The “Steinmeier formula”: what are Ukraine’s risks?

Ukraine agreeing to the so-called “Steinmeier formula” in an effort to kick-start conflict settlement in Donbas made the headlines this week. UCMC has already given a detailed overview of the mechanism suggested by the formula (check it out in our Weekly Updates #28 and #29). On Tuesday, October 1, President Zelenskyi called an urgent press conference where he announced that Ukraine had agreed to the “Steinmeier formula”. Many of the journalists’ questions were left unanswered. The news got a myriad of explanations that varied from a dangerous step destabilizing the country to Ukraine’s capitulation. In the evening soon after Zelenskyi’s news conference people gathered on Maidan to protest. Protest rallies resumed the next day, on October 2. President Zelenskyi released a video address reassuring Ukrainians that he is not giving up state interests. Next “viche” – rally on Maidan is scheduled for October 6. UCMC summarizes main risks and potential future scenarios.             

The “Steinmeier formula” and the upcoming Normandy format meeting are in the spotlight of public attention. At the same time Ukrainian society does not have a clear picture of what the plans of the new authorities are, not to mention the Russia relations strategy. The root of the problem is not the “Steinmeier formula” itself but the lack of the comprehensive vision of the situation and its further development. It is no secret that the vision of Ukraine and that of Russia contradict each other.

Strategic goals: Ukraine, Russia and occupied territories. Since the start of the military conflict in 2014 Ukrainian position on peaceful settlement has been to return the occupied territories and to restore the state sovereignty there as well as to reverse the situation to what it used to be before the war started. Russia’s strategic goal is to keep Ukraine in its orbit of influence and to redirect expenses to the Ukrainian side to the maximum. The tactics foresees lifting of sanctions (at least of those linked to the war in Donbas), legitimization of the occupational administrations in Donbas thus cementing the tools to influence Ukraine.

Russia is also trying to have the sanctions lifted and to get rid of the burden that the occupied Donbas represents for it. Russian model of creating controlled chaos in the neighboring state foresees permanent conflict-generation in Ukraine and pushes the country into never-ending confrontation.

Main goal of the new “elite” in the occupied territories is to get legitimized. It foresees two components – personal security guarantees for militants and occupational authorities as well as their involvement into “rebuilding of Donbas”.

What has changed and is there a chance for a compromise? Sociologists claim that in the Ukrainian society public opinion on the conflict is stable. People want peace but will not accept it at any price. They see the future of the occupied territories as part of Ukraine but mostly on the pre-war conditions, without the “special status”. The closer to the contact line, the more is the readiness to compromise. Nevertheless everywhere including the near-front Donbas, people do not agree to the elections on Russia’s terms, full amnesty or that law enforcement agencies in the occupied areas should be formed exclusively from locals. President Zelenskyi will have to accept it. He will also have to explain what compromises with Russia will make it possible for him to implement the Ukrainian scenario to reintegrate Donbas. There are no signs of Russia being ready to compromise.

Elections are the means not the goalZelenskyi’s video address of October 3 sought to calm the Ukrainian society.He mentioned all the key phrases that Ukrainians want to hear – withdrawal of Russian troops from Donbas and regained control over the state border prior to the local elections, election standards that are in line with the requirements of the EU and Ukrainian legislation. At the same time the President did not explain how he plans to achieve that, what methods and mechanisms he plans to apply. This uncertainty creates doubts and fuels protests.

Discussing own election commitments while combat actions continue means bringing Russia out of the conflict, the goal it is actually in try to achieve. Ceasefire and elections come as a means not the goal. Ukrainian society understands that normalizing the situation on terms that disregard Ukraine’s interests will help the Kremlin not Ukraine achieve its goals. That is why Zelenskyi’s statements raise a few obvious questions.

What will the new law on the special status of Donbas be like? The actual law on particularities of local self-government adopted in September 2014 expires on December 31, 2019. Ukrainian authorities had two options: either to extend its validity yet again (same as before) or adopt a new law.

On October 1 the President stated for the first time that there will be a new law. What will it be like? How different from the actual one will it be? Who will be drafting it? The main danger is that the content of the draft will depend on the result of the Normandy Four negotiations. The “path to peace” in its version adopted there will be suggested to the Parliament as a draft law. Otherwise the authorities would have revealed it before the Normandy Four meeting. So it may turn out that Ukraine has agreed to the “Steinmeier formula” that enacts an unknown plan.

Elections in the occupied territory: what’s the law to regulate them? The letter on the “Steinmeier formula” mentions the special law on early elections in the areas that are currently beyond the government control. Does anyone know what the draft will be like? Can anyone guarantee that the law will not stipulate special conditions for elections in the occupied areas?

There is a possibility that the special law of a kind can stipulate that the elections should be organized not by Ukraine’s Central Election Commission (as it should be) or it is not the only actor, that security should be guaranteed not by the National police (as it should be) but by a hybrid of the Ukrainian police and local “law enforcement volunteer units” etc. There are too many uncertainties.

Tools and guarantees. President Zelenskyi is reassuring that the elections will not happen while the occupation troops are still there and there is no control over the border. Instead they should come as a result of the restored border control, full disarmament, demilitarization and withdrawal of Russian troops. How will this result be achieved? What are the tools? Who will be doing this?

In previous years many were promoting the idea of the international peacekeeping contingent, this scenario suggests that Ukraine is not immediately let into those territories, during the transition period an international mission assumes this role. The new authorities reject the idea of the mission. Who is going to substitute it? Is Ukraine going to rely on Russia’s promises saying that all weapons and troops were withdrawn? Will statements by Russia’s proxies that they’ve given away their APCs and several dozens of machine guns actually mean disarmament? All the above questions require clear and detailed answers.