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Kremlin’s UN Gambit in the Donbas

Scanpix/Reuters
Scanpix/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets Russia s President Vladimir Putin at the beginning of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 7, 2017.

Answers as to why Russia has proposed the UN protection mission for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine are fleeting. This initiative from its outset appears to be highly questionable even without considering whatever hidden agenda the Kremlin is pursuing.

On Monday September 11th, 2017 German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly held a telephone call and discussed—among other matters—“the course of the implementation of the Minsk agreements with regard to the resolution of the situation in South-Eastern Ukraine.” In addition to these items, a condemnation of violations of the “school season ceasefire”—previously agreed in the so-called Normandy format—was included in the call’s official statement, albeit lacking any indication who precisely condemned which perpetrators.

Chancellor Merkel took up the issue of the Donbas conflict, following US-Russian talks (between special representative Kurt Volker and Vladislav Surkov, personal adviser of President Putin), in a clear attempt to break the emerging political deadlock. On the other hand, Russia has proposed recently that the United Nations (UN) send a mission to the conflict area in the Donbas, in order to “contribute to the protection” of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM). In the same telephone call, President Putin allegedly confirmed that Russia is prepared to accept “additional functions” for such a UN mission, which “could operate not only around the contact line” (after the two sides have pulled back their forces, including the military equipment), but also “in other areas” where the SMM acts according to its mandate. The sum of these indicators appears to suggest, that there are serious discussions about the Russian proposal, and implied Western interest (or even support).

The latest official news indicate that Ukraine favours—quite understandably—the deployment of UN peacekeepers at the Ukrainian-Russian border that is controlled by the “separatists”, instead of the “contact line”. In turn, Russia indicated that it could agree to a mandate for the UN peacekeeping force that covers the whole territory of the “separatist” Donbas.

However, answers as to why Russia has proposed the UN protection mission are fleeting. This initiative from its outset appears to be highly questionable even without considering whatever hidden agenda the Kremlin is pursuing. First, Russia has been a poor guarantor of past agreements and has often and rightly been accused of having done absolutely nothing to improve the situation in the conflict area, not to speak of its continued failure to withdraw its troops from the Donbas and forcing the local “separatist” leaders to stop their attacks across the “contact line” (both of which—depending on Kremlin’s good will—are entirely achievable).. Even those European politicians and political forces that strongly advocate the termination of the sanctions against Russia have actually nothing real to point out to that end. Therefore, Russia decided to make—from its own point of view—an inoffensive proposal at the UN, in order to show its “constructiveness” and contribution to the resolution of the conflict.

In fact, Russia has put the Western powers and organizations in front of yet another dilemma. Western approval of the initiative would imply the acknowledgement of a rather meaningless and relatively minor step by Russia, which yields the Kremlin unworthy political credit. Disapproval, conversely would offer to Russia the possibility to claim that the West is not interested in or even obstructing the “peace process”.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that a UN “protection mission” will do little more than perpetuate the status quo in “separatist” Donbas areas rather than leading to the resolution of the conflict. The UN peacekeeping mission could also serve as a means to freeze the conflict, if that’s Russia’s real intention. In addition, the proposal itself strangely places the UN, an organization which has relatively soft forces and capabilities, in protection of another, the OSCE. No UN force, however large and well equipped, would be able to provide adequate security to the SMM in the Donbas. The local “separatist” forces are simply too large and possess a huge number of heavy military equipment. Therefore, the UN mission would be at the Kremlin’s and local warlords’ mercy, and would need substantial protection and reassurances for its own security.

Secondly, it is important to consider the reasons the SMM needs protection in the first place. Does the SMM face imminent threats? Who threatens the SMM, and why? The SMM has been, on several occasions, under attack within the “separatist” territory, whereas the OSCE observers and their observation drones were obviously fired at by local ”separatists.” On 23 April, 2017, an OSCE monitor was killed and another injured after their car hit a tank mine on a dirt road in the “People’s Republic” of Lugansk, close to the “contact line”. The local “People’s Militia” accused the OCSE of having “violated its own stated rules”. Consequently, the OSCE monitors were prohibited the use of unpaved roads, which greatly limited their area of operation and actually seemed to be the real aim of the local “authorities.”

Finally, Moscow has proposed also a UN “peacekeeping force” (composed mainly by Russian “peacekeepers”) to be deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has thus far opposed this Russian initiative, in order to avoid the perpetuation of the status quo and the legitimization of Russian (and Armenian) military forces on its territory. Ukraine would probably follow the same logic and decision. The main Western actors—in this context—should not exert pressure on Ukraine to accept the Russian initiative as it stands (while its purpose and consequences can only be assumed), let alone adopt a decision in the UN Security Council without Ukraine’s consent. The Western and/or Ukrainian counter-proposal should be strictly directed to the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty and the resolution of the conflict, going further than the Minsk agreements (i.e. specifying Russia’s role and commitments).

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