What will end the war in eastern Ukraine? A UN peacekeeping mission – perhaps aided by an EU civilian detachment in Donbas – has recently emerged as the preferred mechanism for most actors working to resolve the conflict. Such a mission would provide an opportunity to either genuinely resolve the war or merely fake progress towards this goal, an ambiguity that all parties recognise.
Despite its risks and complications, the idea has caught the imagination of many Western diplomats, politicians, and experts who deal with the conflict since September 2017, when Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated his willingness to discuss UN involvement in the war. Nuremberg political analyst Andrej F. Novak provided a pioneering, detailed outline of the idea in November 2014. The Ukrainian government submitted an official request for a UN peacekeeping mission in 2015. Since then, prominent analysts from several countries have published reports detailing the mechanisms, prospects, and limitations of the plan. These papers include those by Oleksiy Melnyk (Razumkov Center, Kyiv) in 2016 and Andrey Kortunov (Russian International Affairs Council, Moscow) in 2017, as well as Richard Gowan (for the Hudson Institute, Washington) and Alexander Vershbow (Atlantic Council, Washington) in 2018.
A transitional UN peacekeeping mission in, and international civilian administration of, Donbas would have two major benefits. The first is that the scheme would introduce a neutral third force that could usher in a conflict resolution process – through the establishment of an international temporary administration supported by sufficiently numerous and well-armed foreign peacekeeping troops, as well as a provisional multinational police force. This arrangement seems to be the only feasible way to transfer control of the occupied Donbas territories from Moscow to Kyiv, and to restore basic socio-political order there.
The various Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 are curiously deficient: they foresee an unrealistically smooth transition from Russian to Ukrainian control of the heavily militarised eastern Donbas. It remains unclear how such a transition could occur without a third-party intervention there by the United Nations, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the European Union. Even if Russia withdrew its crypto-regular troops, political emissaries, and financial support from the area, without armed peacekeepers and a transitional administration it would take a full-scale Ukrainian liberation war to eliminate, capture, disarm, or disperse the remaining anti-Kyiv local and foreign irregulars, mercenaries, extremists, and adventurers. To this day, Moscow is actively financing, arming, training, and sometimes directing this ragtag group of fighters.
The second advantage of the plan is that it provides the Kremlin with a means to seek a sustainable resolution of the conflict while saving face before Russian nationalists steeped in years of anti-Kyiv propaganda. As it will have to approve any international armed peacekeeping mission at the UN Security Council, Moscow can influence the modus operandi of the mission and, domestically, spin the undertaking as a Russian stabilisation initiative designed to ease the suffering of Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine. The latter narrative is, of course, a gross distortion of the origins and nature of the conflict in Donbas. Nonetheless, for the Kremlin, the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces could serve as a convenient way out of the confrontation if it begins to see such an exit as useful or even necessary. To persuade Moscow to take this view, Western countries should not only maintain their sanctions on Russia linked to Donbas conflict, but also – in view of their limited success so far – increase and more carefully implement the measures.
For more than four years, Russia and Ukraine have conducted a war involving heavy arms and thousands of fatalities close to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, at Zaporizhia. Despite its enormous stakes, this so-called frozen conflict has received only limited attention from Europeans, with the EU and most of its member states cutting Moscow a great deal of slack. While some EU institutions and leaders have invested considerable time and energy in attempts to end the war, most European politicians, diplomats, and journalists suffer from what might be called “post-geographical externalisation syndrome”. A significant escalation of the conflict – which could precipitate the collapse of the battered Ukrainian state – would be nothing less than catastrophic for Europe. Yet Western political elites and voters remain surprisingly escapist and/or optimistic about Moscow’s actions, capabilities, and intentions in Ukraine. At worst, the EU will only realise the severity of the crisis on its eastern border if there is another disaster comparable to the July 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.