The Russian and Ukrainian media have been abuzz this week over the news that the Ukrainian government has accepted the ‘Steinmeier Formula’ which is meant to help regulate the reintegration of rebel Donbass into Ukraine. Supporters of foreign Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, as well as members of the Ukrainian far right, are denouncing the move as a betrayal. Others, though, hope that it is an important first step towards peace. In reality, however, I don’t think that the Ukrainian government’s decision adds up to very much. For sure, it’s a step forward, but only a very small one, and unworthy of either the hysterical denunciations or the fervent optimism.
The Minsk II agreement of February 2015 laid out the terms on which rebel Donbass would return to Ukrainian control. These included a ceasefire, a withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line, and the commencement of a ‘discussion’ on how to hold elections in Donbass and on the nature of Donbass’s future relationship with Ukraine. Following this, an amnesty would be granted, elections held, and constitutional reform undertaken and legislation passed to provide special status for rebel-held areas of Donbass. The day after elections, Ukraine would regain control of its border with Russia.
No sooner had it agreed to these terms than the Ukrainian government began to backtrack, insisting that it would not grant special status to Donbass, and also demanding that the rebels disarm and the border be placed under Ukrainian control prior to elections. This reversed the order of events required by the Minsk agreement. The Steinmeier formula, named after its author, German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is meant in part to find a way out of this impasse. It says that once Ukraine has passed a law on special status for Donbass, local elections will be held, and the special status will come into effect on a temporary basis on the evening of the elections, and permanently once the OSCE has confirmed that the elections were carried out in accordance with international standards.
For hard-line Ukrainians, the Steinmeier formula is seen as capitulation as it admits that Donbass will have to get special status. However, even if the formula is accepted, the question remains of how and when the elections in question are meant to take place, and so get the ball rolling. And on this Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has been very clear: the elections must take place under the supervision of the Ukrainian government, and can only take place once all rebel forces have been disbanded and the border has been restored to Ukrainian control. Zelensky also says that any special status for Donbass can only take the form of a law, not of a constitutional reform.
These conditions are completely unacceptable to the rebel leadership and its Russian patrons. First, the rebels insist that they must have a role in running the elections which, they say, they will only accept if held under the first-past-the-post system and not under the Ukrainian system of proportional representation. Second, disbanding their armed forces and handing over the border before any special status is conferred would amount to complete surrender and put the rebels entirely at Kiev’s mercy. This is clearly something they won’t do. And third, special status conferred by a law not by constitutional reform could be simply revoked by a parliamentary majority repealing the law. It provides very few guarantees for the future. This makes it something which is unlikely to be acceptable.
In short, while accepting the Steinmeier formula, Zelensky has imposed conditions which mean that it can never be put into practice. Viewing this, Baylor University’s Serhiy Kudelia remarks that either Zelensky is either ‘genuinely delusional’ or simply making a token concession in order to stay in the good books of his European allies while knowing full well that nothing will come of it.
I suspect the latter, though I think that it may also be a product of the restraints under which Zelensky is operating. Prior to this week’s decision, we witnessed the fiasco of foreign minister Vadim Pristaiko saying that he had agreed to the formula only for Ukraine’s chief negotiator, former president Leonid Kuchma, to then publicly refuse to do so. Eventually, it seems that Zelensky was able to get Kuchma to back down and sign the document, but it’s clear that even this small step was quite a struggle. Going any further would require Zelensky to fight a major political battle internally. It doesn’t look like he’s prepared to do so.
As I’ve said on many occasions, the peaceful reintegration of Donbass into Ukraine will only be possible if Kiev makes major concessions. It’s obvious that that’s not going to happen all at once. The best we can hope for is little steps which gradually move Kiev in the right direction. In so far as this constitutes such a step, it’s something to welcome. But I’m not overly confident that Ukraine’s internal political situation will permit further moves of the same sort, at least not for some time. I hope I’m wrong, but for now I don’t think that the Steinmeier decision changes very much at all. Peace remains a rather distant dream.