Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy may have achieved a breakthrough in his effort to end his country’s long-running war with neighboring Russia. Just one problem: Some of his constituents consider it treason.
Ukraine, Russia and other relevant parties have reached agreement on one of the biggest sticking points in peace talks: the schedule for holding elections in, and granting autonomy to, pro-Russian “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine. The government in Kyiv and Russia-backed separatists have been fighting over the territories for more than five years, resulting in some 13,000 deaths.
Under the deal, the closing of polls will temporarily trigger an autonomy law, which gives separatist fighters and officials immunity from prosecution, enshrines the Russian language’s equal status, allows communities to set up police forces and requires the Ukrainian government to facilitate post-war reconstruction. If the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe deems the elections free and fair, the law will take permanent effect.
Known as the Steinmeier formula — after German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who initially proposed it when he was foreign minister — the deal seeks to strike a delicate balance. The Russian side worries that any gap between the elections and autonomy would give Ukraine an opportunity to arrest and jail many of the separatists, undermining Russia’s influence in the area. President Vladimir Putin sees this as betraying the people who have fought to assert Russian interests. The Ukrainian side worries that immediate autonomy will allow the Russians to control the outcome of the elections, creating a Russian-run enclave that would hinder the country’s ambitions to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Zelenskiy’s move immediately provoked accusations that he had betrayed his country. Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who had refused to sign during his tenure, denounced the formula as a Russian invention and restated his position that any political process can begin only after the disarmament of pro-Russian forces and the withdrawal of Russian troops. His view has a lot of sympathizers in the Ukrainian political and intellectual elite, as well as among war veterans, who are numerous, often armed and hence potentially a force in street politics.
Apparently, Zelenskiy believes that his popular support, which exceeded 70% as of last month, will allow him to withstand the criticism. In any case, he has few other options. The U.S., distracted by its Ukraine-related political scandal, offers no counterpoint to France and Germany, which want to establish peace on any terms that will be acceptable to Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron has dangled before Putin the possibility of easing European sanctions on Russia in return for progress in the talks. The German Foreign Ministry on Tuesday welcomed the agreement. This means a new meeting of the Normandy Four — Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany — can be held soon, for the first time since 2016.
Zelenskiy seems to think he can still strike an advantageous peace deal. He said this week that Ukraine will work to amend the autonomy law (an idea that alarmed some Putin loyalists in Moscow), and that no local election will be held while Russian troops are present. But his consent to the formula means handing off election supervision to the OSCE, an organization that doesn’t have the resources to prevent abuses throughout a region that is still home to more than 3 million people. The vote will pit foreign observers against the crafty election-rigging techniques of Moscow, which in recent years has increasingly run the separatist regions.
Talks can stall at any moment if Zelenskiy gets cold feet. That said, 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.
The question for Ukrainians, then, is whether such an outcome would be an acceptable price to pay for peace in a region where so many lives have been lost. Zelenskiy can be overthrown if he’s seen as giving up too much, but he also can’t keep dragging out a war that he has promised to do his best to end. Without the active U.S. backing he has hoped for, he must play along with his European allies and make the best of a situation in which he’s heavily outgunned.
Read the original article here.