Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said a formula proposed by Germany three years ago as a way of breaking the deadlock for achieving peace in the Donbas conflict would only be implemented once four-way talks take place with Russia, Germany, and France.
Fielding questions during a marathon news conference in Kyiv on October 10, Zelenskiy said the blueprint proposed in 2016 by then-German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier would be enshrined in a new "special status" law for the separatist-controlled territories and drafted only after the so-called Normandy format discussions take place.
"Will there be a special status law through which the Steinmeier Formula will be implemented -- we’ll decide together with you only after the Normandy format meeting and after we learn what all sides are proposing," Zelenskiy said at his first full-fledged news conference since being elected in April.
The formula proposed by Steinmeier -- who in the mean time has become the president of Germany -- calls for elections to be held in the separatist-held territories under Ukrainian legislation and the supervision of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
If the OSCE deems the balloting to be free and fair, then a special self-governing status for the territories will be initiated and Ukraine will be returned control of its easternmost border with Russia.
Zelenskiy announced on October 1 that he signed Ukraine up to the formula, a move that spurred protests that he was essentially surrendering to Moscow’s demands.
One thing that is not clear is what giving the easternmost territories special status will entail. In the past Russia insisted that the two Donbas regions should have veto power on foreign-policy decisions like integrating with the European Union or joining NATO.
Zelenskiy insisted he is not in favor of granting autonomy to the Donbas region.
“I am not ready to give the autonomy status to these territories. This is our territory. This is Ukraine," he said.
Another uncertainty is the sequence of steps that should be taken during the formula's implementation.
Zelenskiy has stated that local elections in the Donbas won’t take place until all armed formations leave the occupied area and Kyiv regains control of its borders with Russia in addition to having candidates from throughout the country to run.
"I’m the peace president. I want to end the war. The public didn't vote for a president who'll say: 'We have a combat-ready army and are ready for direct military action.' That’s why a diplomatic path has been chosen," he said.
Agreeing to Steinmeier's proposal was supposed to break the current deadlock and bring Russia back to the negotiation table.
However, Zelenskiy said on October 10 that the Normandy format meeting has been postponed over the pullback of troops that was supposed to happen at three civilian checkpoints along the front line.
Fighting has stopped near two of the checkpoints but not at a third, the president said, adding that pullbacks were agreed once shooting stops for seven consecutive days.
If the Normandy format meeting keeps getting postponed, Zelenskiy said he will seek another way to meet because he wants to exchange prisoners.
"I think a resolution will be found at the Normandy format meeting," he said. "If it gets postponed because the pullback didn’t take place -- at the Zolote [checkpoint] there is still shooting -- then we’ll find another format to return our people.”
Zelenskiy added that he's ready even for direct talks with Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin.
An alternative is the so-called Minsk accords that his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, agreed to in Minsk four years ago with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and former French President Francois Hollande.
The Minsk accord, which is still in effect, is a cease-fire agreement and a road map for achieving lasting peace.
One of its clauses is to have an "all-for-all" prisoner exchange.
According to the Ukrainian Security Service, 227 Ukrainians are being held in the territories in eastern Ukraine that Kyiv doesn’t control.
Ukrainian Ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova has stated that 113 Ukrainian prisoners are currently being held either in Russia or Russia-annexed Crimea.