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Moscow’s dubious peacekeeping proposal

The Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently proposed a deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force to the conflict zone of eastern Ukraine. The announcement came as a surprise to the international community as it represented a marked change from Putin’s limited support for peacekeepers in the past.

September 20, 2017 - Cameron Gibson - AnalysisHot Topics

war in donbas

Putin had suggested that the move could help resolve the conflict. The peacekeepers would be a force to assure the security of the unarmed Organisation for Security and Cooperation Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission and would be deployed in eastern Ukraine for six months.

The proposal has diplomatically outmanoeuvred the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, who for two years repeatedly lobbied for a peacekeeping presence in eastern Ukraine. He now has his wish, albeit on Russian terms.

Meanwhile, Germany, a main player in the Normandy Format created to resolve the conflict in Ukraine, has lent its support to the Russian proposal with the German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, remarking “this offer of a UN mission in eastern Ukraine shows that Russia has effected a change in its policies that we should not gamble away.” However, one should examine this proposal for validity of its supposed peacekeeping status.

The proposal involves peacekeepers being based on the demarcation line separating Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists, not the Ukrainian-Russian border, and is conditional to a number of caveats. Before the deployment of peacekeepers, the proposal requests the removal of heavy equipment from the contact line and the disengagement of parties involved in conflict. Furthermore, it has been mentioned that in order to achieve disengagement, representatives from the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics will be involved in the process, a move which would gain the two para-states a de facto recognition from the international community.

Reaction to the proposal from the Ukrainian side has been far from enthusiastic. The Deputy Head of the Verkhovna Rada, Iryna Gerashchenko, stressed the importance of deploying a UN peacekeeping force to the entire occupied territory, including the Ukrainian-Russian border, rather than just the demarcation line. She also stressed that Russians, as an aggressor, should not be involved in any peacekeeping mission.

Poroshenko called the proposal “strange”, but concluded that Ukraine was ready to discuss any proposal by the United Nations, whilst reaffirming that any peacekeeping force should not preserve the Russian occupation of Ukraine. Whilst the response from key Ukrainian policymakers has been unequivocal, it does place Poroshenko and the wider Ukrainian government into a tight spot vis-à-vis obligations, desires and the Minsk II Agreement.

Russia’s proposal has come against the backdrop of the Minsk II Agreement, which has failed to yield any breakthrough, despite the conflict now entering its fourth year, due to long standing disputes over each party’s obligations. Both sides have repeatedly violated the ceasefire, Russia has failed to withdraw heavy weapons from the front line despite Western sanctions, and Ukraine has so far found it politically difficult to implement electoral law and special status for Donbas which remains under the control of the separatists.

However, Minsk II will continue to be the main framework for resolution of the conflict, unless a radical change in the Ukrainian-Russian relationship occurs. All of this exerts a degree of pressure upon Petro Poroshenko, who was elected to bring peace to Ukraine. While Poroshenko himself has alluded to a desire to deploy UN peacekeepers in the conflict zone last year, his proposal failed to gain traction due to Moscow’s opposition at the UN. In this instance, realpolitik may enter into the equation and Poroshenko may be forced to push for an altered form of the Russian proposal at a later date.

The language employed throughout the proposal could attest to a slight softening in the Russian stance over the conflict. Request for the removal of heavy weapons might suggest that Russia is willing to step back from the conflict which, though still rages, has turned relatively cold and has been expensive in terms of manpower, blood and expenditure for little gain.

Such a move would support the notion that deems Putin a great strategical mind: a proposal which alludes to the greater good, but in reality only really benefits Russia. Of course, reality is somewhat different. Putin’s proposal could be viewed as a way of gaining leverage in Russia’s relationships with Ukraine’s western allies, whilst splintering their unity on the issue over a peaceful settlement.

With Russia’s presidential election approaching, Putin wishes to use foreign policy to consolidate his domestic support. This, invariably, means that there will be little chance of a significant strategic change in Russia’s Ukrainian policy. Furthermore, placing Russian peacekeepers on the line of demarcation will further Russian controlled territory, which is something Ukrainian policymakers are wary of.

For all the talk of détente over Ukraine, with the Normandy Format talks faltering, both Ukraine and the UN as a whole should seriously consider the wider aspects of this peacekeeping proposal. A legitimate peacekeeping force with a proper mandate could make significant improvements to the stability of the conflict, but only if it could be deployed through the entire conflict region and be stationed longer than six-months.

By accepting this proposal as it stands, Ukraine could be bargaining away concessions for very little stability or advances in finding a peaceful settlement. Ukraine cannot afford to lose on the diplomatic front and this is exactly what this proposal would result in. 

Cameron Gibson is a graduate from the University of the West of Scotland, with an interest in foreign policy, diplomacy and the post-Soviet space. He is also contributing editor with New Eastern Europe.

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