Russian Disinformation War Turns Into Physical Harassment Against OSCE
Recent harassment targeting OSCE SMM monitors are not isolated incidents
On May 5, a member of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” armed forces carrying an AK-47 sexually harassed a female patrol member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) near non-government-controlled Petrivske in Ukraine. The OSCE SMM regularly faces harassment and impediments to its mission, despite international agreements ensuring its ability to execute its mandate safely.
A history of harassment
Ranging from armed militants shooting in the direction of monitors, to smoke bombs, and to sexual harassment, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine faces a multitude of security threats and harassment while carrying out its mandated mission in eastern Ukraine.
As @DFRLab previously reported, even SMM vehicles have been targeted and intentionally destroyed in both western and eastern Ukraine. While the majority of incidents are caused by Russian-led separatists, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are responsible for almost a third of reported incidents.
Deployed on March 21, 2014, the SMM is an unarmed, civilian monitoring mission operating throughout Ukraine on a 24/7 basis. Its key role is to gather and report impartial, verified, and factual information on the situation in Ukraine, as well as facilitate dialogues between relevant parties in the crisis, reduce tensions, and foster peace, stability, and security. Chief Monitor of the OSCE SMM Ertugrul Apakan and others have repeatedly called for security and protection assurances for the mission’s efforts in the conflict zone.
The monitors have repeatedly been targeted by militants and are often not trusted by civilians, as many people in the conflict zone are unclear of the mission’s actual role in the conflict. Some civilians believe the OSCE SMM is a front for Ukraine’s interests in the region—such as in this video, in which a woman angrily accuses a SMM monitor of supporting Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Ukrainian attacks in the area.
Harassment as a consequence of disinformation
The U.S. Mission to the OSCE stated that “a campaign of hostile and false statements by Russia-led separatists further undermines monitors’ safety and security.”
This is confirmed by public statements made by separatist leaders. The “head” of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), Alexander Zakharchenko, argues that the SMM favors Ukraine by overlooking Ukrainian violations of the Minsk Agreements. In an even more aggressive statement, the “head” of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), Igor Plotnitsky, recently announced that he holds the OSCE accountable for the destruction of some 300 houses. Like harassment, anti-SMM disinformation campaigns are not new. Ukrainian intelligence reports previously warned about disinformation campaigns against SMM representatives.
In 2015, OSCE SMM Principal Deputy Chief Monitor Alexander Hug stated that the SMM believes that anti-SMM sentiment is organized. Hug noted the need to remember the tumultuous environment that comes from living in a war zone, including constant stress due to frequent shellings, daily casualties, and inconsistent access to fundamental infrastructure: frustrated populations need to express themselves, giving targeted disinformation efforts a substantive and willing population.