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UN deadlock on Ukraine peacekeepers

Ukraine rejects Putin proposal for UN peacekeepers to protect OSCE observers on conflict contact line

On 5th September 2017, during his press conference at the latest BRICS summit in China, President Putin of Russia unexpectedly announced a proposal for the UN Security Council to organise a lightly armed force of peacekeepers to provide protection to observers from the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) who are patrolling the contact line between the militia in the Donbass and the Ukrainian army.

Putin’s words at the press conference were as follow

Vladimir Putin: This is impossible to do via the General Assembly, because UN peacekeepers cannot function other than pursuant to Security Council resolutions. But that is not the point.

You are saying that someone wants to push something through. In fact, I do not see anything wrong with that. I have already said many times that I support the idea of arming the OSCE mission, but the OSCE itself refuses to arm its field personnel, since it has neither the relevant people nor the experience of such work.

In this context, 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. This is my first point.

The second point is that, in this regard, these forces should be located on the demarcation line only and on no other territories.

Thirdly, this issue should be resolved only after disengaging the parties and removing the heavy equipment. This cannot be resolved without direct contact with representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic.

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I believe that if all this is done, it would definitely benefit resolving the situation in southeastern Ukraine. We will consider this as instructions to the Foreign Ministry to submit a relevant resolution to the Security Council.

This proposal has not been fully analysed, but what Putin proposed here was not a truly a “peacekeeping force” but rather a small lightly armed contingent whose task would have been to carry out bodyguard protection duties for the unarmed OSCE observers in the conflict zone.

Here it is worth pointing out that the presence of the OSCE observers in the Donbass conflict zone goes back to the spring of 2014, when it was actually proposed by Putin.  Putin’s latest proposal therefore represented an attempt by the Russians to strengthen an OSCE mission which is present in the Donbass conflict zone at their original instigation.

Behind Putin’s proposal is Russian frustration that the OSCE mission has proved ineffective in ramping down the conflict, with many though by no means all its field reports more favourable to the Ukrainian side in a way that the Russians undoubtedly feel is biased.  Introducing a small number of lightly armed UN peacekeepers drawn from a variety of countries – including non-Western countries – to the conflict zone might not merely make the OSCE mission more effective but might also correct this imbalance.

Putin’s proposal has received strong support from elements within the German government, who are becoming increasingly concerned that as a result of the indefinite perpetuation of EU sanctions EU-Russian relations – and therefore German-Russian relations – are becoming deadlocked.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, currently the most popular politician in Germany and a former leader of the SPD, has spoken of Putin’s proposal in enthusiastic terms

What we need to do now is to carry out negotiations aimed at the implementation of such a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weaponry. Thanks to the Russian proposal we are able to do this now……

I advise all participants not to say that we won’t do this because not all of our demands are met, but to openly discuss with the Russian Federation the conditions of a UN mission,” Gabriel said.

The deployment, if successful in bringing about a lasting ceasefire, would pave the way for political settlement, Gabriel said, adding that “then, we will be able to begin lifting sanctions imposed on Russia.”

German Chancellor Merkel has been much more cautious.  However she has also signalled that Putin’s proposal has her backing, subject to Putin’s agreement – which she secured in a telephone conversation with Putin on 11th September 2017 – that the proposed UN peacekeepers should be able to go anywhere within the conflict zone that the OSCE observers go, and not just the contact line.  Here is how the Kremlin’s website describes this part of the conversation

Vladimir Putin spoke in detail on the Russian initiative to establish a UN mission to aid the protection of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (OSCE SMM). Taking into account the views communicated by Angela Merkel, the Russian leader expressed readiness to add to the functions of the above-mentioned UN mission proposed in the Russian draft resolution of the Security Council.

The protection of OSCE observers by the UN is envisioned not only on the contact line after the disengagement of the forces and equipment of both sides, but also in other places where the OSCE SMM conducts its inspection visits in accordance with the Minsk Package of Measures.

However for the same reasons that Putin made the proposal Ukraine opposes it.  Just as the Russians want to secure a ceasefire in the Donbass, so Ukraine adamantly opposes a ceasefire since that might increase pressure on Ukraine to fulfil the political provisions of the February 2015 Minsk Agreement, which are totally unacceptable to Ukraine.

Beyond this there are two points about Putin’s proposal which the Ukrainians must find especially infuriating.

The first is the demand in Putin’s proposal that the remit of the UN peacekeepers be agreed through direct negotiations between the Ukrainian government and the authorities of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics.

Direct talks between the Ukrainian government and the authorities of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics were in fact envisaged by the February 2015 Minsk Agreement, which Ukraine has signed.  Such direct talks have however never happened.  The Ukrainian government adamantly opposes them since it correctly sees such talks as conferring legal recognition on the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics as parties to the conflict, thereby admitting that it is an internal Ukrainian conflict (as the Russians say) and not a case of aggression against Ukraine by Russia (as the Ukrainians say).

The Ukrainian stance has been well explained by Oleg Nemenensky, a senior researcher at Russia’s Institute of Strategic Studies.  In an interview with the Russian newspaper Izvestia partly republished by TASS he explained the reasons for Ukraine’s negative reaction to Putin’s proposal in this way

This means that the conflict in Ukraine is recognized as internal, which is inadmissible for the Kiev authorities, since it destroys the whole ideological of its policy. In addition, to introduce peacekeepers to the line of demarcation, it is necessary to recognize the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic as parties to the conflict. That contradicts the entire propaganda system built on the fact that the war is being waged with Russia,

The second reason for Ukrainian anger is that Putin’s proposal, by referring to “UN peacekeepers”, sought to preempt Western opposition to the proposal by using language previously proposed by Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government has been lobbying for years for a “UN peacekeeping force” to be deployed along the border between Russia and the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics.  Russia has consistently rejected this proposal, pointing out correctly that it is the contrary to the provisions of the 2015 Minsk Agreement.

Behind Russian opposition to this Ukrainian proposal is the belief in Moscow – which is almost certainly correct – that its purpose is to ‘seal’ the border between Russia and the two People’s Republics, cutting off the militia’s supply lines to Russia so as to enable the Ukrainian army to carry out an operation similar to Operation Storm: the military offensive in 1995 by the Croatian army, which led to the destruction of the Serb republic of Krajina.

Recently the Ukrainians have been re floating their longstanding proposal, leading possibly to calculations in Moscow that if some of the language of the Ukrainian proposal were used it would defuse Western opposition to Putin’s proposal, which is in reality a completely different one.

With the Germans this appears to have worked up to a point.  However, perhaps contrary to Russian hopes, the Trump administration – or perhaps more accurately the hardliners currently in the ascendant within it – has sided with Ukraine.

The result is that the negotiations in the UN Security Council on Putin’s proposal appear to be deadlocked, with the Ukrainians making a counter-proposal that refers to Russia as the “aggressor”.  As Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, has pointed out, such language cannot be accepted by Russia, and is clearly intended to wreck the proposal

While commenting on the wording suggested by Kiev, he said it was unacceptable. “If they take such a position and claim that Russia is an aggressor, then it leaves little room to manoeuvre,” Peskov said. According to him, such position “disregards the actual situation” as Russia is not a party to the conflict but one of the guarantors of the Minsk Agreements, “which are the basis of the settlement process.”

The Kremlin spokesman pointed out that “Russia and President Putin have more than once expressed readiness to do everything possible to achieve a compromise, but any compromise has its degree of reasonableness and acceptability.” When asked if the Kremlin had studied the Kiev-drafted resolution, Peskov said that diplomats were working on that.

Given the stance Ukraine is taking, Putin’s proposal is now all but dead.  Its only prospect for implementation is if the two other states involved in the Minsk Agreement – Germany and France – put pressure on Ukraine to accept it.  As to that, though the Germans and the French have frequently expressed exasperation at Ukraine’s intransigence – especially in private – they have in practice always drawn back from putting on Ukraine the sort of pressure that might force it to compromise.  Unfortunately that looks unlikely to change.

If deadlock was always the likeliest outcome to the Russian proposal, why did Putin make it?

The Russians have been receiving conflicting signals from the Trump administration about the Ukrainian conflict, and it may be that the proposal was in part floated in order to flush the Trump administration out: to see whether or not it is genuinely interested in a negotiated settlement of the Ukrainian conflict.  If so then the Russians have their answer: for the moment the hardliners within the Trump administration are in the ascendant, with US support for Ukraine’s Maidan government as strong as ever.

However the likeliest reason is that the Russians made their proposal with an eye to the German elections, which are due on Sunday.

The Russians have undoubtedly noticed the growing weariness in Germany with Merkel even if she is still likely to win the election on Sunday, and they have undoubtedly noticed the anger in Germany over the latest sanction law passed by the US Congress.

Putin’s proposal seems to have been pitched to underline the point – widely known in Germany, though publicly resisted by Merkel – that it is Ukraine’s intransigence not Russia’s ‘aggression’ which is prolonging the conflict.  With AfD, FDP and SDP politicians in the run up to the elections all making publicly known their deep skepticism about Merkel’s policy, and with doubts about the policy known to exist deep within Merkel’s CDU and – rather more openly – in the CDU’s Bavarian sister party the CSU, the Russians presumably felt that there was no harm in floating a proposal which would again show where the real obstacle to peace in Ukraine lies.

In other words the Russians are now starting to look beyond Merkel, assessing – almost certainly correctly – that even if she wins the election on Sunday as everyone expects, her time as Germany’s Chancellor is ending.

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