The Ukrainian crisis has been at the center of Russia’s confrontation with the West since February 2014, when a popular revolution, seen in Moscow as a Western-sponsored coup, ousted the pro-Russian government of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. This, the Kremlin believed, was an attempt by Western powers to radically change the balance of power by incorporating Ukraine into Euro-Atlantic institutions and to eventually politically and militarily undermine and subjugate Russia. Moscow’s reaction was swift and forceful: a massive deployment of troops to Crimea, disarmament of local Ukrainian garrisons, and occupation and speedy annexation of the peninsula, followed by a Moscow-supported separatist insurrection in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. The West, in response, imposed punitive sanctions. Russia’s relations with Europe and the United States have been unraveling ever since.
US President Donald Trump has time and again expressed a desire to strike a deal with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. On October 3, 2019, before leaving Moscow, outgoing US ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, confirmed in an interview to Kommersant that there had been a tentative agreement last year between the White House and the Kremlin to seriously upgrade relations. The two sides, apparently, pledged to organize Putin’s visit to Washington in the spring of 2019, and then Trump would come to Moscow in the second half of the year. Plans were also in progress to organize a joint Russo-American council of experts and a joint council of prominent businesspeople to work on improving bilateral relations. A Trump-Putin summit on December 1, 2018, on the sidelines of a G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, was planned to finalize these preparations; but the Ukrainian problem intervened (Kommersant, October 3).
The Trump-Putin summit in Buenos Aires was canceled and everything put on hold because of a violent incident in and around the Kerch Strait, in which the Russian military attacked and captured three Ukrainian naval boats and arrested their 24 crew members (see EDM, November 26, 28, 29, 2018). The three vessels remain impounded in Crimea, but the crew members have been freed and sent home as part of a mutually agreed prisoner release in September 2019 (see EDM, September 10, 12). According to Huntsman, the “resolution” of the Kerch Strait incident has created a window of opportunity to renew efforts to improve relations (Kommersant, October 3).
But with the current political storm related to Ukraine raging in Washington and possible pending impeachment of the US president by the House of Representatives, a Putin visit to the White House does not seem plausible. Speaking at an energy conference in Moscow, on October 2, Putin reiterated he and Trump had a good and steady relationship, but attempts to improve US-Russian relations have failed “because they are entangled in internal US squabbles” (RT, October 2).
Putin and other Russian officials rarely hide their affection for Trump. And everybody understands the importance of maintaining working bilateral relations, especially military-to-military contacts, to avoid any possible skirmishes in Syria or elsewhere. Soon after General Mark Milley was sworn in as the 20th Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, he and his Russian counterpart, the chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, spoke by phone to establish ties and “discuss questions of mutual interest” (Militarynews.ru, October 2). However, it is also understood in Moscow that there is little if any prospect of reaching a serious deal on anything with Washington until after the 2020 elections. Even so, the “Ukraine-gate” firestorm roiling Washington may be a good distraction, allowing Moscow to score important points in different parts of the global chessboard while US attention turns sharply inward.
On October 1, in Minsk, representatives of Ukraine, Russia, and the Moscow-backed separatist territories of Luhansk and Donetsk signed separate, but mutually agreed, letters addressed to Austrian diplomat Martin Sajdik—the special representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Ukraine—to implement the so-called Steinmeier Formula as a road map to end the fighting in Donbas. Steinmeier’s formula was proposed in 2016 by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then the foreign minister and currently the president of Germany. The Steinmeier Formula calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons from frontline positions, troop separation, and elections to be held in separatist-controlled territories under Ukrainian legislation and the supervision of the OSCE. If the OSCE judges the vote to be free and fair, a permanent law regulating the special self-governing status of separatist-controlled territories must be enacted by the Kyivan authorities (see EDM, September 17, 24, 25, 26).
In Moscow, the acceptance of the Steinmeier formula by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been hailed as a major victory. Meanwhile, Kyiv has seen protests by opposition activists and politicians who see it as a sellout of Ukrainian national interests and independence. Zelenskyy—who ran on a promise to end the Donbas war—was elected earlier this year in a landslide, and his party soon thereafter won a massive majority in the Supreme Rada (parliament). The pro-Moscow Opposition Platform (“For Life”) party faction in the Ukrainian Rada also supports the Steinmeier Formula. Still, there is lots of confusion in Ukraine on what was actually signed in Minsk on October 1. Zelenskyy apparently does not have a ready text of a new law on self-rule in Donbas, while the self-rule law that was passed in 2014 is seen as inadequate and expires in 2020 (Gordonua.com, October 2).
Zelenskyy’s acceptance of the Steinmeier Formula has been a prerequisite to Putin agreeing to take part in a summit with him and the leaders of France and Germany on resolving the Ukrainian crisis. The pro-Kremlin news portal Vzglyad insists Western pressure forced Zelenskyy to accept the Steinmeier Formula. In particular, Vzglyad highlights strong signals from Trump, who had frozen military aid to Ukraine (unfrozen in September 2019) and who, during a joint press conference after a summit in New York in September 2019, told Zelenskyy, “I really hope you and Putin get together and solve your problem.” The West is apparently fed up with Ukraine and the unending problems of a failed state (according to Vzglyad) and is ready to make amends with Russia in exchange for a peace formula for Donbas (Vzglyad, October 2). The adaptation of the Steinmeier Formula will effectively turn Ukraine into a loose confederation, which Russia may gobble up piece by piece (Vzglyad, October 3).
This scenario likely reflects Moscow’s imperialistic wishful thinking more than reality: the Kremlin may dream of unifying the Eastern Slavic republics into a greater Russia, but it does not seem to possess the resources to actually accomplish it. Regardless, one thing is certain: in the near term, Ukraine will remain in the headlines.