Accessibility links

Breaking News

The Week In Russia: Formats, Formulas, And A Kremlin Growl At Greta's Girl Power

People take part in a protest against the approval of the so-called Steinmeier Formula in front of the president's office in Kyiv on October 2.

To receive Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia each week via e-mail, subscribe by clicking here.

Will the "Steinmeier Formula" bring a breakthrough in efforts to end the war in eastern Ukraine, or run up against disputes over the timing of retuning the state border to Kyiv's control? Also, Putin takes aim at Greta Thunberg, sending a signal to Russian protesters in the process, and an anti-Putin shaman is declared unfit to stand trial.

Format And Formula

In terms of the terminology of the snail's-pace peace process for the war in eastern Ukraine, Russia appears to be winning.

First there was the "Normandy Format," now there's the "Steinmeier Formula."

Neither term has anything to do with Russia on the surface, but both potentially play into Moscow's hands, at least in small ways.

Being part of the Normandy Format -- the name for talks involving Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany -- makes it sound as if Russia, whose officials frequently contend that the Soviet role in the Nazi defeat in World War II is not adequately acknowledged in the West, was not only making its massive contribution on the Eastern Front but was also on the beaches on D-Day.

In fact, the origin of the term is more recent. It comes from a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of Ukraine, Germany, and France at a chateau in Normandy on June 6, 2014, on the sidelines of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings by U.S., Canadian, and British troops.

That meeting came just weeks into the war and before one of its deadliest phases, the summer of 2014, during which some of the heaviest fighting on the ground took place and Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by a missile brought from Russia into territory held by Moscow-backed fighters in Ukraine's Donbas region, killing all 298 people aboard.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, (2nd left) welcomes his counterparts from France, Laurent Fabius, (right); Russia, Sergei Lavrov, (L); and Ukraine, Pavlo Klimkin in Berlin in January 2015.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, (2nd left) welcomes his counterparts from France, Laurent Fabius, (right); Russia, Sergei Lavrov, (L); and Ukraine, Pavlo Klimkin in Berlin in January 2015.

More than five years later, Putin's connection to Normandy is even more tenuous: The conflict in the Donbas persists, sanctions imposed on Russia over the war and Moscow's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine remain in place, and the Russian president was not invited to the 75th-anniversary ceremonies.

In the event, the Kremlin's response to that slight was two-pronged: Putin said it was no big deal -- he had "enough business" to take care of at home, while Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova asserted that the Normandy landings "did not have a decisive impact" on the war's outcome and their importance "should not, of course, be exaggerated."

D-Day And The Donbas

With the war in the Donbas sputtering on and the death toll now above 13,000, the new buzzword in the slow-moving efforts to end it is the Steinmeier Formula -- a kind of addendum focusing on sequencing of steps laid out in the Minsk agreements, the two broader deals aimed at securing a cease-fire and drawing a road map to lasting peace.

Why does the name of the proposal, now backed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy along with the rest of the Normandy Format players, potentially benefit Russia?

Because it puts the name of an official from one of the mediator countries -- Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was Germany's foreign minister when he came up with the idea in 2016 and is now its president -- on a plan that critics, certainly those who hit Kyiv's Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) to accuse Zelenskiy of treason after he announced his support, say play into Moscow's hands.

The main thing the Steinmeier Formula does is seek to set out a compromise on the thorny issue of what comes first, elections in the separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine or their acquisition of a special "self-governing status." The formula: This status is granted on a temporary basis when polls close but becomes permanent only if and when OSCE monitors judge them free, fair, and lawful.

The Steinmeier plan appears to leave room for disputes before, during, and after the elections. And here's an elephant in the room: The timing of the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Donbas and restoration of Kyiv's control over the border between the areas held by Moscow-backed separatists and Russia itself.

Ukrainians hold a banner reading "Deoccupation but not capitulation!" during a protest against signing on to the Steinmeier Formula in Kyiv on October 2.
Ukrainians hold a banner reading "Deoccupation but not capitulation!" during a protest against signing on to the Steinmeier Formula in Kyiv on October 2.

Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent whom Zelenskiy defeated handily in Ukraine's presidential runoff in April, said that acceding to the agreement amounted to "capitulation to Russia" because Ukraine had committed to holding local elections but received no guarantee that it would regain control of the border.

Of course, commitments have been broken before in the peace process -- the road to nonfulfilment of the Minsk agreement is already strewn with them, with Russia and Ukraine blaming each other at every turn. Zelenskiy has not passed a point of no return by signing on to the Steinmeier Formula, and he moved swiftly to assure the country that the move was no surrender.

Elections "cannot and will not be held at gunpoint," Zelenskiy said, vowing that voting won't take place until armed forces are out and Ukraine controls the border. "There will be no capitulation."

Zelenskiy got some backing from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, which said that "free and fair elections require withdrawing Russia-led forces and illegal armed formations from Ukraine's territory."

Moscow, however, seems likely to contend that the Minsk agreements do not require a Russian withdrawal or border handover before the elections.

Zelenskiy "does want to deliver peace, but he is smart enough to realize that elections without deoccupation are a red line he should not cross," Kirill Mikhailov, a researcher with the Conflict Intelligence Team, an open-source investigation outfit, said on Twitter.

No Way Back?

So, the limits that domestic political concerns place on Zelenskiy's freedom of movement in the Donbas peace process raise questions about how far it may go before hitting a major snag.

"Talks can stall at any moment if Zelenskiy gets cold feet," Bloomberg Opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote.

On the other hand, he suggested that any effort by Zelenskiy to row back against the current might be doomed because -- with European leaders eager for peace for a range of reasons -- "other participants will push him toward an agreement that leaves the eastern territories under formal Ukrainian but actual Russian control -- the outcome that Poroshenko has long feared."

"Fighting would stop, European sanctions on Russia would erode, and Russian sovereignty over annexed Crimea would be tacitly accepted," Bershidsky added.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy's political room for maneuver may be more limited now.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy's political room for maneuver may be more limited now.

The prospects for peace, of course, also depend on decisions by Putin -- which in turn, as he grapples with challenges such as a sluggish economy, an unpopular ruling party, and term limits that bar him from running for reelection in 2024, may be affected by domestic political calculations.

A large demonstration in Moscow on September 29 may have served as a signal for Putin that the anger that fueled a series of summertime protests in the capital has not gone away. And that it could heat up again, and spread further, if the authorities handle future elections such as the State Duma vote in 2021 the way they handled the Moscow City Duma elections on September 8 -- by barring opponents from the ballot.

The government has handled the biggest wave of protests since 2011-12 in a variety of ways, cracking down one week and then going easy the next. Though it all, Putin has had little to say about the demonstrations of discontent with him and his system of rule.

Putin Takes On Greta Thunberg

He did send what looked like a signal to opponents such as Aleksei Navalny and pretty much any Russian citizen who would take part in a protest, using a dismissal of 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg to suggest that activists are often being used and that adults who do rally should keep children off the streets.

Vladimir Putin seems to think Swedish activist Greta Thunberg is just someone's pawn.
Vladimir Putin seems to think Swedish activist Greta Thunberg is just someone's pawn.

Letting on that he does not "share the general enthusiasm" for Thunberg's "How dare you?" speech at the UN, Putin said that he's "sure Greta is a nice girl and very sincere" but contended that someone -- he did not say who -- was manipulating her in their interests.

"Adults must do everything they can to avoid leading teenagers and children into any extreme situations," he said -- an echo of claims by Russian officials that Navalny is being manipulated by the West and is in turn manipulating Russians, and that children are being lured into protests.

Shaman Thwarted

Meanwhile, the Russian authorities appear to have a found a way to neutralize Aleksandr Gabyshev, a Yakut shaman who set out to walk to Moscow on a quest to "drive Putin out of the Kremlin," without resorting to prosecution: by declaring him mentally unfit to stand trial.

The Federal Security Service (FSB) reportedly said that experts who assessed him after his arrest in an elaborate manhunt last month found that he was "not of sound mind."

Supporters of Gabyshev said he was tested against his will, and a human rights coordinator with the opposition group Open Russia, Valentina Dekhtyarenko, told RFE/RL on October 3 that his lawyers wanted their client to be examined by independent psychiatrists.

  • 16x9 Image

    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

To receive The Week In Russia in your in-box every Friday, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

Blog Archive

The Week In Russia

If you're interested in Russia, you'll love Steve Gutterman's The Week In Russia.

The editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk dissects some of the key developments over the previous week and offers some of the takeaways going forward.

Every Friday, direct to your in-box. Here are earlier editions.

Please submit your e-mail address below. The newsletter is, and always will be, free of charge.

You can find our privacy policy and terms of use here.