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Backlash against the controversial peace deal spun on Ukrainian and Russian media

President Zelenskyy’s agreement to the Steinmeier Formula took both Ukrainian and Russian media by storm. Both sides engaged in spreading biased and false narratives.

January 13, 2020 - Givi Gigitashvili Roman Osadchuk - Articles and Commentary

Source: @GGgigitashvili_/DFRLab via Euromaidan Press

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s recent decision to sign onto the Steinmeier Formula – a controversial peace deal intended to de-escalate the war with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine – generated biased and outrightly false narratives in both the Ukrainian and Russian media. 

In Ukraine, Zelenskyy’s decision particularly infuriated his political opposition, including the European Solidarity, Fatherland, and Voice parties. Zelenskyy’s opponents accused him of surrendering to Russia, thereby, they claimed, ensuring Ukraine’s “destruction.” Ukrainian media, however, widely covered the implications of the agreement as well as official statements and reactions from various social and political groups. However, they mostly declined to inject the type of heightened rhetoric used by Zelensky’s opponents. 

In Russia, the reaction was more mixed. Pro-Kremlin outlets actively pushed false narratives about the Steinmeier Formula. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs assessed Ukraine’s decision to sign the formula as a positive development. Pro-Kremlin television channels and media outlets, meanwhile, doubled down on anti-Ukrainian hysteria, claiming that the government had capitulated to a vocal “Nazi minority.” They presented Ukraine’s agreement to implement the Steinmeier Formula as both Russia’s favored outcome and the result of German and French diplomatic pressure on Ukraine.

What is the Steinmeier Formula? 

The Steinmeier Formula is an implementation plan of the 2014 and 2015 Minsk II agreements signed by Ukraine and Russia under the oversight of Germany, France, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Minsk agreements stipulated various conditions to be met by both Ukraine and Russia to stop the fighting in the Donbas region. The agreements have thus far achieved limited success, de-escalating the conflict but not putting an end to it. 

In 2016, Germany’s current president and then-foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, proposed a solution to the deadlock, which came to be known as the Steinmeier Formula. The deal outlined a sequence of steps that involved withdrawing military forces from the line of contact on both sides, holding local elections in the Donbas region under Ukrainian law and OSCE supervision, restoring the Ukrainian government’s control over the state border, and granting special self-governing status to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. 

Although ending the war in eastern Ukraine was Zelenskyy’s central election promise, many people in Ukraine saw his agreement to the Steinmeier Formula as a humiliating concession to Russia. 

Narratives within Ukraine

In Ukraine, the public discussion on the Steinmeier Formula began in early September 2019. Ukrainian officials began referring to the plan in interviews with little elaboration. The discussion received an increased attention on October 1, when President Zelenskyy announced in a press conference that Ukraine had signed the document.

Articles with the most engagements on the Steinmeier Formula. The narratives are as follows: “signing the Steinmeier formula is a surrender” (green boxes), “the agreement is a way toward peace” (purple box), and “Ukranian officials failed to explain it to the public properly” (yellow box). (Source: @r_osadchuk/DFRLab via BuzzSumo)

Narrative: The signing of the Steinmeier Formula is a surrender/catastrophe for Ukraine.

This narrative emerged in early September when former Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin stated that the implementation of the agreement may lead to Ukraine adopting a Russian model of federalisation. By providing a special semi-autonomous status for the Donbas region, Klimkin argued the country’s cohesion would be fundamentally undermined. Zelenskyy’s press conference on October 1 furthered this narrative, though many were unconvinced by his defense of the move. According to social listening tool BuzzSumo, out of all of the articles that referenced the “Steinmeier Formula,” the one that was most engaged with appeared on lb.ua and was titled, “the Steinmeier Formula was accepted. Ukraine gets ready to surrender.” The article mentioned Zelenskyy’s official statement that the deal was “a win” for Ukraine but nonetheless questioned the terms of the agreement. In particular, the article argued that the terms of the deal had yet to be revealed, which it claimed was an indication that, because the elections are to be held as the first step, the Russian military might have incentive to forego the second step of withdrawal after benefiting from the elections. 

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko released a statement dubbing the Steinmeier Formula the “Putin Formula.” Poroshenko also said that his parliamentary faction “stands in solidarity” with military veterans who had served in the Donbas conflict who are protesting the “surrender.”

The DFRLab ran a Sysomos search of the Ukrainian keyword “капітуляція” (“capitulation”) between October 1 and 23, 2019, and found that it appeared alongside topical keywords “Формула Штайнмаєра” (“Steinmeier formula”), “Донбас” (“Donbas”), and “Зеленський” (“Zelenskyy”) 10,601 times across social media platforms.

Sysomos Word Cloud search showed that other key terms mentioned together with “капітуляція” (“capitulation”). While the word cloud does not provide quantitative evidence, it shows the informal relationship between relevant terms. (Source: @GGgigitashvili/DFRLab via Sysomos)

Narrative: The Steinmeier Formula is not a surrender, but the continuation of the Minsk Agreements and a way toward peace.

This narrative first emerged in an interview of Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vadym Prystaiko on September 20, during which he described the signed agreement as the only “agreed-upon wording” between Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE. According to Prystaiko, signing the formula was a precondition for the preservation of the Normandy format: a multilateral group of representatives from Ukraine, France, Germany, and Russia dedicated to resolving the war in the Donbas region. 

During an impromptu briefing on October 1, Zelenskyy expressed a similar view after Russian Kremlin-owned TASS broke the news of the “signed formula.” Zelenskyy said that Ukraine agreed on the wording of the Steinmeier Formula in a letter to Ambassador Martin Sajdik, Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office to the Trilateral Contact Group. 

Narrative: Ukrainian authorities failed to explain the conditions and implications of Steinmeier Formula to the public.

The lack of explanation on the part of the Ukrainian government on the signing of the agreement created an informational vacuum. That vacuum was, in turn, filled with speculation from expert commentators and media outlets. Kristina Berdynskykh, a journalist for independent Novoe Vremya, noted that the Ukrainian government failed in two respects. The first failure was timing, as Kremlin-owned media conglomerate TASS was the first to break the story that Zelenskyy had signed, causing the Ukrainian government to play catch up with the news cycle afterward. The second failure was a lack of transparency, as the government stubbornly refused to allot more than 15 minutes to a proper press briefing. The day after the news broke, Zelenskyy offered a briefing to party leaders behind closed doors; he refused to extend the courtesy to the remainder of parliament and the press. 

Mentions trendline for the phrase “Steinmeier Formula” across platforms in Ukrainian and Russian from September 30 to October 18. The term appeared 48,671 times across social media and news platforms. (Sources: @r_osadchuk/DFRLab via Sysomos)

Narratives pushed by pro-Kremlin outlets in Russia

Narrative: Nationalist forces rule Ukraine.

Following Zelenskyy’s decision to sign the Steinmeier Formula, thousands of Ukrainians gathered in Kyiv’s Independence Square to protest the deal. Multiple Russian outlets portrayed protesters in a negative light and presented the Ukrainian government as incompetent and dysfunctional. 

Various pro-Kremlin outlets pushed a narrative about “Nazi Ukraine,” claiming that nationalist forces determine Ukraine’s foreign and domestic policy and that Zelenskyy is not equipped to deal with the “Nazi problem.” Others insisted that nationalists do not obey Zelenskyy’s authority, making his power “illegitimate.” Yet another narrative claimed that the Steinmeier Formula sparked a new revolution in Ukraine, allowing nationalist groups to seize control of the president’s administration building. No such takeover occurred. These articles claim that, given their alleged new control, nationalist groups will not allow the Ukrainian government to implement the Steinmeier Formula, and the only solution to the conflict they will offer is an endless war in eastern Ukraine.

In addition to the claims from pro-Kremlin media outlets, Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted that nationalist groups in Ukraine  have precluded Zelenskyy from taking any steps toward solving the conflict. The Steinmeier Formula required both parties in the conflict to disengage their forces from the contact line in eastern Ukraine by October 7, 2019. Due to ceasefire violations and continued shelling by Russian-backed militants, however, Ukraine postponed its disengagement until a sustainable ceasefire can be reached. In response, Putin accused Zelenskyy of succumbing to nationalist forces and failing to fulfill Ukraine’s obligations under the Steinmeier Formula. 

The DFRLab ran a Sysomos search of the Russian keywords “Украина” (“Ukraine”) and “националисты” (“nationalists”) between October 1-22, 2019. During this period, the keywords appeared 1,116 times in news stories. Over 80 percent of mentions originated in Russia. 

Mentions of the keywords “Украина” (“Ukraine”) and “националисты” (“nationalists”) in Russian in news stories during the period from October 1-22, 2019. (Source: @GGigitashvili/DFRLab via Sysomos)

Pro-Kremlin commentators did not provide evidence that nationalist groups had gained momentum in Ukraine or that fear of those groups was driving the Ukrainian government’s foreign policy decisions. Furthermore, no single ideology, let alone any one nationalist group, dominated the protests in Kyiv; rather, the organising coalition consisted of a diverse array of volunteers, diplomats, civil activists, scientists, and other actors united under the nonpartisan Capitulation Resistance Movement.

Narrative: Russia forced Ukraine to sign the Steinmeier Formula.

Pro-Kremlin TV hosts presented Ukraine’s consent to the Steinmeier Formula as Russia’s doing, saying that Ukraine signed the agreement because Russia forced it to do so.

Quotes from pro-Kremlin TV hosts characterising Ukraine’s acceptance of the Steinmeier Formula as a triumph for Russia. (Sources:Rossiya 24/archive, top: Obozrevotel/archive, middle; Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group/archive, bottom)

Steinmeier himself debunked this narrative, explaining that, three years ago, the Steinmeier Formula outlined specific steps within the framework of the Minsk peace talks, in which former President Poroshenko participated. Russia did not have any influence in creating the agreement. 

Pro-Kremlin outlets also asserted that Germany and France are tired of the conflict in the Donbas region, and Macron and Merkel forced Ukraine to sign the Steinmeier Formula. 

Although the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians want an end to the five-year war in the Donbas region, it is too early to speculate as to whether the Steinmeier Formula can lead to a breakthrough in peace talks. The ongoing protests in Ukraine demonstrate that Zelenskyy’s decision to sign the agreement has instigated a new wave of anti-governmental protests in the country. Zelenskyy’s rivals, meanwhile, are seeking to reap political gains from the current unrest, as well as from the Ukrainian government’s communication breakdown on the significance of the signed agreement. 

Pro-Kremlin outlets, meanwhile, have exploited Ukraine’s adoption of the Steinmeier Formula and subsequent domestic unrest to discredit Ukraine’s sovereign status, belittle its government, and characterize it as a country dominated by fascist forces. During the period from 2014-2017, Russia’s top three TV channels dedicated one-third of their political and news talk shows to Ukraine, and 90 percent of their coverage of Ukraine was negative. 

Putin recently criticised Kremlin-funded TV for portraying Ukraine in an overly negative light. Experts argued that as the Steinmeier Formula stipulates the return of Donetsk and Luhansk regions with special self-governing status under Ukraine’s jurisdiction, Putin perhaps saw the need for the Kremlin-owned media to reduce its portrayal of Ukraine as “neo-Nazi state.” Otherwise, it would be hard for the Kremlin to explain to Russian society why these regions should be reintegrated into “fascist” Ukraine. Despite Putin’s call for a more diplomatic media approach, however, pro-Kremlin outlets’ inflammatory coverage of Ukraine amid the outrage over the Steinmeier Formula showed that they do not plan to adopt a more reconciliatory tone anytime soon. 

This article first appeared on DFRLab medium platform

Givi Gigitashvili is a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) and is based in Georgia.

Roman Osadchuk is a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) and is based in Ukraine.

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