Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has suddenly lost American strategic policy mentoring at a juncture where he needs it more than ever. The consequences came starkly to light in Zelenskyy’s 14-hour briefing for some 300 Ukrainian and international journalists, hosted by the head of state on October 10, in a Kyiv restaurant. Staged as a media spectacle, the briefing was billed as an all-time world record for length and was capped with the conferral of a Ukrainian Guinness World Records award to Zelenskyy.
The Presidential Office arranged this “press marathon” to address widespread criticism in Ukrainian media over unilateral concessions to Russia in the Minsk and Normandy negotiation processes. The president’s outreach also sought to defuse public protests from a cross-section of civil-society, political, and paramilitary groups. Those groups—whether singly or jointly—took to the streets in Kyiv and other cities on October 1, 2 and 6, followed by combat veterans’ protests at Zolote, on the frontline on October 8, and culminating with rallies on Kyiv’s Maidan Square, on October 14, “against capitulation” to Russia (Euromaidan Press, October 12, 15; Ukraine Crisis Media Center, October 16).
Those concessions to Moscow (see EDM, September 17, 24, 25, 26, October 3, 10) formed the topic of the most frequently asked questions to Zelenskyy during the October 10 marathon briefing. The public and media shorthand for those concessions is “the Steinmeier Formula”—an oversimplified code word, encompassing a wider range of issues of concern, beyond the letter of the Steinmeier Formula itself, about the implementation of the Minsk “agreements.” Almost inevitably, many of these questions were asked many times over. Domestic matters seemed second to foreign policy and the Donbas conflict in terms of media interest at Zelenskyy’s briefing.
The president’s replies seemed often confused or incoherent. They confirmed an inadequate grasp of the issues at stake in the Normandy and Minsk negotiation processes, overall naïveté about foreign policy, and poor advice from his trusted inner circle, bereft of foreign policy professionals. At the same time, Zelenskyy does understand that he must take the domestic political backlash seriously into account. This factor is now causing Zelenskyy’s team to temporize on further steps along the path they have taken and even to backtrack—at least for the moment—on some of the points already conceded (see below).
The president and his team are caught between multiple pressures: self-generated pressure to “bring peace” without careful consideration of the terms, Russian military pressure resulting in Ukrainian battle casualties, French (upfront) and German (backstage) pressure in the Normandy and Minsk processes for a phased settlement acceptable to Russia, and, now, the backlash from Ukrainian society’s active core. In this situation, Zelenskyy’s media briefing fell back on his electoral campaign tactics, trying to simultaneously cater to the widest possible range of constituencies—in this case to Moscow, Berlin and Paris, as well as various parts of Ukrainian society. In that endeavor, he used vague, ambivalent, or otherwise confusing positions or hints, sometimes mutually contradictory or internally contradictory (President.gov.ua, Ukrinform, October 10, 11).
Looking ahead to the Normandy summit (of Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine) that he seeks to precipitate, Zelenskyy narrowed his negotiating leeway in advance by professing an almost unconditional devotion to peace: “I was elected as the president who will end the war. This is the kind of man Zelenskyy is and will always be. How we end the war, by what plans, we shall consider later. But my main goal, my main policy, is to end the war. This is my mission,” one talking point rang out.
On the other hand, he is prepared to draw “Red Lines” in the negotiations. “This is our territory, our land. We are 100 percent in the right.” There shall be “no capitulation,” no “betrayal” or “surrender” of Ukraine’s interests. These are stock-in-trade phrases for Zelenskyy and his team, but those concepts have yet to be defined, lest the red lines turn pink and blurry.
Acceptance of the Steinmeier Formula has crossed what is widely perceived as a red line (hence Zelenskyy’s decision to call this briefing). The 14-hour briefing was a missed opportunity to clarify Ukraine’s “red lines” in the ongoing Minsk and upcoming Normandy negotiations.
The president (as well as Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko) had previously alluded to an undisclosed Plan B (occasionally even Plan C). Zelenskyy repeated that in his marathon briefing: “We have a Plan B. I do not want to talk about it now.” Yet he gave a hint: “We will absolutely win back the people of Donbas along with the territory. This is our Plan A. Whereas Plan B will be a long, long way to regain the territory, but our priority will be the people over there.” This latter phrase might be an improvisation (not uncharacteristic) but may also hint at taking over some responsibility for sustaining the uncontrolled territory’s socio-economic recovery even if Ukraine does not regain its sovereignty there. (Such recovery programs, by Ukraine and/or the European Union, could not qualify as “post-conflict recovery” until Ukraine regains its sovereignty there; otherwise the effort would subsidize a continuing, if frozen, conflict.)