Russian President Vladimir Putin has many faults, but he is rarely boring. On 5 September, he once again surprised everyone by announcing that Russia wants a UN peacekeeping force for eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has long demanded a peacekeeping force, but Moscow has always rejected it out of hand.
So what has changed? In truth, not much. Putin is not surrendering Russia’s position in Ukraine and the proposal does not mean that Moscow has given up on its ambition to subjugate Ukraine. Indeed, it could well be a trap. But, if properly seized, the proposal could provide any opportunity to de-escalate the war in Ukraine.
The details matter, of course. There is a risk that Ukraine and the West could make concessions in exchange for a mission that does little to stabilise the situation or, worse, solidifies the division of Ukraine. The West should engage with this proposal but skeptically and with clear conditions.
The first step in getting the most out of Putin’s proposal is understanding where it comes from. The idea to involve UN peacekeepers has been around since the start of the war in eastern Ukraine. But Russia has opposed a peacekeeping operation to avoid an internationalisation of the conflict and a situation in which a UN process could be used by Ukraine and the Western powers to modify the Minsk framework – a framework that favours Moscow. But three years into the conflict Minsk is proving unimplementable and the benefits of deadlock are diminishing.
The initiative also has roots in much deeper political developments. When President Trump took office in the US, many in Moscow expected him to come to Russia's help in Ukraine – to make Kyiv accept and implement the Russian interpretation of the Minsk agreement or, at least, drop US support for Kyiv. It is now clear that this will not happen. New congressional sanctions, a reignited discussion on sending arms to Ukraine, and a tit-for-tat fight over diplomatic compounds reminiscent of the Cold War have all proven that US-Russian differences over Ukraine remain fierce. The Kremlin believes that Trump would like to cooperate with Russia, but they also understand that, given the domestic political environment in the United States, he cannot.
The peacekeeping proposal therefore is also an effort to inject momentum – or at least the semblance of momentum – into peacemaking efforts in the Donbas and, by extension, into Russia-US relations. Moscow, however, is not optimistic about the short-term prospects in the United States. For that reason, the proposal also serves as an overture to Europe. Contrary to Moscow's expectations six months ago, the EU is not on the verge of collapse and populist parties have not continued their march to power. Even Brexit turns out to have helped consolidate the EU. Unity over sanctions has proven stronger than many anticipated. Russia can no longer expect time to take care of its Europe problem; it realizes it needs to be more proactive towards Europe, which has made a solution to the Donbas issue a precondition of any thaw.
What is Russia proposing?
Let’s start with what Russia is not proposing. It is not suggesting a Chapter VII peace enforcement mission mandated to restore order in the Donbas, an international administration, or an executive police mission. It is not even proposing a military observation mission with access to the territories under the control of Russia and its proxies in Ukraine.
It is actually not even proposing a proper peacekeeping operation. Rather, Putin is proposing a simple UN protection force – bodyguards with blue helmets – for the civilian OSCE monitoring mission tasked to observe the security situation in eastern Ukraine. The proposal envisions a force armed only with small and light weapons, whose sole task would be to accompany and protect these monitors along the 500-km frontline. The mission would presumably evacuate monitors who come under attack and determine where the OSCE monitors could safely go.
The rationale behind this mission is that it would provide the OSCE with greater protection, enabling them to more effectively monitor the security situation, and thereby contribute to the implementation of the Minsk Agreement’s security provisions. But this proposition seems flaky at best and counter-productive at worst. Armed escorts might actually be detrimental to the OSCE’s ability to gain access to and observe the DNR/LNR regions.
The Russian gambit
Tactically, the proposal allows Putin to appear as a constructive peacemaker ahead of the UNGA. President Poroshenko was planning to present Ukraine’s peacekeeping proposal in New York. By pre-empting this with his own proposal, Putin can set the initial terms and be seen as a peacemaker, especially if the resolution is rejected by Ukraine. This would also help those in Europe who argue for an easing of sanctions. The German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, was quick to declare that the proposal showed that Russia had “undergone a change in its politics that we should not gamble away.”
Putin is also gearing up for presidential elections in March 2018 and the never-ending wars in Ukraine and Syria are becoming increasingly stale in the public imagination. Some movement on eastern Ukraine would provide Putin with a compelling narrative.
But beyond these tactics, the more important question is what this proposal tells us about Russia’s long-term strategy in Ukraine. Is it just an attempt to play for time and put pressure – and blame – on Kyiv, or is it really a change of policy indicating acceptance of a frozen conflict? The next days and weeks will give us a better indication.
Russia’s official position is that the peacekeepers will complement rather than replace the Minsk framework – thus the reintegration of Donbas into Ukraine on Russian terms remains the goal. This would ensure Moscow’s control over Ukraine’s strategic orientation, but many in Moscow now understand that it will never happen. From their perspective, a frozen conflict would be a satisfactory second best option, as it would satisfy Moscow’s bottom line objective of preventing Ukraine from ever becoming a member of NATO and hampering its movement towards the EU.
How should Western powers respond?
Regardless of Russia’s long-term policy direction, its diplomats will attempt to shape the terms of the peacekeeping mission to support Russia’s official position of reintegration. The West – and the particularly US, UK, and France in their role as UNSC members – need to ensure that the terms of the mission promote de-escalation of the war and support Ukrainian sovereignty. This implies four conditions:
First, Kyiv should not be pressured into accepting a mission. This war is fundamentally about Ukraine's sovereignty and its ability to exercise control over its territory. Pressuring Ukraine to accept a mission it does not want will hardly enhance its sovereignty.
Second, the mission should not bestow any recognition on Russia’s proxy regimes in the DNR/LNR. Some form of consent by the proxy regimes is necessary to deploy a mission into the territories they control, and a mission would have to have contacts with the DNR/LNR forces for operational purposes. But being parties to the conflict is not the same as being legitimate authorities. It is important that the Security Council does not explicitly recognise them as such, since doing so would undercut Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Third, the West should push for an expanded mission with a mandate that goes beyond force protection and the line of contact. Russia is unlikely to go along with this, but why not have this conversation now that Putin has opened the prospect of peacekeepers in the Donbas? As always, the Russian draft Security Council Resolution is the opening bid in a negotiation. The West needs an opening bid too and should not shy away from negotiating with Russia.
Fourth, any peacekeepers deployed to the Donbas need to come from countries without a direct stake in the conflict and who are not dependent on Russia. This would exclude peacekeepers from the former Soviet Union – and obviously the separatists themselves. But it will be difficult to find other nations who will be willing to send troops to act a buffer in a conflict in which Russia is a party.
The details are important. But it is also clear that there is an opening here. The Russian proposal includes language requiring both sides to pull back their troops and equipment from the frontline, as is the standard prerequisite for deploying peacekeeping operations. The question is whether the inclusion of this condition in the proposal means Moscow might now be ready to consider lowering tensions in the Donbas.
But it could also be a trap. While the Russian proposal might help de-escalate the conflict somewhat, the mission could contribute to solidifying the boundary between Kyiv-controlled territories and the separatist entities. This would be a step towards entrenching separation and the further de facto dismemberment of Ukraine. Worse, the West and Ukraine could end up making concessions for a mission that is never deployed because there is no disengagement. Or the mission is deployed but then the renewal of its mandate is blocked by Russia, as happened for UNOMIG in Abkhazia in 2009.
Russia's behaviour at the UN will soon show us if it is ready to retreat to a frozen conflict scenario. Even if it is, Russia could always turn a frozen conflict back into a hot one. But the policies of the West and Ukraine, can, in a conducive global context, make peace a lot more permanent. The West should use the Russian initiative to push for a more expansive mission with a more robust mandate and a greater geographic scope. The right mission could contribute to eventually ending Russia’s war with Ukraine
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.