This story originated in VOA’s Ukrainian Service. Some information is from Reuters and AP.
WASHINGTON — The Ukrainian president’s support for a deal with pro-Russian rebels that would introduce a special status for Ukraine’s breakaway regions drew both outrage and praise across the nation Wednesday.
According to guidelines of the so-called Steinmeier Formula, which was signed late Tuesday in Kyiv, Russians, Ukrainians and European mediators have pledged to hold local elections in Ukraine’s rebel-held east, where a grinding five-year war between the separatists and Ukrainian troops has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.
While the announcement was largely embraced in areas controlled by Russian-backed separatists, far-right nationalists descended on Kyiv’s central Independence Square — the epicenter of Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan revolution that ousted Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych and precipitated Russia’s annexation of Crimea — wielding signs and banners reading “no capitulation.”
The plan, first proposed by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier when he was the country's foreign minister, aims to get both sides to agree to a set of key articles outlined in the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 as way to jump-start settlement negotiations.
Critics of the deal say it makes too many concessions to Russia’s interest in seeing pro-Russian regions of the Donbas assume more self-governance — something Russian has long advocated — while supporters say it may be a crucial step toward stopping the violence and reaching toward a broader resolution of the 5-year-old war.
As reported by Radio Free Europe, a new poll by Kyiv-headquartered Rating Group indicated that about 66% of respondents were “unable to offer an opinion on the Steinmeier Formula, while 23% opposed the idea and 18% supported it.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, however, pushed back against critics, denying that the deal he agreed to compromises Ukraine’s territorial or political integrity.
“There won’t be any elections under the barrel of a gun,” Zelenskiy said at a press conference following the announcement, explaining that any polls in the Donbas would take place in accordance with Ukrainian legislation and international standards. “There won’t be any elections there if the troops are still there.”
Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who was defeated by Zelenskiy in a landslide election earlier this year, was quick to slam the deal.
“The Steinmeier formula means Putin’s formula, which radically changes the sequence of actions within Minsk agreements and throws away the roadmap of Minsk agreements,” Poroshenko said in an interview with local news outlets.
Without a full retreat of “all foreign occupation forces” and disarmament “illegal military forces” and the return of Ukrainians displaced by the war, “no election can be legitimate or considered an expression of the free will of citizens.”
Residents in the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk expressed cautious optimism that the deal would bring peace, but also concern that the pace of change would be too slow.
“In our view, we made a huge breakthrough, as we have been urging Ukraine to agree with the Steinmeier formula,” said Ukrainian national Natalia Nesterova of the Russian-backed separatist Donetsk People Republic, which is not officially recognized domestically or internationally. “In these three years nothing worked, neither the direct instructions of the Normandy format advisers nor direct instructions of the Normandy format leaders. And today, after yet another direct signal from the Normandy format advisors, the Ukrainian side after all agreed to sign Steinmeier formula.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov praised the agreement, saying he’s hopeful that a date will soon be set to resume the Normandy format peace talks between France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia for the first time since 2016.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer said he doesn’t think the deal benefits Russia as much as critics say.
“I’m not sure yet we know enough facts, enough details about the agreement, but one detail to my mind sounds pretty good, which is, as the president described it, that, first ... Russian and Russian proxy forces have to leave occupied Donbas,” he told VOA’s Ukrainian Service.
“Ukraine is then allowed to re-establish control, including presumably on the Ukraine-Russia border, and only then local elections happen,” he said. “I think that’s very much in Ukraine’s favor.”
Just weeks ago, he said, “I would be surprised if the Russians would accept that because the Russians seem to indicate that they wanted to have these elections take place before Ukraine re-established control.
“The lack of details regarding how Kyiv defines “local self-government or special status,” he said, remained one outstanding concern.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow, now with the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, largely echoed that view, adding that it remains to be seen if Russia is interpreting the Steinmeier agreement the same way that Zelenskiy does.
“Hopefully everyone will benefit from it if it is implemented in a way that’s consistent with the overall goals of Minsk, and that it is not something that is responsive to the Russian interpretation of Minsk, which is very self-serving,” he said.
“President Zelenskiy has tried to reassure people that he has in mind implementing the Steinmeier formula, but only holding the elections after Russian forces and illegal militias have been removed or disarmed in the Donbas,” he added. “I think he’s absolutely right. You can’t hold elections at the barrel of a gun. But it remains to be seen if the Russians understand that this is an essential precondition for implementing the Steinmeier formula.”
Vershbow also said the presence of international observers and possibly international peacekeeping forces may be necessary to oversee the withdrawal of Russian-backed militias and ensure that elections are conducted in a fair and transparent manner.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Zelenskiy could meet for the first time as early as this month in talks aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The war in eastern Ukraine continues despite a cease-fire agreement.