Peacekeepers Can Unlock Donbas Impasse

During his annual phone-in show on April 14, President Vladimir Putin made an unexpected statement about the situation in Ukraine that could hold the key to bringing peace to the Donbas. 

With so many other issues raised, few people picked up on his comment about the implementation of the Minsk accords aimed at resolving the conflict. 

“I recently spoke with [Ukrainian President] Petro Poroshenko and he suggested … that the OSCE presence should be strengthened to achieve a complete ceasefire,” Putin said, adding that Russia supported the proposal. “In particular, he suggested that armed OSCE officers could be deployed along the demarcation line. …  Now we need to work with our Western partners so that the OSCE can make such a decision, increase its staff substantially and, if necessary, authorize its personnel to bear firearms.”

The Minsk II agreement of February 2015 did not envisage an armed contingent. Around the time when the agreement was being signed, Poroshenko called for the deployment of UN peacekeepers or an EU police mission to the Donbas, but later gave up the idea.

Now, deploying OSCE troops along the demarcation line could become the impetus for starting to unravel the tangled mess that has formed. The past two years have shown that in order to reliably end the fighting, an essential condition for the implementation of the Minsk agreements is a full-scale peacekeeping mission under the mandate of the UN Security Council with the use of military contingents of OSCE countries, equipped with armored vehicles, artillery, helicopters, and drones.

With the exception of the ceasefire, no other measure of the Minsk II agreement has had any traction over the past year, and even the ceasefire is frequently violated, with both sides blaming each other. Moscow and the separatists claim that Kiev is failing to comply with the political components of Minsk II, such as approving legislation on special status for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, while Ukraine and the West chastise Russia for having troops and military equipment participating in the conflict on Ukrainian territory. 

Moscow categorically denies that regular Russian troops are present there, although it acknowledges that some Russian “volunteers” and “soldiers on vacation” are in Ukraine. Their status is unclear. Putin has said that they “are following their hearts and are fulfilling their duty by voluntarily taking part in hostilities, including in southeast Ukraine.”

It’s clear that they did not travel light when going to fulfill their duty, but took along heavy weapons and military equipment. The transfer of control over the border between Russia and the self-proclaimed republics to Ukrainian border troops would resolve the question of the status of the Russian presence, since a military contingent—unlike volunteers—requires cross-border material support and personnel rotation. 

However, under Minsk II, control over the border can be transferred only after Ukraine complies with the political requirements. This, in turn, is problematic due to internal political turmoil in Ukraine and the vigorous campaign about the Russian military threat (which Ukrainian politicians use as an excuse for the stagnation in anti-corruption and economic reforms). 

The result is a vicious cycle with many triggers. While the Minsk process is at a dead end, Ukraine-related economic and political sanctions cannot be lifted and the threat of escalation persists. 

Meanwhile, all parties to the Ukraine conflict have a common enemy—the international terrorist network. The fight against this threat requires unprecedented unity in efforts by the entire civilized world. The Syria conflict demonstrated that the confrontation between Russia and the West related to Ukraine and the entire post-Soviet space impedes this joint effort. 

Poroshenko’s proposal should be adopted, but it will take a lot of tweaking. Armed OSCE observers might be able to fend off small groups of militants, but they will not be able to guarantee a reliable ceasefire, ensure the withdrawal of heavy weapons, or prevent a resumption of hostilities. Moreover, the OSCE has no experience deploying military observers, not to mention conducting real peacekeeping operations, even though its charter allows for this given a mandate from the UN Security Council.

The idea of peacekeeping was first discussed in November 2014 by Russian and U.S. unofficial experts on the Finnish island of Boisto, after which the Russian participants published an article elaborating on their concept. The operation should be similar to the one in Kosovo in 1999, but with two key distinctions. First of all, this operation cannot be carried out under the command of NATO or the European Union—only under the auspices of a special mission of the UN Security Council or the OSCE. Second, instead of being deployed on the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics, the multilateral contingent should occupy a corridor between the two ceasefire lines of the Minsk I and Minsk II agreements (the lines from which the conflict participants should withdraw their heavy weapons).

The peacekeeping contingent must include Russian battalions; otherwise, the separatist republics will not agree to the operation, since they remember the way NATO peacekeepers did not prevent anti-Serb pogroms in Kosovo. If this condition is met, the entire border between the two republics and Russia could be placed under OSCE monitoring until it is transferred to Ukrainian border troops once the political components of Minsk II are carried out. People and cargo supporting Russian peacekeepers would be able to legally cross the border. Then, Russia and the West could start lifting their mutual sanctions.

This would be a major operation requiring significant political will from all parties, substantial expenses, and extensive organizational efforts. But without it, the situation will deteriorate into a quagmire with occasional outbursts of violence and a constant threat of the resumption of hostilities.

The past two years should have convinced anyone who is interested in seeing the real state of affairs that there are no shortcuts and no cheap or easy way to resolve the biggest and most dangerous conflict between Russia and the West since the Cold War. Ending the previous Cold War took many years of hard work by all interested parties on many fronts. It’s time to get busy again, before the new Cold War gathers the momentum to last decades.

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