How can we solve the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in the Donetsk basin? Until now, the international community – the OSCE, and especially Germany and France, within the so-called Normandy Format – has been trying to mediate bilateral talks between Kyiv and Moscow. The activities of the so-called Contact Group, have led to the well-known Minsk agreement. Albeit with some delays, and in combination with factors like the declining oil price, the agreement has resulted in less military activity in the region since summer 2015. Yet, the agreements have neither led to a full ceasefire, nor any serious progress towards returning the occupied territories to Ukraine.
At the moment it doesn’t even seem likely that the conflict will “freeze”, as in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Instead, low-intensity conflict continues on a daily basis. Ukrainian soldiers continue to die or are being wounded along what remains a fluid demarcation line between the Ukrainian army and “separatist” forces. The territories of the so-called “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk are sinking deeper into misery and chaos by the month. The deterioration of life in these regions, the deepening of the Russian economic crisis, and the Kremlin’s related desire to reduce Western sanctions, has led to some softening of Moscow’s position.
In recent weeks, Kyiv has announced once more that it considers a large UN peace operation in the Donbas to be a realistic path towards solving this territorial conflict with Russia. On 4 January 2016, Volodymyr Yelchenko, the newly appointed permanent representative of Ukraine to the UN reiterated Ukraine’s request for more active engagement in Ukraine. On 23 January the UN sent an assessment mission to Ukraine. The success of any such mission would depend on whether Russia agreed to it and under what conditions. The last two years have shown that Putin will keep pushing to achieve his objectives in Ukraine. Therefore, it seems likely that Moscow would only support an international peace mission if it serves the urgent interests of Russia’s current elite. The main challenge for Western and Ukrainian leaders is to create and maintain an environment in which the Kremlin would see a peaceful and sustainable solution to the conflict in the Donbas as preferable to a continuation of the conflict, or even a freezing of it.
It is likely that Putin and his entourage will only consider cooperating seriously when the domestic price of sustaining the two so called “people’s republics” becomes too high. The risk assessment of the regime may change if the impact of Western economic sanctions grows too much, there is more public acknowledgment of Russia’s heavy involvement in the Ukrainian “civil war”, there is more widespread disillusion with Russian military losses in the Donbas, or, in general, there is increased war fatigue among the Russian public.
The West should strengthen its own pacifying capacities to encourage Russia to change tack. It could do this by increasing its economic pressure on Russia, for example, or intensifying its public diplomacy. Once Moscow is ready to withdraw from eastern Ukraine, it will then be possible to discuss ways for Putin or his successor to “save face” before the Russian public while avoiding any collapse of the conflict resolution process. The UN could help to resolve the conflict using its rich experience with peace operations around the globe. This might be an approach that is amenable to Russia, because it occupies a prominent role as a permanent Security Council member. Russia could be a visible part of a multilateral process, allowing the Kremlin to claim at home that it is the one driving the conflict’s resolution. At the same time, the West and the other permanent Security Council members will have to be careful that the Kremlin does not make a mockery of a possible UN operation.
Keeping in mind the various problems stemming from the provisions of the Minsk agreement, and the pressure to hold elections in the territories, it is necessary to plan and conduct a finely calibrated political process. For example, in the UNTAES mission in Eastern Slavonia, local elections were the last point in the peacekeeping mission’s plan of action. Elections were held only after full demilitarisation, a political stabilisation of the region, set-up of a local police force, and the creation of conditions necessary for the safe return of refugees.
Based on the lessons learned by UNTAES and other UN peace operations, one can imagine that a peacekeeping mission in the so-called “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk would require large-scale international military engagement. A significant number of UN troops and police forces would have to be deployed in the region in order for it to be successful. A simple multiplication, based on the UNTAES deployment, would lead to an estimated need of more than 50,000 troops – an enormous number of military personnel, which are not readily available.
If such a mission stands a chance of achieving sustainable peace, it will also be important to begin deployment within only a few months of an agreement being reached. Moreover, the mission’s mandate has to be sufficiently robust and well-defined. It will be necessary to create a temporary international military and civilian administrative force on the territory of the Donbas. Such a strong and neutral administration would allow refugees to return home from both Ukraine and Russia. Once the situation has sufficiently stabilised, local police forces can be created, and eventually, meaningful elections can be conducted. A partial solution to tackling such a wide range of issues could be to combine a UN mission with a parallel attached EU military and/or civilian operation under the Common Security and Defence Policy as well as the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Moreover, EU member states’ developmental organisations, such as the GIZ, SIDE and DFID, should become active as soon as the security situation allows.
While it may not be necessary to mobilise as many as 50,000 troops for the peacekeeping force, research has shown that, “as the number of UN military troops deployed increases, the chance of civil war recurring decreases”. Therefore, instead of merely sending unarmed observers, the UN should “deploy larger amounts of armed troops”. Further comparative research has established that the success of negotiations before missions has a direct correlation with their success rate. In other words, when all parties are on board, a significant amount of armed UN troops have been mobilised, non-military conflict resolution is being mediated, and civilian police forces are operating, democratic elections can be held that lead to legitimate rule. From this basis the state can begin to rebuild institutions in the conflict area and sustainable stabilisation can be achieved.
Considering the failure of the Minsk process and relatively good record of previous UN missions – a well-negotiated, well-mandated and well-armed UN peacekeeping operation that includes a significant civilian component might be Europe’s best chance to achieve peace on its eastern border. Such an operation would have to be approved by the UN Security Council, and could have the political, material and personnel support of the European Union. A combined UN/EU mission would constitute a genuine chance for the Donbas to end the misery of occupation, and Ukraine’s only realistic way to recover its lost eastern territories, in the near future. The Ukrainian state and other international actors, such as Germany or the OSCE, have shown that they are too weak to solve these tasks by themselves. Therefore, a combination of a UN peacekeeping mission with an EU CSDP operation as well as with large-scale engagement of potent development organisations (Worldbank, EBRD, USAID etc.) in the Donetsk Basin, should become a priority in the West’s attempts to end the ongoing armed confrontation between Kyiv and Moscow in eastern Ukraine.
Oleksiy Melnyk (Razumkov Center, Kyiv) and Andreas Umland (Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, Kyiv)
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