Ukraine was once again in turmoil last week as President Zelenskyy announced that Ukraine had agreed to the implementation of the so-called “Steinmeier Formula” to resolve the on-going conflict in Eastern Ukraine. This “formula” was first proposed by then German Foreign Minister Frank Steinmeier in 2015 as part of the Minsk peace process. It would see the currently Russian occupied areas of the Donbas granted special status after free local elections overseen by the OSCE are held there.
Zelenskyy took great pains to point out that for this to happen, all Russian forces and local armed militants would first have to withdraw from the conflict zone along with their military equipment, and Ukraine would have to regain control of its former borders. Zelenskyy’s supporters saw this as the first positive step towards ending the war in the Donbas. Many Ukrainians, unsurprisingly, saw this as capitulation to Putin’s ambitions.
The truth is more complicated though than it may seem. Almost everyone except Putin wants the war in Eastern Ukraine to end, but I suspect that everybody’s motives for achieving this end are different. Whatever they may say publicly, all the major players involved in this have hidden agendas.
We must first accept the reality that achieving any kind of peace treaty between Ukraine and Russia is actually irrelevant and meaningless. Russia and its latest Tsar Putin have a long and notorious history of signing all kinds of treaties and agreements, only to break them or ignore the terms at the earliest opportunity. I have no doubt that whatever agreement is achieved in this latest round of negotiations, it will have no impact whatsoever on what Putin chooses to do in the future.
The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 is a classic example of this. The only constraint that Putin recognizes is the military and economic pressure that the U.S., NATO and the European Union can bring to bear on him and his fading Russian empire. Any agreement reached with Putin is a waste of time unless there are concrete and tangible guarantees and means of enforcement.
Bringing an end to the war in Eastern Ukraine was one of the promises Zelenskyy made on his campaign towards the Presidency and control of Parliament. I have no doubt that he will now try his hardest to secure some kind of honorable resolution to the conflict without giving up too much in terms of national honour or sovereignty, however he will inevitably realize, if he doesn’t already, that negotiating with Putin and Russia is essentially pointless. The conflict will never really end until Putin is gone and the predatory current Russian regime crumbles. Any agreement with Putin is a waste of time and paper.
Most of the major European powers would also like to see the war in Eastern Ukraine end, but their motivations are not altruistically aimed at ensuring a peaceful and democratic Ukraine. Few of them really care about the well-being of Ukrainians. Most of them would be more than willing to sacrifice Ukraine to keep Putin quiet and to assure themselves of cheap oil and gas supplies. Putin has also been very effective at enriching many of Europe’s political elite in return for them invoking pressure on their respective governments to make an accomodation with Russia at Ukraine’s expense. There will be no shortage of pressure on Zelenskyy from his so-called European allies to come to a compromise with Russia, so that things can get back to “normal”.
The biggest player in all of this is of course the U.S. It alone can bring enough pressure to bear on Putin to stop him dead in his tracks, should it choose to so. Regrettably, this is not likely to happen while Donald Trump is president of the world’s largest superpower. It has become obvious that through his words and actions, Trump holds Ukraine in deep contempt. Whether this is due to his being an alleged secret Russian asset, or his abysmal lack of understanding of geopolitics and foreign affairs, Trump has chosen to side with Putin rather than Ukraine. No doubt, the American government and even Trump will make loud noises about standing behind Ukraine in securing a just and fair peace treaty, but unless they back that up with a tangible “big stick”, Putin will be the one dictating the terms of any agreement. One can only hope that Trump’s days as President will soon come to an end and the U.S. returns to having a normal, rational and principled foreign policy.
Ukraine is caught between a rock and a hard place on this one. There will be pressure from all sides to conclude an agreement with Putin and Russia. If Zelenskyy has any spine, he should hold firm on not ceding an inch of territory or sovereignty. No elections of any kind in the war zone or any special status until all Russian military presence is gone, complete security is re-established, Ukraine has full control of its original borders, all those who fled the war zone are helped to return, Russia pays reparations for the damage it has caused, and normal life is re-established. Further, long-term peacekeeping and observer forces from NATO should be stationed in the border areas as guarantors of the fulfilment of any treaty. Zelenskyy should do this with the understanding that since Putin will never honour a fair and just treaty, he might as well take a principled stand based on truth and justice.