Keeping the Peace in the Donbas
What UN peacekeepers could mean for eastern Ukraine
After years of rejecting Ukraine’s call for UN peacekeepers in the conflict zone, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced support for the idea on September 5, with Russian representatives in the UN circulating a draft resolution shortly after the announcement. However, Russia’s plan for UN peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine veers from the initial proposal in a significant way — instead of peacekeepers installed throughout the non-government-controlled areas, in particular along the Ukrainian-Russian border, Putin proposed the peacekeepers be restricted to the “demarcation line,” between the government and non-government-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine.
Putin was asked about the idea of deploying UN peacekeepers to eastern Ukraine during a press conference following the BRICS Summit on September 5. He responded:
I do not see anything wrong with that…I believe that the presence of UN peacekeepers, not even peacekeepers, but those who provide security for the OSCE mission, is quite appropriate and I do not see anything wrong with that; on the contrary, I believe that this would help resolve the situation in southeastern Ukraine. Of course, we can talk only about ensuring the security of the OSCE staff.
Putin also noted “these forces should be located on the demarcation line only and on no other territories” and the conflict would not be resolved with additional security, but “only after disengaging the parties and removing the heavy equipment” which “cannot be resolved without direct contact with representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic.”
Following the statement, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia circulated a draft resolution for a UN peacekeeping mission, telling the press:
I sent a letter both to the President of the Security Council and the Secretary-General, asking them to circulate draft resolution on the United Nations Mission on Support in Protecting the Special Monitoring Mission of the OSCE in the South-East of Ukraine.
Reactions from Ukraine and abroad
The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) responded to the statement in support of a UN peacekeeping mission, but a mission that is in the whole of Donbas, not just the line of contact (Putin’s “demarcation line”), as proposed by the Ukrainians in April 2015. The Ukrainian MFA was also clear on its stance regarding Russian participation in the peacekeeping operation:
In the event the decision is made to launch a peacekeeping operation, any presence of military or other personnel of the aggressor state in the territory of Ukraine disguised as peacekeepers would be out of the question, as it would contradict the basic principles of UN peacekeeping activities. Equally out of the question would be any need to seek approval for launching the peacekeeping operation by the illegal military formations operating in the territory of certain parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Regions backed by support, funding, and inventory and logistics management provided by the Russian Federation.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called a Blue Helmets mission a “real breakthrough in the process of peaceful settlement and a powerful factor of de-escalation,” emphasizing that Russia, as the “country-aggressor” must be excluded from the peacekeeping mission per the key principles of UN peacekeeping operations, and that the mission should be deployed in the entire non-government-controlled area with the aim to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
In an interview, Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations Volodymyr Yelchenko expressed concerns regarding the proposal, emphasizing that peacekeepers need to be in the whole area (versus just the demarcation line), especially along the Russia-Ukraine border in order to monitor potential military traffic from Russia.
On Facebook, First Deputy Chairperson of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) released a statement drawing attention to the fact that as the line of contact (demarcation line) is a product of the conflict, it should not be treated as a border by sending peacekeepers solely to that line, but instead peacekeepers should be sent to the Russian-Ukrainian border.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel expressed surprise at Putin’s statement, but is pleased and optimistic towards the opportunity to discuss a peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine.
United States Special Representative to Ukraine Ambassador Kurt Volker sent his first two tweets from a new Twitter account in response to the Russian call for peacekeepers, showing some reservations of Russia’s implementation of the plan in the Donbas, but still “cautiously” welcoming the proposal.
Though the peacekeeper mission proposal had a tepid yet positive response from Ukraine’s allies in Europe and the United States, the so-called separatist republics posited additional requirements for the mission. This is far from a new development — in early 2015, after the battle in Debaltseve, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called for the establishment of a UN peacekeeping mission to ensure the execution of ceasefire. Russian-led separatists immediately denounced the suggestion, arguing that the peacekeepers would be in violation of the ceasefire.
Shortly after the announcement of the UN proposal, Igor Plotnitsky, the “leader” of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), stated that the LNR would only consider a UN peacekeeper mission if Ukraine fully complies with the ceasefire and withdrawal of troops and weapons. Similarly, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the “leader” of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), stated that the DNR will only consider a UN peacekeeping mission after Ukraine “fulfills” its obligations under the security section of the Minsk agreements, namely the withdrawal of heavy weapons, adding that the OSCE and Normandy Four contact group (Germany, France, Ukraine, Russia) should pressure Ukraine into fulfilling its obligations under the Minsk agreements. Denis Pushilin, the “Chairman” of the so-called DNR, stated that UN peacekeepers for the purpose of ensuring the safety of the OSCE SMM was appropriate, but only after an agreed upon mandate was executed to install a full ceasefire.
What would this peacekeeping mission entail?
As the OSCE SMM faces increased security threats and impediments, parties to the conflict have voiced concern and support for the mission. Russia is now citing these increasingly dangerous conditions as a reason for the UN peacekeeping mission.
Exactly how peacekeepers would be deployed to the Donbas is still undetermined, with Russia proposing them to be primarily focused on protecting the OSCE SMM on the demarcation line and Ukraine pushing for their presence in the entire non-government-controlled area.
At minimum, peacekeepers could have a significant positive impact by providing protection and security at civilian checkpoints between government and non-government-controlled territory. About half a dozen or so crossing points see significant civilian traffic across the line of contact, despite constant fighting in these areas. As @DFRLab described in numerous reports, these checkpoints are some of the most vulnerable areas in the conflict zone with thousands of civilians crossing through each day, with a number of violent incidents that have already led to dozens of civilian deaths.
A peacekeeping mission on the demarcation line would entail a significant operation, but exactly where these peacekeepers would be placed is a difficult problem to settle, with a fluid understanding of where the demarcation lies in eastern Ukraine.
The “Demarcation Line”
Based on Putin’s statement and the information so far provided by the Russian government, it is still unclear where the “demarcation line” is. The lack of clarity from the Russian side is problematic — as seen in the map below, the current line of contact is significantly different than the demarcation line established by the Minsk Protocols and agreements in 2014-15.
Most notably, the demarcation line identified at the time of the Minsk Protocol designates Debaltseve, a key strategic and logistical hub, as under Ukrainian control.
Russian peacekeepers in former Soviet Union states
As a UN member-state, the Russian Federation participated in a number of peacekeeping missions, though some more controversial than others. In particular, the Russian personnel have taken part in three peacekeeping missions in the former Soviet Union states of Georgia (South Ossetia/Abkhazia), Moldova (Transnistria), and Tajikistan. Russia ended its peacekeeping operations in Tajikistan following the end of the civil war there. Controversially, in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, lines between peacekeepers and occupational forces were often blurred through 1990s and in the 2008 during the Russ0-Georgian War — a situation Ukrainians fear could be repeated in eastern Ukraine. The mission ended in 2009 “due to a lack of consensus among Security Council members on a mandate extension.”
While the Tajikistan and Georgia/South Ossetia/Abkhazia peacekeeping operations have formally ended, Russia maintains its “peacekeeping operation” in the Transnistrian region of eastern Moldova, maintaining “only one battalion of Russian peacekeepers” in the region, as reported by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Russia deployed its Operational Group of Russian Forces to Transnistria since the 1990s, with approximately 500 peacekeepers and 1,000 soldiers in the region, according to recent counts. In July 2017, the Moldovan Parliament formally called for Russia to withdraw its forces from Transnistria, leading to criticism from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Last year, Russian MFA Special Envoy Sergey Gubarev cited the situation in Ukraine as a reason why Russia was unable to end its military presence in Transnistria.
In the eyes of Ukraine, Russian peacekeeping missions in Transnistria and South Ossetia/Abkhazia may be the worst case scenarios for the Donbas, as Russia was able to circumvent the international system to set the stage for indefinite occupation and “freezing” of hot conflict areas. However, with the more limited scope of the peacekeeping mission and the cooperation of Ukraine’s allies in the West, this scenario seems unlikely.
While the introduction of a UN peacekeeping operation in the Donbas would seem to be a dramatic and positive step towards ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine, this draft resolution seems problematic without significant political progress. Speaking to RFE/RL, Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer expressed pessimism towards the proposed operation’s potential:
Under the best scenario, some 200 will come, maybe up to a thousand from Bangladesh, Senegal, and elsewhere in the Third World, and they will be there, working next to the OSCE monitors. They won’t be trying to determine [who is to blame for] anything but merely monitoring. Ukraine will gain nothing from it.
While the introduction of a UN peacekeeping mission may not bring substantive positive impact towards a resolution of the conflict, there are potential improvements that can be realized, such as fulfillment of the Minsk accords’ weapon withdrawal provisions, a reduction of risk and harassment targeting OSCE SMM officials, and a safer environment for civilians at checkpoints separating government and non-government-controlled areas in the Donbas.