Russia Entraps Ukraine’s President in the Steinmeier Formula

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 136

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits troops in Donbas (Source: New Europe)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has yielded to Russia in accepting the Steinmeier Formula, a procedure for implementing the Minsk “accords” on Russian-defined terms (see EDM, September 17, 24, 25, 26). On October 1, in the Minsk Contact Group, Ukraine agreed to incorporate the core part of the Steinmeier Formula into Ukraine’s legislation. Ukraine, Russia, the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR, LPR) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE, mediator in the Minsk Contact Group) co-signed the documents alongside Ukraine (Ukrinform, Interfax, October 1, 2). Zelenskyy’s presidential office authorized the public release of Ukraine’s own letter of acceptance. It did not reveal the fact that the DPR-LPR are co-signatories alongside Ukraine; but Moscow leaked the full documents to the press (Kommersant, October 2).

Ukraine had resisted this formula ever since 2015, when Germany’s then–minister of foreign affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (currently head of state), proposed it and Russia embraced it. Zelenskyy has now accepted it in hopes of inducing Russian President Vladimir Putin to “end the war” in short order.

Acceptance of the Steinmeier Formula is Putin’s main precondition to holding a summit of the “Normandy” group (Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine), potentially combined with a bilateral Putin-Zelenskyy meeting. The Ukrainian president yearns for this image-boosting event and a signal that “peace” is at hand. These short-term considerations are leading Zelenskyy and Ukraine into a long-term trap: committing to implement the Minsk “agreements” via the Steinmeier Formula. For their part, Berlin and (especially) Paris are also keen to hold that summit, and welcome Zelenskyy’s willingness to comply with Moscow’s precondition. They are providing a multilateral cover for Zelenskyy’s acceptance of the Steinmeier Formula, to be sealed at the upcoming Normandy summit in Paris.

That Formula prescribes implementing the Minsk „accords‘“ political clauses to the satisfaction of Russia and DPR-LPR, consolidating and legitimizing the latter through local „elections.“ Steinmeier‘s Formula de-couples the political clauses from the military and security clauses, leaving the latter unimplemented and subject to follow-up negotiations. The decoupling would further strengthen Russia‘s and its proxies‘ hands in any follow-up negotiations with Ukraine on implementing the military and security clauses of the Minsk „agreements.“

At its core, the Steinmeier Formula is a procedure to legitimize “elections” in the DPR-LPR by cornering Ukraine into acceptance and by alleviating Western scruples. Building on that original core (which dates back to 2015–2016), the four Normandy leaders’ top diplomatic advisors met on September 2 and September 11, 2019, in Paris and Berlin, respectively, to finalize the details of this procedure for approval in the Minsk Contact Group (done on October 1) and at the upcoming Normandy summit (see above).

If and when local “elections” are staged in the DPR-LPR (Zelenskyy’s team considers spring 2020 as a possibility), the documents signed on October 1 stipulate that the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) would monitor those “elections.” This would break with the OSCE’s refusal to monitor “elections” in Russian-controlled/occupied territories such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and Crimea. Such a shift by the OSCE would be a major concession to Russia.

In that case, the Steinmeier Formula shall operate in accordance with the documents signed on October 1. Ukraine would bring the law on the special status of Donetsk-Luhansk into temporary effect on election day at 8 p.m. (closure of the balloting stations). The OSCE would determine whether the elections adhered “on the whole [sic]” to this organization’s standards and “international” standards. If the OSCE assesses the elections as corresponding “on the whole” with those standards, the special status of Donetsk-Luhansk goes into permanent effect upon the publication of the OSCE’s report. Automaticity is clearly implied, there being no provision for Ukrainian approval of the permanent effect.

The documents signed on October 1 maintain the pretense that elections in Donetsk-Luhansk would comply with Ukraine’s constitution and its electoral law. Ukraine’s constitution, however, does not authorize a special status for any part of Ukraine; nor does its electoral law provide for local elections held in, or tailored to, one or another part of Ukraine. This is why Russia, the DPR-LPR, and certain Western diplomats want to change Ukraine’s constitution and Ukraine’s electoral law, rather than work “in compliance with” the constitution and the law. Their idea is to have Kyiv and the DPR-LPR negotiate a special electoral law for local elections in Donetsk-Luhansk. This negotiation to “hybridize” Ukrainian law has been ongoing in the Minsk Contact Group since 2015. This is the continuation of the Morel Plan (named after French diplomat Pierre Morel), an accretion to the Steinmeier Formula.

Under the October 1 documents, Ukraine would not independently invite the OSCE and ODIHR to monitor the “elections” in the DPR-LPR. Unlike an independent country, Ukraine would have the wording of that invitation written for it by the four Normandy countries collectively; and that text would then be sent to the Minsk Contact Group, to be finalized in negotiations among the Contact Group’s participants: Ukraine, Russia, and the DPR-LPR. Similarly, the wording of Ukraine’s request to the OSCE and ODIHR to evaluate those “elections” would also be written collectively in the Normandy and Minsk groups. The apparent intent is to allow the OSCE/ODIHR maximum leeway for political expediency, as the term “on the whole” clearly suggests in reference to compliance with standards. Having the invitation and the request written by others is a clear limitation on Ukraine’s sovereignty—as is, for example, preconditioning Ukraine‘s control of the border on Ukraine’s acceptance of a special status for Donetsk-Luhansk.

The documents signed in the Minsk Contact Group on October 1 have the form of letters from the chief delegates of Ukraine, Russia, and the “DPR” and “LPR” to the OSCE’s representative in the Minsk Group, and from him to the OSCE’s chairperson-in-office. All these letters respond to a question (dated September 13, not published) whether they agree with the Normandy group’s September 11 text of the “Steinmeier Formula” (see above) “to be implemented in Ukraine’s legislation.” The October 1 letters are worded identically (in Russian), and all end with declaring that they “accept the text of this formula.”