19 December, 2017

Image by United Nations Photo

The article was originally published at The New Eastern Europe. By Vasyl Mykhailyshyn.

The revival of the idea of peacekeepers in Donbas demonstrates the desire of both Russia and Ukraine to reserve some space for diplomatic maneuvers. With such peace initiatives, each party aims to show its commitment to the peaceful resolution of the conflict in Donbas and to blame the other side for negotiations failures. The actual deployment of the UN mission is still unlikely.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine continues despite several peace initiatives and the two packages of Minsk agreements. Although the combat intensity has decreased in comparison with the heavy clashes in 2014 and early 2015, we can hardly speak about a functioning ceasefire. Casualties among soldiers on both sides as well as civilians who live near the frontline remain frequent.

At the same time, different road maps and plans are constantly being developed to help implement the ceasefire and finally resolve the conflict. The latest initiative is to send UN peacekeeping forces to the war-torn Donbas. This September Russia and Ukraine presented two different visions of a potential peacekeeping mission.

Uninspiring past experience

The idea of ​​peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine is not new. It first appeared as early as in autumn 2014. At that time Kyiv pushed an idea of a UN mission to prevent possible escalation of the conflict after signing the Minsk-I agreement. For example, in February 2015, during the heavy fighting near the town of Debaltseve in Donetsk region, the Ukrainian government sent requests to the UN Security Council and the EU to form a peace mission for Donbas. However, after many bilateral and multilateral talks, Ukraine found little support from its main partners, especially the US, Germany, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The next round of the peacekeeping epic began in 2016 when the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko expressed an idea to invite peacekeepers to protect future elections in the separatist-controlled areas. He even proposed the “EU police mission” or the “OSCE peacekeeping mission”. Although, when the Normandy Four looked closely at the issue, the negotiations failed because the positions of the parties were substantially different. Russia and Ukraine generally agreed to the idea of ​​peacekeepers, but could not agree on their number, armament, and access to the Ukrainian-Russian border.

Russian proposal

The talks about a peace mission to Donbas resumed after a US citizen who was part of the OSCE SMM in Ukraine died in April 2017 because of a mine blast. President Petro Poroshenko discussed the issue with the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Secretary of Defense James Mattis and expressed his intention to raise this issue during the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly.

Nevertheless, Vladimir Putin was the first to announce an actual project. On September 5th, he named key points of the Russian vision of the peace mission to Eastern Ukraine during a press conference after the BRICS summit. The same day Russia presented a draft of the UN Security Council resolution.

First, according to the Russian plan, it should not be a full-scale peacekeeping mission that deals with peace enforcement and peacebuilding. The mission must provide nothing but an armed protection for OSCE observers. The “blue helmets” should carry exclusively light weapons. Second, the mission should be stationed only on the front line. Later in the telephone conversation with German chancellor Angela Merkel, the Russian president agreed to extend the mission’s mandate to the entire separatist area in order to protect OSCE observers during their inspection visits.

However, the official representative of the Russian foreign ministry, Mariya Zakharova, announced that the deployment of peacekeepers on the whole territory of Donbas would prevent the implementation of the Minsk agreements.

Third, the peacekeeping operation could only take place after the ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons, and it should be active for six months thereafter. Finally, Ukraine should discuss and agree on mission parameters with representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.

Ukraine’s response

Ukraine’s alternative plan on the potential peacekeeping mission in Donbas was made public on September 7th by president Poroshenko during his annual message to the parliament and later confirmed by a permanent representative of Ukraine to the UN.

Ukraine stands for a full-scale UN peacekeeping mission in Donbas that could help to restore peace and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Next, the mission must operate not only on the front line, but also on the whole territory currently controlled by the separatists, including on the border with Russia. Further, according to UN principles, Russia as an aggressor must not participate in the mission and must be excluded from the “blue helmets”.

Moreover, Ukraine does not recognise separatists as a party to the conflict and, therefore, does not agree to negotiate the parameters of the peacekeeping mission with their representatives. Finally, there must be no connection between lifting of the sanctions against Russia and its willingness to support the idea of ​​the UN mission. On September 20th 2017 Petro Poroshenko in his speech at the UN General Assembly reiterated the request to deploy international peacekeepers to Donbas.

The international community welcomed Russia’s commitment to engage in the dialogue on the peacekeeping forces in Donbas, but criticised the Russian proposal. The US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert announced an official position that the mission should have the mandate as broad as possible to ensure peace and security in the entire occupied territory of Ukraine, including on the Ukrainian-Russian border. German Federal Government Deputy Spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer claimed that peacekeepers should be active in the whole separatist-controlled area and that negotiations about the mission should not include the separatists.

Also, that the sanctions against Russia will be lifted only when the Minsk Agreements are fully implemented. Germany and France decided to work out a common position in this regard. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg supported the Ukrainian proposal to deploy peacekeepers on the Ukrainian-Russian border as well.

Deep controversies

Besides the abovementioned points, there are many others that can cause a heated argument between Russia and Ukraine. The questions about the number of peacekeepers, their armament, and the framework of their mandate remain open.

However, the fundamental and perhaps the most important difference between the Russian and Ukrainian proposals is the recognition of Russia’s role in the conflict. The Kremlin wants to present itself as a mediator who aims at settling the conflict between the Ukrainian government and separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. From this point of view, it is only logical that Russia also wants to send its peacekeeping contingent.

Thus far, Russia has successfully depicted itself as a mediator in the context of the Minsk process: a Russian representative signed the Minsk Agreement as guarantor together with Germany and France, and Russian observers are participating in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission. Ukraine, on the other hand, seeks to present Russia as an aggressor and thus as a party to the conflict. Therefore, according to UN principles, an aggressor is not allowed to participate in manning of a peacekeeping mission. Such positions are mutually exclusive; therefore, a constructive dialogue about the mission is very difficult.

The revival of the idea of ​​peacekeepers in Donbas demonstrates the desire of both Russia and Ukraine to reserve some space for diplomatic maneuvers. With such peace initiatives, each party aims to show its commitment to the peaceful resolution of the conflict in Donbas and to blame the other side for negotiations failures. The actual deployment of the UN mission is still unlikely.

But if a decision is made anyway, one should not set excessive hopes for a quick and successful resolution of the conflict. On the one hand, it will take a while for the first “blue helmets” to appear on the ground in Donbas. On the other hand, they will contribute to freezing of the conflict rather than to its resolution. This is may as well be a decent option considering the constant shelling and casualties. However, a big question remains whether it can ensure a sustainable peace in the long-term perspective.

Vasyl Mykhailyshyn is a research fellow at the Institute of International Politics, Helmut Schmidt University/ University of the Federal Armed Forces in Hamburg, Germany. He obtained his Master’s degree at the Institute of International Relations, Kyiv National Taras Shevchenko University and Master of Peace and Security Studies at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He writes about foreign and security policy of Ukraine and Russia as well as about the Russian military.