What Does Steinmeier Formula Mean for Ukraine?
The Steinmeier formula raises many questions and the mechanism for its implementation still isn’t fully clear
On Oct. 1st, President Zelensky stated that Ukraine had agreed to the text of the so-called “Steinmeier Formula.” According to the formula, a special status would be granted to the currently occupied territory of the Donbas with strict conditions, in accordance with the Minsk Accords. The formula raises many questions and the mechanism for its implementation still isn’t fully clear. It is believed that Ukraine agreed to the Steinmeier Formula as a key condition set out by the Kremlin for the resumption of the Normandy Four peace talks involving the heads of state of Ukraine, Germany, France, and Russia. To talk more about this, we are joined in the studio by Mariia Zolkina, she’s a political analyst at Democracy Initiatives Foundation. Hello, thank you for joining us today.
Let’s talk a little bit about the Steinmeier Formula. This is named after Frank-Walter Steinmeier who is now the president of Germany. At the time the formula received his name, he was the foreign minister of Germany. Why does this formula have his name and what are the guidelines?
First of all, we have to explain to our audience that before Oct. 1, there was no Steinmeier Formula in any strict form, actually. So it was just a proposal or a proposition made by Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2015 to the participants of the Normandy Four because there was actually no progress in the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, because Ukraine insisted that security should come first, so the ceasefire, the withdrawal of the weapons, of international troops — mainly the Russian army from the occupied part of the Donbas. At the same time, Russia insisted that we have to start political reintegration: elections, amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution, special status for the Donbas before the fulfillment of the security provisions of Minsk II. At that time, Steinmeier proposed, first in a form of discussion, to try to implement security and political provisions not step-by-step, so security first and then the political part, but simultaneously. That was not acceptable for Ukraine, and that is why the Ukrainian state has never agreed to any kind of strict Steinmeier Formula.
It didn’t actually exist before Oct. 1, when participants of the Minsk Trilateral Contact Group agreed to the proposition made by Steinmeier in 2015. Before that, it was just one letter sent by Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius, who was the minister of foreign affairs of France at that time to all the participants of the Normandy Four with that proposition, but it was not accepted, especially by Ukraine. That is why we cannot say now that it is like some kind of an agreement that we received from the previous authorities because the previous authorities and President Poroshenko did not officially recognize this formula because there were several formulas. It was a plan that arose from Macron. It was one of several propositions that were on the agenda, and the Steinmeier Formula was just one of them. But this year, when President Zelensky started demonstrating that he was interested in the new wave of negotiations with Russia; Russia insisted that the new Normandy Four meeting could only be arranged if Ukraine agreed to the Steinmeier Formula.
So let’s talk about this. What is it about the Steinmeier Formula that appeals so much to the Kremlin?
The Steinmeier Formula proposes that, in 2015, so what Ukraine has actually agreed to now is a little bit different from even what Steinmeier proposed in 2015, so at that time he proposed that we should start a ceasefire and start organizing some kind of demilitarization of the region, and simultaneously with this process, from the very beginning of the ceasefire, start the preparation for elections, and when the elections are conducted, the specific status law on the occupied Donbas would come into force. So actually, Steinmeier proposes how political reintegration could be started without the 100 percent fulfillment of security provisions of Minsk II. Now it looks like we only took one component of the Minsk Agreements, only the elections on the occupied territories.
In the current form, the Steinmeier Formula says to what we have agreed recently, that on the day of elections in the occupied territories, the specific law on the special status for the Donbas starts being in force on a temporary basis. And when the OSCE Mission, which will be the observer of these elections, presents the full final report on the results of the elections, which usually takes around two months for the OSCE Mission to prepare such reports, at that point of time if those elections are recognized as ‘generally legitimate,’ as is said in this formula, at that time, the law on the special status starts operating on the permanent basis. This is actually the way Russia wants to hold all the negotiations, that we do not talk anymore about all the security provisions, all the security conditions that should be implemented on the ground before the elections.
This is the main risk we have been dealing with, because even the simultaneous fulfillment of the security and political provisions isn’t as risky as talking only about elections, only about the political reintegration, like we started doing on Oct. 1, without giving any attention to the question of what conditions we are going to conduct those elections under, how the demilitarization will be conducted, who will be responsible for that, who will control the withdrawal of weapons and the withdrawal of the Russian regular army troops from the occupied Donbas. So this is the main lap that we still have in the field of negotiations, and it might be a trap for the Ukrainian side on the Normandy Four.
Is it possible that the popularity of President Zelensky experienced in September with the prisoner exchange and his 70 percent approval rating has made him somewhat overconfident? He’s going into this plan without really having the details set? Civil society seems to see the Steinmeier Formula as a capitulation. On Sunday in Kyiv, over 10,000 people reportedly were protesting. What is your take on this?
Of course, President Zelensky has a very high level of popularity, and his party as well, and his general policy as well, but it doesn’t equal unconditional support to any model of peace that could be brought to Ukraine after the Normandy Four. During all these years of the war, since 2014, at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and many other sociological companies, we have been conducting regular public opinion polls, especially regarding the conflict, and I can assure you that there are, of course, there are some different opinions on what compromises are more acceptable and which are not, but the general state of affairs is as follows: two thirds of the population really are in favor of peace, but half of the population, so half of our society, is in favor of only some selective compromises, so no “peace at any price,” I would say it this way. And when we measure the people’s support to concrete compromises, so we find three compromises that are not acceptable, even in order to receive the so-called peace all over Ukraine. So elections under the conditions of Russia and the self-proclaimed republics are not supported in any region of Ukraine, even in the frontline Donbas from the Ukrainian-controlled side of the front line. So even there people are not in favor of elections that will only formally be elections.
The second compromise that is not acceptable is the full amnesty, so no full amnesty for all the people who were fighting against the Ukrainian army in that period. It’s not acceptable even for the front line Donbas and the rest of the country. And the third compromise is the possible organization of security and law enforcement bodies in the occupied territories within the framework of political reintegration. People all over Ukraine, including the Donbas, are not in favor of organizing those law enforcement bodies, local police, only from the locals. It means that people are indirectly afraid that those who were fighting against the Ukrainian army yesterday, will become law enforcement bodies: police, prosecutor’s office, security office, etc. after the political reintegration begins. So they will just change their jackets and will still be representing not the Ukrainian state, but Russia and the self-proclaimed groups of interest.
So there’s a possibility if, in these next stages, it looks like, peace will be achieved, Russia will then still have a fifth column in the Donbas, correct?
So at the current point in time, if Ukraine agrees to political reintegration – for the preparation of elections – without the full, normal guarantees for the security conditions for the withdrawal of weapons, demilitarization, and control over the border, it means that Ukraine will get the Donbas back only formally, because the political situation there, the informational situation there, the security situation there, will define that any kind of local self-governance bodies that will be elected on those so-called elections will not be Ukrainian authorities, they will be controlled by Russia. Ukraine will be unable to influence those territories politically but will be responsible for them from the economic point of view, because, in the Minsk Accords, there are separate provisions on economic and financial support from the national bodies, from the national budget, for all those territories.
In the current law on the special status of the Donbas, because President Zelensky said that we would receive a new law, it gives rise to the question of why change this law, since we have one now, and what do they want, I mean the authorities, including the new one, if they want a new one, not this one. Because in the current law on the special status of the Donbas, it says that these territories should be financed from the national budget, on a different from other regions’ basis, in the form of the so-called defendant mechanisms. So how much money is allocated to them? It can’t be cut away, so nothing can be withdrawn from their basket in the Ukrainian national budget, because other regions have budgets that change during the year, something gets added and something gets removed from their budget basket, you know, but the Donbas will have the defendant budget lines, and they will be surviving economically due to Ukrainian national money but will, of course, be completely politically dependent on Russia.