On October 1, in the Minsk Contact Group, Ukraine agreed with the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR, LPR) to incorporate the “Steinmeier Formula” into Ukraine’s legislation. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy directed his envoy, former president Leonid Kuchma, to co-sign the letters of acceptance along with the DPR’s and LPR’s envoys, themselves accredited to the Contact Group by the “presidents” and “parliaments” of those two “people’s republics.” Steinmeier’s Formula (originally proposed by then–German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier) would facilitate the international validation of “elections” that would, by definition, be unfree and unfair in the Russian-controlled DPR and LPR. That validation would, in turn, legitimize the Russian protectorate in this territory of Ukraine. The letters of acceptance, moreover, envisage negotiations on a co-equal footing between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk, with Moscow as facilitator in the Minsk Contact Group, toward a constitutional „special status“ of the Donetsk-Luhansk territory, under the terms of the Minsk “agreements”: nominally within Ukraine, de facto under Russia’s control, so as to undermine Ukraine from within. The centerpiece of this process will be the “special status”; whereas the Steinmeier Formula would simply put a democratic cover on a Kremlin protectorate in Ukraine’s east (see EDM, October 3). Ukraine’s former president and parliament had maneuvered out of this trap during four years.
President Zelenskyy, however, caved in, hoping—as he explained—to clear the way for a summit meeting, although he has yet to show any agenda other than meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin there. Zelenskyy’s latest public appearance reconfirmed his incapacity to handle such major challenges as Russia’s. However, Zelenskyy is highly attuned to opinion polling and popularity ratings, and he is also worried by public protests following his October 1 cave-in. Whether from political calculation, genuine incomprehension, or a combination thereof, Zelenskyy has endeavored to downplay the implications of committing Ukraine to a solution on Russian terms. He suggests that nothing out of the ordinary has happened (see EDM, October 16, 17).
The Kremlin, however, is rudely contradicting the Zelenskyy team’s messaging. Aleksei Chesnakov is Moscow’s authorized public voice for policy on Donbas and other aspects of policy toward Ukraine. Billed as director of the Center for Current Politics, Chesnakov is publicly fronting for Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s top aide who supervises the DPR-LPR and other aspects of policy toward Ukraine but who hardly ever goes public to explicate the policy. That task devolves to Chesnakov when significant messages are launched.
In a series of three interviews with the TASS news agency (October 3, 7, 10), Chesnakov says that the Steinmeier Formula (with the acceptance letters) is far from enough to resolve the conflict in Ukraine’s east, but only a start toward implementing the Minsk “agreements.” Chesnakov makes the following points:
1) Kyiv’s intentions to legislate a special status for Donetsk-Luhansk are no longer valid. The acceptance of the Steinmeier Formula commits Ukraine to legislating that special status as a constitutional law, by agreement with Donetsk-Luhansk. Neither they nor Russia would recognize any special-status law unless agreed upon with them, namely in the Minsk Contact Group (where Russia “facilitates” those negotiations), ultimately to be cleared in the “Normandy” format (Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine).
This warning is aimed at Zelenskyy and the top leaders of his “Servant of the People” parliamentary party. They envisage a “new law” (an ordinary, not a constitutional law), to replace the existing ordinary law, which never took effect, on the Donetsk-Luhansk special status. They probably believe that Ukraine’s parliament retains sovereign authority to legislate that “special status” for Donetsk-Luhansk. Chesnakov tells them that the DPR-LPR must be, in effect, contracting parties to a constitutional arrangement. This is in line with the Kremlin-dictated Minsk “agreements” and confirmed in the letters that accepted the Steinmeier Formula.
2) According to Chesnakov, the constitutional law on Donetsk-Luhansk’s special status will be a framework law, necessitating further legislation to cover various spheres of activity in the Donetsk-Luhansk territory. These would include: the functioning of Donetsk-Luhansk “people’s militias,” to number “several tens of thousands in service [an allusion to the DPR’s and LPR’s existing militaries]”; agreements between the local authorities and the Kyiv government about economic development of this territory; the functioning of courts in this territory; and other spheres. Kyiv must also negotiate all of this with the DPR-LPR in the Minsk Contact Group, to enshrine the special status in Ukraine’s constitution and legislation. Meanwhile, “Ukraine’s authorities do not fully understand the vast dimensions of this problem.”
3) Citing the Minsk “agreements” and the Steinmeier Formula’s implications, Chesnakov warns that the process of restoring Ukrainian control along the Ukraine-Russia border in this territory is pre-conditioned on Ukraine enshrining the special status and recognizing the validity of Donetsk-Luhansk “elections.” Once the constitutional and political settlements are completed, Kyiv would have to negotiate with Donetsk-Luhansk in the Minsk Contact Group about restoring Ukrainian control along the border. It seems that Moscow has in mind some form of shared control by Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk along that 400-kilometer border.
4) The Ukrainian government must negotiate directly with Donetsk-Luhansk, not with Russia, about exchanges of prisoners and other detainees held by the DPR-LPR. With this, Chesnakov is hitting one of President Zelenskyy’s neuralgic points.
Chesnakov concludes, “Ukraine will ultimately hold only a symbolic, not real, sovereignty in Donbas.” His series of interviews responds to Zelenskyy’s awkward attempts to suggest that the terms and sequence of the Minsk “agreements” may be subject to revision, if only he obtains his meeting with Putin.