by Nikola Mikovic (Twitter), a Serbian freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst. He writes for several publications such as Geopolitical Monitor, Global Security Review, International Policy Digest, Global Comment, and Weekly Blitz. Nikola covers mostly Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
Kyiv and the Russia-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic signed an agreement last Tuesday, which paves the way for gradual reintegration of the Donbas region into Ukraine. The document known as the “Steinmeier Formula“, named after former German Foreign Minister and now President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier, envisages that the Donbas should get a special self-governing status after it holds elections under Ukrainian legislation.
The main difference between the Minsk Protocol signed in the Belarusian capital in 2014 and 2015, and the “Steinmeier Formula” is that the later does not mention a ceasefire necessary for the beginning of elections. According to Minsk II, an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire has to be established, and all foreign armed formations, military equipment, as well as mercenaries have to be withdrawn. However, the Minsk Protocol failed precisely at these points, and the “Steinmeier Formula” avoids to mention these pre-conditions for local elections in the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts.
Whether this will now lead to local elections in 2020 and the long term to a stabilization of the situation in Eastern Ukraine is rather doubtful. According to Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, the “Steinmeier Formula” is very unpopular in Ukraine because people see it as a sell-out to Moscow. The problem lies in defining what kind of autonomy both oblasts would be granted. A federal Ukraine where both oblasts would have a de facto veto in Ukraine’s politics would be a non-starter for many in Ukraine. According to Orysia Lutsevych, Research Fellow & Manager of the Ukraine Forum and Russia and Eurasia Programs at Chatham House, a majority of Ukrainians reject the idea of enshrining a special status for the Donbas in the Constitution (Mattia Nelles, “Expert Q&A: Will the Steinmeier Formula Bring Peace to Ukraine?“, Atlantic Council, 04.10.2019).
However, the lack of a definition of the nature of autonomy poses a risk not only for the Ukrainian side. After the election, a special status enshrined in the Constitution, and simultaneous longterm stabilization of the region, Ukraine will reinstate full control of its state border with Russia. For the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republic, this constitutes a significant change. Currently, they are de facto unrecognized countries with their military, police, customs, education, health, and justice systems. However, under Kyiv’s full control, in a worst-case scenario, it could be completely irrelevant if the territory formally has special status or not. As a comparison: after the Erdut Agreement between Croatia and local Serbs in the former Republic of Serbian Krajina, which enabled Zagreb to establish full control over the state border with Serbia, Serbs lost all the rights they previously had. Russian full implementation of the “Steinmeier Formula” might have the same consequence for the Russian and Russian speaking population of the Donbas, as Kyiv aims to implement full Ukrainization of that area, as it did in the rest of the country, practically not to provide any form of autonomy.
At this point, however, it is highly uncertain if the Kremlin will be ready to abandon its proxies in the Donbas, as such action could send a clear message to entities such as Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. Also, if the Kremlin agrees to return the Donbas to Ukraine, the West would unlikely lift all the sanctions it imposed on Russia in the past five years. Instead, it would welcome progress towards peace but probably would also put intense pressure on Russia to start the negotiation process with Ukraine over the status of Crimea. That is why some analysts believe that any form of reintegration of the Donbas into Ukraine would be seen as a sign of Russian weakness, and might be the start of another conflict. However, since Moscow already got involved in negotiations with Japan over the status of the Kuril Islands, which have been an integral part of Russia for over seventy years, it is not unrealistic to expect that the Kremlin will eventually negotiate the status of Crimea with Ukraine and the West.
In the past, however, Russia has had bad experiences with the outcome of such negotiations. Apart from the Donbas peace talks, Steinmeier played a crucial role during the violent protests in Kyiv in 2014, which resulted in overthrowing the former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych. He, along with Yanukovych and Ukrainian opposition leaders, signed the Agreement on the settlement of political crisis in Ukraine. The document was never implemented, and Russian President Vladimir Putin later accused his “Western partners” of “deceiving Russia” by violating the agreement. In an interview published by Russian state TV in 2018, the Russian president openly admitted that his “Western partners” required from him to put pressure on Yanukovych and ask him not to use force against violent Western-backed protesters. Putin agreed, and Yanukovych was overthrown. How likely is it that the Russian proxies in the Donbas will eventually face the same fate — abandoned by Moscow and overthrown by Kyiv?