If German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier read Ukrainian, he would be surprised how often he is mentioned by local media. Their interest is not in Steinmeier himself, but in a peace initiative bearing his name.
The governments of Ukraine and Russia have been widely discussing the so-called “Steinmeier Formula,” a peace plan proposed by the German president back in 2016. Both have signaled that they will consider it to end Russia’s five-year war against Ukraine.
Steinmeier proposed the formula during his time as German foreign minister. It is hardly complex: The parties involved should hold free and fair local elections in the Russian-occupied Donbas under Ukrainian law. In exchange, the region will receive special self-governance status.
On Sept. 12, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the formula would be discussed by the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia – called the Normandy Four after the place of their first meeting and tasked with ending the hostilities in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine hopes to schedule the meeting as soon as possible. The last Normandy meeting took place in 2016.
The leaders of France, Germany and, most notably, Russia — who is responsible for the conflict in the first place — have offered their preliminary support for the formula.
Russia has consistently backed the idea of holding local elections in the occupied regions of eastern Ukraine, hoping to legitimize its proxies in Donbas.
The outcome of these elections isn’t difficult to predict. Russia controls the border between itself and the occupied territories, has a major media presence and is expecting its candidates to win the elections and receive a fair share of authority over the region.
Moreover, granting autonomy to the territories controlled by Russia-backed insurgents won’t be well received in Ukraine.
On Aug. 31, 2015, the Ukrainian parliament tried to pass constitutional amendments granting the occupied territories autonomous status. Major protests erupted in front of the parliament building leading to the deaths of four military servicemen and dozens of injuries.
The idea of changing the Ukrainian constitution was dropped after those events. The Steinmeier formula doesn’t mentioned constitutional changes.
The formula itself can pose a threat to national security and legitimize those fighting against Ukraine. But some observers, such as Andreas Umland, senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, says Ukrainians are overreacting.
“A proper conduct of the elections would implicitly mean the change of control from Russia to Ukraine, because only Ukraine can conduct proper elections (in the occupied zone),” says Umland.
The Steinmeier Formula isn’t a printed document, nor is it a concrete roadmap. Rather, it is a proposed simplification of the failed Minsk agreements.
The agreements were signed in Minsk, first on Sept. 5, 2014 and later on Feb. 12, 2015, and aimed to halt hostilities in eastern Ukraine. They proposed implementing a ceasefire, followed by the withdrawal of weaponry by both sides. By the end of 2015, local elections were to be held in the occupied territories under Ukrainian law, followed by autonomy for the region.
The agreements reached in Minsk also required both sides to return all prisoners they held to their homes and to pull out all foreign military from Donbas. Ukraine would also need to pardon all those fighting on the side of the Russia-backed militants.
In return, Ukraine would also receive control over the border between Russia and the Russian-occupied territories of Donbas.
Political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told the Kyiv Post that including the return of the border last on the list was a major shortcoming for Ukraine. Without controlling the border it is impossible to control, for example, the weapons crossing the border onto Ukrainian territory, a serious issue for Ukraine.
The agreement didn’t work. Zero of the Minsk agreement provisions have been fully realized.
In 2016, then-German Foreign Minister Steinmeier proposed a simplified version of the Minsk agreements during talks with his colleagues from France, Ukraine and Russia. It included holding elections in the occupied territories under Ukrainian legislation and the supervision of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
If OSCE deems these elections free and fair, then the special status of these regions will kick in and Ukraine will receive its borders back.
The formula wasn’t written down and was swiftly forgotten.
Change of plans
After Ukraine’s presidential elections, held on April 21, the situation changed. Newly elected President Zelensky made ending the war in Donbas one of his top priorities and promised fast results.
According to Zelensky, he will discuss the Steinmeier Formula during the Normandy Four meeting, planned for the upcoming months.
Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said on Sept. 13, “We are proposing to hold local elections throughout (Ukraine’s) territory, including the occupied regions.”
He later gave a more detailed explanation, saying that the elections will be based upon Ukrainian legislation and that Ukraine’s constitution will remain intact.
Russia, Germany and France all made earlier comments that they are willing to discuss the formula.
Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said on Aug. 26, that Russia wants the Steinmeier formula on paper before any further discussions take place.
Umland, in a comment to the Kyiv Post, said that the question now is how close the German and French interpretation of the Steinmeier formula would be to that of Russia.
Fesenko says that even though all sides are willing to discuss Steinmeier’s proposals, the level of these talks may again be lowered to avoid responsibility.
The Minsk agreements — despite the agreement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Presidents of France, Ukraine and Russia — were signed by representatives with questionable status. Ex-President Leonid Kuchma from Ukraine, OSCE diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, Russian Ambassador Mikhail Zurabov and leaders of the Russian-controlled proxy statelets were the ones signing the eventual agreements.
Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s former foreign minister, in a Sept. 13 radio interview with Novoe Vremya, stated that the Steinmeier formula is meant to create a proper sequence to begin the process of reintegrating Donbas.
According to Klimkin, the fact that the elections would be held by the OSCE and according to their standards implies that Russian troops must be withdrawn, insurgents must lay down their weapons and free media must be permitted into the occupied zone.
“A United Nations or OSCE led peacekeeping force must be deployed,” said Klimkin.
Yet Russia sees the situation differently.
According to Umland, Russia has little to lose – they will influence the elections and will bet on the OSCE acknowledging the results. If the plan fails, then the status quo favorable to Russia will remain, returning Donbas back into the gray area.
Nonetheless, Umland says the risk is worth taking.
“The OSCE, France and Germany know the problems with Russian desires in eastern Ukraine. If there was more trust (in the OSCE), it would be worth trying,” Umland adds.
The West will accept only fair and transparent elections according to Ukrainian law, Umland says.
“I don’t see Ukraine as the losing side of such a process. Starting this process is more important. Creating the conditions for such elections would amount for the return of Ukraine’s state apparatus to the currently occupied territories.”
However, too few expect that the Steinmeier formula will lead to long-term stability.
“It will most likely become some sort of useless protocol,” says Fesenko. “Ukraine needs it to advance the Normandy Four meeting, nothing more.”
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