Zelenskyy, while Russia would continue ignoring any international obligations, writes political analyst Oleksiy Minakov.

There is now a risk of an internal Ukrainian conflict. The next large protest against Steinmeier’s formula is planned for 14 October. Ukraine’s appeasement of the aggressor by implementing its demands, as well as Zelenskyy administration’s awful communications around the sensitive topic, when Russian media were first to report that Ukraine had signed the formula while Ukrainian officials had kept mum, have radicalized Ukrainian society. Of course, the Kremlin is interested in Ukraine’s internal instability and chaos, and will without a doubt find a way to use this situation in Russian interests.

Ukraine’s signing of the formula reinforces the narrative that there is no alternative to the Minsk Protocol, a narrative which had started gradually weakening in the last years, as the Minsk process showed zero progress in solving the conflict. If implemented, the formula and the Protocol as a whole will act as a time bomb for Ukraine’s sovereignty.

We will examine the proof for this assertion in the second part of this publication, in which the hacked emails of Vladislav Surkov will shed light on Russia’s secret ambitions and plans for the Minsk Protocol and uncover why it will never work to resolve the conflict in Ukraine. Stay tuned.

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