"Right Version of Steinmeier Formula Is Now on the Table" — Alexander Vershbow
15 October, 2019

At the Rīga Conference 2019, we caught up with the distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and former Deputy Secretary General of NATO Alexander Vershbow to discuss the security issues for Ukraine, the potential American role in Donbas conflict settlement, as well as the future of the U.S.-Ukraine relations.

I would like to start with the preparations for the upcoming Normandy Four summit. What are your expectations? Do you think there will be increased pressure on Ukraine on the part of France and Germany considering the recent initiative by President [Emmanuel] Macron to relaunch relations with Russia?   

First of all, I think President Macron’s idea of opening up relations with Russia is a bit premature given that Russia has not done anything concrete to justify any easing of the pressure on Moscow. And of course, there is no justification for pressure on Ukraine. But I think Paris and Berlin still can play a helpful role if they work closely with Ukraine on seeing whether this agreement on using the Steinmeier formula provides an opening to some kind of improvement on the ground in the Donbas. I think there has been a lot of confusion about the Steinmeier formula and some of them have been exacerbated by the Ukrainian leadership. I think it wasn't presented very clearly when it first rolled, it first appeared in the Russian media. But I think the clarifications from President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy, from [Foreign Minister Vadym] Prystaiko that there'll be no elections in Donbas until the Russian troops are out, the militias are disarmed and Ukraine has control over the border. For me, it reassures me that the right version of the Steinmeier formula is now on the table. Whether Russia wants to pick it up — I'm more skeptical. I think Russia was hoping to use this to alter the intent of the Minsk agreements: to have elections before Russian troops depart and I think that there's no basis for progress on Minsk or on free and fair elections. 

Some people say that the Steinmeier formula is basically a trap for Ukraine designed to make moves first without actually Russia doing first steps.       

I think it was a potential trap particularly if the Russian interpretation were somehow accepted including by the French and the Germans, but I think I'm less concerned about that now. I think President Zelenskyy has made very clear how the Steinmeier formula should be understood. Now the question is "Is Russia interested in actually solving the problem in Donbas or even making a step in the direction of the solution or is it just playing games?" I'd love to be convinced that Russia is serious after six years, but so far I'm not convinced. 

What do you think would be security guarantees for Ukraine from its Western partners that Russia actually maintains its end of obligations?

I think that if there actually is an opening and there is movement towards ending the conflict and creating the conditions for elections, international community could assist the process in the form of an international peacekeeping force. I've always been in favor of this as a way to move from the first elements of the Minsk agreements which are very clear: ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and the subsequent sages including the holding of local elections. Getting the Russian troops out may be easier if there is an international presence that can go in to take the place of the Russians, provide law and order, stability. In short, to create a secure environment in which one can actually start preparing for elections under Ukrainian law. It may mean transition period when the Russian leave, the UN goes in and only at the end of the process Ukrainian forces and institutions are fully established. But I think that would be a sensible approach and it may be reassuring to the population of the Donbas and to refugees to return — that the international community will keep things from getting out of control.

Now I want to talk about the U.S. How has this scandal been growing with each passing day around the alleged President Trump's pressure on Zelenskyy for political gain has impacted U.S.-Ukrainian relations? Can it have an impact on the future? There are fears expressed by some in Ukraine that Ukraine might lose bipartisan support in the U.S? Are these fears justified?

The fears are justified. I hope the worst does not come to pass. The bipartisan support is still very solid in the United States for Ukraine. The Administration is now in a state of confusion and turmoil as the impeachment inquiry proceeds as some of the unfortunate efforts to coerce Ukraine both on the issue of investigating the Bidens, even holding hostage meeting with the President of the United States for the sake of negotiating these kinds of investigations inside Ukraine. All that is very unfortunate, but I hope the Administration including the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor will steer things back towards the right kind of policy and recognize that Ukraine remains a target of Russian aggression, it remains victim and deserves our support. For me, the worst part of this whole episode was seeing in the transcript of the phone call that President Trump said absolutely nothing about Ukraine's security and its future independence and sovereignty. This obviously sent a signal to Vladimir Putin that was very unhelpful. But hopefully the ship will ride itself and the policy of the Administration will be reaffirmed in favor of Ukraine's sovereignty and independence.

Can we expect another U.S. envoy in Ukraine to replace Mr. [Kurt] Volker?

I hope so. People joke that it may not be the most attractive job right now after what just happened to Kurt Volker which is very unfortunate because he's really a great diplomat who was doing a superb job both on the diplomatic and in explaining what was at stake for the liberal order as well as for Ukraine itself. But I think one way for the Administration to show that its policy is the same as it has been would be to appoint another talented diplomat who could continue the work that Kurt Volker was doing. Particularly, if there's going to be some re-energizing of the Normandy process, the U.S. channel to Russia as well as being able to coordinate closely with the government of Ukraine is essential for the United States, that they could make the difference in achieving that outcome.

What in this massive context can be the role of the U.S. in the Ukraine-Russia conflict resolution? Can the U.S. increase its presence? There were talks or rumors of replacing the Normandy format with another one that would include the United States, but it seems unlikely now...

I think the European members of the Normandy format are not still entirely positive on the idea of the United States joining. And frankly, I don't think the format is the most important thing. I think the important thing is for the United States to be playing an active part perhaps in parallel coordination with Paris and Berlin, and Kyiv, of course. And using its diplomatic weight to engage with the Russian leadership, whether it's Mr. [Vladislav] Surkov or Mr. [Dmitry] Kozak — I don't who's the one to talk to right now. But maybe a coordinative parallel would be just as good. But the key for the United States is to use its leverage both to convince the Russians that they're not getting any benefits without actually making concrete steps towards implementation of Minsk. Putin shouldn't have any illusions that whatever President Trump may be saying, the U.S. as a whole including the Congress is quite firm that this is the case of aggression, that Russia has to change its behavior.        

U.S. allies like Ukraine and Georgia are worried watching the U.S. decision to withdraw from Syria and basically abandon the Kurds there. What message can you send to them? What does it mean, what consequences can this decision have? Is the U.S. renouncing its ambitions to be a global geopolitical player?

I'm not going to defend the President's decision — I think it's very unfortunate. Especially given the sacrifices the Kurdish fighters made over the last three years to fight ISIS and they were very effective and dedicated to their cause. So clearly the U.S. is sending a very bad signal abandoning its friends and I hope this could be an isolated incident. This is ultimately more about President Trump's determination to end what he calls 'endless war.' I think even that is somewhat oversimplification: we don't have that many troops in combat right now compared to 10-15 years ago. But he has received a huge backlash from his own party and perhaps that is the best check on this becoming a trend in U.S policy rather than an isolated, albeit mistaken step by President Trump. But again I think both Georgia and Ukraine can count on lots of friends in the Administration, and, of course, the strong bipartisan support from the Congress and the concrete things that this Administration has done which surpassed the previous administration when it comes to lethal weapons, additional training, exercises with the armed forces of both Georgia and Ukraine, bring countries more closely into NATO's work on Black Sea security. So sometimes an embarrassing mistake can inspire corrective action which could ultimately be reassuring to Ukraine and Georgia.

President Trump when he met President Zelenskyy in the US told him to sit down with Mr. Putin and solve your problem with him. Does it mean that Trump believes this is the problem only Ukraine and Russia should solve and the U.S. wants to distance itself from supporting Ukraine and actually stopping Russian aggression because this is how it's called?

I don't know for sure exactly what real understanding President Trump has of the conflict. He does seem to have something of a black spot when it comes to understanding Ukraine. He only talks about corruption rather than looking at the success Ukraine has made in the last five years in instituting reforms actually fighting corruption even though there is a long way to go. So at the same time, Trump is clearly a believer in face-to-face negotiations with the top leadership. I think President Zelenskyy has shown that he wants to have a channel to Putin so that's not necessarily bad advice from President Trump. The clear thing is that President Zelenskyy needs the clear backing of Washington, Berlin, Paris, all of the European allies and probably Canada as well which I think can play it liberally and not be kind of sent into the lion's den all by itself. But direct talks with Putin may be part of the solution.

Let's imagine the situation when the Steinmeier formula, the Minsk agreements are implemented, there is progress, there is a breakthrough. Do you think that might lead to the cancelation of sanctions against Russia? Will the issue of annexation of Crimea be overlooked and won't it embolden Russia to more aggression?

As painful as it might be to hear this, I do think that if there was a genuine implementation of the Minsk agreements which even with the political will won't happen overnight — it will take some time to implement. But at the end of the process if Russia has fulfilled its obligations: the occupied territories are back under full Ukrainian control, Ukrainian troops are on the border, Ukrainian institutions are being reestablished and Donbas just went back to rebuilding, then there would be a case for lifting the sanctions that are linked to the Donbas. Both the United States and the EU have been very careful to tie specific packages to specific issues. So in those circumstances, the sanctions would — perhaps not all at once, perhaps in a couple of stages — be lifted but the sanctions relating to Crimea would remain. I think political rejection of Russian annexation would be maintained — this may be a longer-term challenge - which is no secret - to actually achieve the reintegration of Crimea. But the model of settlement in Donbas including — what I think is necessary — a UN peacekeeping force could ultimately be applied to Crimea when the time comes. So we have to keep the pressure on Russia, but at the same time show the sanctions are means to an end — they're not an end in themselves.

But won't Russia in this situation feel that it didn't really pay the price for annexation of Crimea? That it would be just forgotten?

There is that risk — that's why we have to maintain those sanctions that are tied to Crimea. Perhaps, limit some of the other restorations of business in cooperation with Russia to preserve leverage. These are going to be complex political decisions and I can't predict how it will be done. But I think that one question that's not been addressed is 'what will be Russia's responsibility for paying for some of the reconstruction given that most of the destruction is its responsibility: looted industries and moved factories to Russia. I think that sanctions should not be fully lifted until Russia pays up for the damage that it has done, that may be also a lesson regarding Crimea.

But unfortunately, 13,000 lives cannot be...

That can't be reversed but Russia at least should pay a price for what it has done.

And the last question is from our Georgian colleagues. The ex-NATO Secretary General [Anders] Rasmussen suggested that Georgia could become NATO member if Article 5 does not cover territories currently occupied by Russian forces. Do you think this is realistic? Can it become a point of consensus between NATO members about Georgian membership and somehow help to overcome Russian opposition to it?

I think this idea is not only Rasmussen's idea — I've heard it from other sources. It's something that should be kept under consideration. The Russians shouldn't get the impression that by occupying South Ossetia and Abkhazia they can permanently prevent Georgia from joining NATO. I think at least the possibility that when the time comes the allies are ready to move Georgia could join and temporarily accept that NATO would not be applying Article 5 to the occupied territories would give Georgia more leverage in its negotiations with Russia. And it might in some circumstances be a way forward. This could also be a model for Ukraine. The problem, in either case, is that it could be portrayed as abandoning the occupied territories forever; in the sense rewarding the Russians in a perverse way for their territorial aggression. So ultimately this would have to be Georgia's decision first and then the allies would have to agree, but, of course, we're not quite at the point where NATO membership is on the active agenda so both Georgia and Ukraine need to continue to do their homework, move to NATO standards, continue to carry out this annual national program that is the functional equivalent of the membership action plan, and let's see what develops down the road.

/Interview by Olga Tokariuk