(Sept 10): Russia and Ukraine finally made a major exchange of prisoners on Saturday, and two names on the list make it clear that the trade sets up substantive negotiations on the future of eastern Ukraine.
Pro-Russian separatists, who hold a substantial part of eastern Ukraine (also known as the Donbas), have been battling the Kyiv government for more than five years. The two sides traded 35 prisoners each; their reception in the two countries on Saturday couldn’t have been more different. The Ukrainians were met at the Kyiv airport by an emotional crowd of relatives and journalists — and by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose bodyguards were pushed aside during the chaotic scene. In Moscow, Ukraine’s former prisoners, of whom 13 were Ukrainian citizens and the rest Russians, were bused away without ceremony; some of them face months of intelligence debriefings.
But both Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin gave up something, or someone, important in the exchange.
Volodymyr Tsemakh, who was abducted from a separatist-held area by the Ukrainian security services earlier this year, headed the anti-aircraft defenses of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in 2014. He may possess valuable information about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over separatist territory that July, in which 298 people were killed, most of them Dutch. The Dutch government, which leads the international investigation of the crash, strongly opposed Tsemakh’s handover to Russia. On Saturday, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok sent a letter to his parliament regretting that he had been exchanged. But Russia, which denies any culpability in the MH-17 case, insisted on making Tsemakh part of the deal; this put it off by a week, while Zelenskiy allowed Dutch investigators to question him. The Russians will certainly now hide Tsemakh, a Ukrainian citizen, from the Dutch.
That’s a twofold signal from Zelenskiy, who took office in May: First, it means that unlike his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, he is willing to make political sacrifices to see individual Ukrainians freed. Second, it tells both Putin and the mediators in the eastern Ukraine talks – President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany – that re-establishing peace is his priority. Elected on a promise to end the war, Zelenskiy has enough popular support to take steps Poroshenko supporters see as downright treasonous, and that creates conditions for a compromise with Moscow.
But Zelenskiy isn’t the only one compromising. Putin gave up Oleg Sentsov, a filmmaker who had been sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in 2015 for allegedly plotting terror attacks in Crimea (which was annexed by Russia in 2014). His five-month hunger strike in prison last year attracted major international attention, making him the best-known Ukrainian prisoner in Russia. Putin was clearly saving Sentsov for an exchange that would actually mean something.
The reason Putin appears to believe the time had come for such a trade is that Macron is unusually active in trying to bring the parties together. In recent months, the French president has been making a play for an outsized global role: taking the lead in European Union affairs, hosting the G-7 summit in an unusually aggressive style, trying to sort out the crisis in Iran’s relations with the West, and telling Putin he was willing to work on a European security system that would include Russia. Macron needs a win, and that’s a situation the Russian strongman wants to exploit.
On Sunday, Putin and Macron spoke on the phone. According to the Kremlin readout of the conversation, Ukraine was the main subject. The transcript makes clear the terms Putin is proposing in doing a Ukraine deal: He wants “written confirmation” of the so-called Steinmeier formula. Named after Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was Germany’s foreign minister when he proposed it in 2016 and is now the country’s president, this resolution calls for a cease-fire, a withdrawal of all Russian troops from the separatist-held territories, then elections to set up legitimate local administrations under the Kyiv government but with significant autonomy. After the election, Ukraine would take control of its eastern border with Russia.
Even though the Steinmeier formula follows the letter of the 2015 Minsk agreements — the only resolution road map to which Russia and Ukraine have ever signed on — the Poroshenko administration didn’t want to accept it. Former Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin explained that position last week, saying Russia wants to hold an election “that doesn’t have to be free or fair, but it must be an election in which Russia will appoint winners or somehow trap us into doing it together.” Then, Klimkin told the Segodnya.ua website, “special conditions will kick in for the Donbas which Russia will determine and try to force on us.”
That’s not quite how Steinmeier saw things; it was one of the conditions of his formula that if the eastern Ukraine election isn’t certifiably free and fair, Ukraine wouldn’t be required to give the Donbas the autonomous status on which Russia has been insisting with a view to retaining a measure of influence on Ukraine though the Russian-speaking territories.
Zelenskiy isn’t bound by the previous administration’s stubborn stance, and he has a mandate to negotiate a deal. That puts the Steinmeier formula into play again — but the parties will have a tough time negotiating how the elections are to be held and what status the Donbas would have after them. For Putin, the demand for the region’s autonomy is a red line. It’s politically untenable for him to let Ukraine – a unitary state, not a federation — take full control. His stated motivation in backing the separatists was to defend the region’s Russian speakers from Kyiv’s nationalist project.
It’s possible, however, that a fair election will empower leaders who don’t really want a pro-Russian autonomy and will quickly surrender it in exchange for international investment in rebuilding the war-scarred region. A recent poll of respondents from both the pro-Russian and Kyiv-controlled parts of the Donbas showed there wasn’t necessarily a majority for autonomy. Ideally, Zelenskiy should hold out for an election — or, first, a referendum on the region’s status — to be held under strict international control and on both sides of the separation line.
Now that Poroshenko is gone and dogmatic resistance to any kind of compromise is no longer the order of the day in Kyiv, at least three sides in the peace talks — Zelenskiy, Putin and Macron — want some kind of progress. Germany, the author of the plan Putin wants to use as the road map, should get involved, too, and help work out guarantees for Ukraine that any election in the eastern territories meets the highest standards. That would be a good starting point for a meaningful peace process.