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Explainer: What Is The Steinmeier Formula -- And Did Zelenskiy Just Capitulate To Moscow?

"No capitulation!": Far-right activists protest against Ukraine agreeing to the so-called Steinmeier Formula near of the president's office in Kyiv on October 1.

KYIV -- In the United States, Ukraine is in the spotlight over what some call "Ukrainegate" -- the developments that have led to an impeachment probe involving a phone conversation between the presidents of the two countries in July. In Kyiv, there's been a bigger buzz about a different catchphrase -- the Steinmeier Formula.

That term has been splashed across front pages, led television news programs, and been debated at hipster cafes and family dinner tables since early September. That's when it emerged that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was seriously considering supporting it -- the Steinmeier Formula, that is -- as a potential way to reinvigorate negotiations with Russia over the war that has killed more than 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine since 2014.

Late on October 1, Zelenskiy called an urgent press conference -- only the second one he has held since his inauguration in May -- to say that he had taken the controversial step of officially signing up Ukraine to the Steinmeier Formula.

Here's what you need to know about the move and its implications.

What Even Is The Steinmeier Formula?

Ukraine and Russia, overseen by France, Germany and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), signed two agreements in the Belarusian capital, Minsk -- in September 2014 and February 2015 -- to establish a cease-fire and a road map to a lasting peace in eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv's forces are fighting the Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of two provinces in what is known as the Donbas.

Those pacts are known as the Minsk agreements, and they include such steps as the pullback of forces and military equipment by both sides, Kyiv granting amnesty to combatants who have not committed grave crimes; and Ukraine holding local elections and granting special status to the areas now held by separatists. They also include the withdrawal of "all foreign armed formations, military equipment, as well as mercenaries" from Ukrainian territory and the restoration of Kyiv's control over its border with Russia in that area, across which ample evidence shows that Moscow has sent troops and weapons during the continuing conflict.

While the Minsk agreements have helped to deescalate the fighting, they have not stopped it. One reason is that deals were hammered out quickly during hot phases of the war and were vaguely worded, allowing each signatory to interpret details -- such as the sequence of steps toward peace -- in its own way.

Enter Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

In 2016, looking for a way to break the deadlock, Steinmeier -- then Germany's foreign minister, now its president -- proposed a slimmer, simplified version of the Minsk agreements. Basically, it was a way to get Ukraine and Russia to agree on the sequence of events outlined in Minsk.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk hold a news conference in Kyiv in November 2014.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk hold a news conference in Kyiv in November 2014.

Specifically, Steinmeier's formula calls for elections to be held in the separatist-held territories under Ukrainian legislation and the supervision of the OSCE. If the OSCE judges 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.

The formula was vocalized and had not been put to paper until it was signed on October 1 by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the separatist territories of Luhansk and Donetsk, and the OSCE in Minsk.

What Did Zelenskiy Say About It?

Acknowledging that the Steinmeier Formula had become a highly charged issue for the Ukrainian public, Zelenskiy said he wanted to clarify what it meant.

Yes, he said, by signing on, Ukraine agreed to hold local elections in the Donbas -- but only under Ukrainian law, and only after Russian forces are withdrawn and Ukraine regains control of the state border -- wording that suggests there may still be ample room for disagreement on the sequence of steps each side must take.

"There won't be any elections under the barrel of a gun," Zelenskiy said, apparently trying to bat away assertions that he had conceded to Russia's demands. "There won't be any elections there if the troops are still there."

Volodymyr Zelenskiy: "There won't be any elections under the barrel of a gun."
Volodymyr Zelenskiy: "There won't be any elections under the barrel of a gun."

He said a new law on special self-governing status for the Donbas would be addressed by parliament soon and that the language included in it would not cross any "red lines," adding that "there will be no capitulation."

Zelenskiy said that mutual agreement to the Steinmeier Formula meant that "the final obstacles" to a proposed and highly anticipated summit bringing him together with Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron that is seen as a potential key step to peace "have been eliminated." He said a date for the summit, which would be his first meeting with Putin, could be announced soon.

Is Moscow On Board?

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on October 2 that Kyiv's approval of the Steinmeier Formula was a "positive" development, adding, "There is no doubt that this is an important step toward implementing the earlier agreements."

"Hopefully, the implementation of the Minsk agreements will continue, since this is the only way to resolve the Ukrainian conflict in the country's east," he added. Russia has repeatedly drawn criticism from Kyiv and the West for referring to the war, which Ukraine and NATO say Moscow helped ignite and has stoked by sending active military and financial support for the separatists, as an internal Ukrainian conflict.

Moscow's approval was no surprise, as it has long seemed to see the Steinmeier Formula as more beneficial to Russia than to Ukraine. What the Kremlin especially likes about it, analysts say, is the outline of local elections in the Donbas followed immediately by the special self-governing status for the region kicking in.

Putin previously declined to meet with Zelenskiy unless Ukraine signed an agreement on holding local elections.

Peskov made no direct comment on Zelenskiy's remarks about the sequence of steps, the withdrawal of Russian forces, and the return of control over the border to Kyiv.

Peace Or Surrender?

Opinions about the Steinmeier Formula have been mixed in Ukraine, and events immediately following Zelenskiy's announcement indicated the issue will continue to be hotly debated, a potential factor in the success or failure of future negotiations to end the war.

Surveys show a vast majority of Ukrainians want to see an end to the war in the Donbas. A big part of the allure of Zelenskiy, a comic actor who entered Ukraine's presidential election campaign with no political experience, was his promise to bring peace.

The public has continued to back him while he has engaged with Putin on the war issue – they have spoken by phone twice -- and he scored a major victory in securing the return last month of 35 Ukrainians who were being held by Russia in its jails and prisons.

People rally against the Steinmeier Formula on Independence Square in Kyiv on October 1.
People rally against the Steinmeier Formula on Independence Square in Kyiv on October 1.

But supporting the Steinmeier Formula could be risky for Zelenskiy. A recent poll by the Kyiv-based Rating Group said two-thirds of respondents were unable to rate the Steinmeier Formula, while 23 percent opposed the idea and 18 percent supported it.

Some Ukrainian veterans and opposition political parties, as well as some civil-society groups and Ukrainian ultranationalists, have stood against the Steinmeier Formula or any peace deal that may benefit Russia.

On September 17, some of them published an appeal to Zelenskiy that set out "red lines" that they argued must not be crossed in negotiations with Russia on the war.

Many of those critics side with former President Petro Poroshenko, who has suggested even the smallest concession to Russia would mean capitulation.

Poroshenko's former foreign-policy adviser, Kostyantyn Yeliseyev, wrote on Twitter on October 1 that for Ukraine, to sign onto the Steinmeier Formula "is to stop fighting and surrender."

Following Zelenskiy's press conference, a group of far-right nationalists protested his decision with signs that read "no capitulation," some accusing him of treason, and a group of civil-society members gathered on Kyiv's central Independence Square, the Maidan, to decry the move.