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UPDATED: “Ukrainians Want Peace Without Paying For It”– Foreign Relations Expert
22 September, 2019

UPDATE: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, at a briefing on October 1, outlined the recent steps his administration has taken in an effort to conform to the Minsk process:

  • An agreement on the withdrawal of troops from the towns of Petrivske and Zolote;

  • The construction of a pedestrian bridge at Stanytsia Luhanska, to be completed by November;

  • Final steps for the preparation of holding a summit in the Normandy format, with dates to be announced soon.

The president also stressed that the Steinmeier formula will only apply to local elections, held under Ukrainian law, and those elections would only be counted as legitimate if they are confirmed by the OSCE to conform to international democratic norms, adding that in order for elections to be held, Ukraine must have control of the Russian border.

Prominent Ukrainian foreign relations and security expert argues that the Ukrainian president led himself into a trap by giving out promises about a swift resolution of the Donbas conflict during his election campaign.

READ MORE: President Zelenskyy on Minsk: Withdrawals, Normandy, and the Steinmeier Formula

“[Foreign Minister Vadym] Prystaiko spoke of some result within 6 to 12 months [already]. This can now be used against Ukraine as leverage because Russia has no [such] time pressure,” member of the expert board at the Parliamentary Foreign Policy Committee Mykola Kapitonenko said.

In response to the question about the buzzword of recent weeks, the “Steinmeier formula”, Kapitonenko argues that the issue received “too much attention in Ukraine”. He stresses that the formula is about concessions by both sides within the context of Minsk agreements, but the most fundamental issue is of “substance – who has to make concessions first”. The formula allegedly allows polar interpretations regarding who controls the occupied territories for the duration of the elections.  

READ MORE: Ukraine's FM Vadym Prystaiko on Trump, Zelenskyy, and Donbas

But Kapitonenko reasons that this discussion, in any case, is part of a broader debate: the debate about the price. The expert is of the opinion that any option Ukraine picks has a price: whether Ukraine leaves the conflict as it is, freezes it or resolves it. 

Ukrainians don't want to pay. We want peace without paying. This is the main reason of all political struggles, of all emotional reactions from Ukrainian politicians at various levels.

Kapitonenko stresses that this reluctance is today reflected in debates around the Steinmeier formula, but tomorrow will concern the question of ceasefire – whether it would be rendered a victory or a defeat, especially in light of the absence of clear criteria for Ukraine’s victory.  

Responding to the popular question of red lines, Kapitonenko remarks that Zelenskyy is pressed to draw red lines in order not to cross them.” But the problem lies in the fact that these lines are different from different political sides and if all of them were put on the map, there would be no space for negotiations. This would, in turn, lead the head of state into the safest position previously taken by Petro Poroshenko, i.e. that Ukraine is fighting Russia, and peace may only be accepted on Ukraine’s conditions, which is not attainable at present.

“Resolving Donbas conflict is part of a much broader problem – our vision of future relations with Russia. Nobody discusses this topic seriously,” reasons Kapitonenko. 

Concerning the haste with which the new authorities approach foreign relations issues, the expert notes that despite some believing that the time is on Ukraine’s side, that might not necessarily be the case. 

Russia's negotiating position is much stronger than ours and leaves them space for maneuver. They can push forward any conditions they like and just wait. 

At the same time, Kapitonenko highlights that Ukraine cannot afford to do this, and especially President Zelenskyy, and that is because of his election campaign promises. The promise to deliver peace led him into a trap, the scholar notes.

READ MORE: Steinmeier Formula and Why Ukraine Agreed to it

Trying to understand Russia’s reasoning, Kapitonenko envisages they have reservations and they don't trust any Ukrainian administration, which is why they wanted to see and test how credible Ukrainian promises were by starting with the prisoner exchange which the scholar believes to be the first step in further negotiations, the step that helped build minimal trust for further concessions. He argues that in their view the previous Ukrainian president did not fulfill what he had promised which is evidenced from the interpretation of the Minsk Protocol by Moscow. Because they consider the protocol as an adequate plan to resolve the conflict, they are genuinely ready to give the Donbas away to Ukraine, albeit under certain conditions.

Is Ukraine ready to fulfill the Minsk Protocol in Russian edition: firstly with the autonomy to the Donbas, adoption of laws on amnesty and special status, elections, and only then the return of control over the border and Russian troops leaving Donbas? 

The expert is certain that will be the essence of Moscow’s negotiation position and Ukraine will just have to deal with this difficult issue.  

Kapitonenko also commented on the issue of Ukraine–U.S. relations. Whilst Minister Prystaiko believes that the scandal with Ukraine being dragged into the political struggle between the American Democrats and Republicans is a result of “misinformation and evil intentions of certain people”, Kapitonenko thinks that Volodymyr Zelenskyy should be able to manage it as the amount of pressure exerted on Ukraine from the White House is “sustainable”. At the same time, the expert notes that the upcoming meeting between Zelenskyy and U.S. President Donald Trump at the UN General Assembly is not important enough, and instead all issues on the bilateral agenda ought to be discussed either in Kyiv or Washington D.C.

READ MORE: American Senators on Bipartisan Support for Ukraine

“We need a true strategic partnership with the U.S. based not so much on ideology and appeals to values but rather on pragmatic long-term interests,” he said.