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Mission Possible

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The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in eastern Ukraine has achieved a great deal to help the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. It could do more – but its hands are tied.

© REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

For three years now, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has deployed civilian observers in Ukraine. From a humble beginning in March 2014, when ten teams with ten members each were dispatched throughout the country, the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) has grown to currently just over 700 international observers, with some 600, or 85 percent, in the conflict-ridden eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. With a total staff of more than 1100 (as of February 2017), it is the biggest field mission in the OSCE’s history – and among the most controversial.

Having said that, the mission’s achievements have been widely acknowledged by the OSCE’s 57 member governments, who voted unanimously to prolong the mission in 2015 and 2016.

First, the SMM daily reports, which are published in English and translated into Russian and Ukrainian, are a unique resource of objective information about a conflict in which local media – on both sides – tend to be biased and international media tend to be absent.

On the ground, the OSCE has become a vital international element, especially since foreign aid organizations like Doctors Without Borders and People in Need were kicked out of the separatist “People’s Republics.” It should not be overlooked that the mission’s two teams working in eastern Ukraine are both headquartered in the separatist “capitals” of Donetsk and Luhansk, and that its monitors cross the contact line between the hostile sides dozens of times every day.

Moreover, the mission’s mandate tasks observers with monitoring not only security issues but also human rights and fundamental freedoms. The OSCE may not be a humanitarian organization, but beyond recording ceasefire violations, its monitors pick up significant amounts of information about the lives of civilians on a daily basis. When they pass this information on to the right people, they can reduce human suffering, as when they reported on the removal of unexploded ordnance.

More fundamentally, the OSCE’s participation in the ongoing Minsk negotiations (the Trilateral Contact Group) and the fact that senior mission members regularly commute between Minsk, Donbass, and Kiev, give the SMM a key role in overseeing the Minsk agreement’s implementation.

Obligations like the withdrawal of heavy weapons, stipulated in the Minsk Protocol, and the so-called disengagement agreement signed last year hinge on the continuous verification by OSCE observers on the ground. It is not enough to state that an obligation has been fulfilled; it is vital that compliance (or the lack thereof) is monitored daily as long as an agreement lasts.

Despite this, the OSCE has come under criticism for its role in the restive region. And Ukrainians are not unanimously satisfied with the mission, even though it was their government that requested it.

A survey conducted by the Kiev-based Gorshenin Institute in February 2016 found that almost half of respondents (46.9 percent) do not approve of the mission’s work to support the Minsk agreement’s implementation, while more than a third (35.6 percent) approved. No comparable surveys have been conducted in Russia or in the separatist-controlled areas recently, but judging from the general tone in Russian state-run media, public opinion is unlikely to be much better. In a survey by the Moscow-based independent Levada Center in April 2014, 58 percent of respondents said that they believe that the OSCE mission was biased toward the Ukrainian government, while just 19 percent found the mission to be objective.

To a large extent, such numbers reflect the criticism of the mission among political and military leaders on both sides. After all, the conflict in Donbass lies at the heart of the split between Russia and the West, leaving the mission exposed not just to guns and artillery but also to the sort of information warfare that has become a hallmark of this conflict.

Cameras of Contention

A standard complaint is that the OSCE’s work in Ukraine lacks objectivity. Take the comments made by the leader of the Donetsk “People’s Republic,” Alexander Zakharchenko, in January. Speaking during a visit to Crimea, Zakharchenko claimed that the mission’s observation cameras were looking only in the separatists’ direction, and transmitting video footage straight to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. “Their soldiers are sitting at those cameras watching our movements,” he was quoted by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

Zakharchenko’s claims more or less mirror those voiced by the Ukrainian side when the mission set up its first observation camera one year ago outside Shyrokyne, a village close to the shore of the Sea of Azov. Back then, national television aired interviews with Ukrainian soldiers who said they suspected the signal would be transmitted to the other, i.e. separatist, side. That claim was later repeated by prominent Ukrainian television journalist Andriy Tsaplienko, who said that the camera only allowed the “Putinists” to watch the Ukrainians’ rear units.

The OSCE gave assurances that the camera transmission was encrypted so that it could only be seen by mission members, that its location allows for monitoring of both sides, and that it was chosen in agreement with both sides, including the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Vladislav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian General Staff, even pointed out that the number of shellings fell after the cameras were installed.

It is difficult to say if that message convinced more people than the criticism. What is clear, however, is that the mission’s communications efforts are complicated by persistent rumors that at least some of its monitors are not engaged in observing, but rather in spying. Allegations that Russian members use the OSCE to spy on Ukrainian forces have dogged the mission from its onset, as distrust against Russians runs deep among some Ukrainians, who see their neighbors as their enemy.

In late 2014 Ukrainian officials started to claim that up to eighty percent of the monitors were Russians, many of them with a background in the intelligence services. Following such disinformation, the mission began to publish its national composition in biweekly status reports. As of January 2017, Russian citizens made up 38 out of 709, or 5.3 percent of the SMM members. This did not prevent retired US General Wesley Clark from repeating such false claims during a talk in Washington, DC, after returning from a field trip to eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian activists use Clark’s unfortunate remarks to this day to tarnish the mission. Rather tellingly, they serve as the introductory post for a nationalist Twitter account that has in the past specialized in exposing mission members’ lack of impartiality.

OSCE officials also point out that passing on sensitive information is strictly prohibited under the OSCE Code of Conduct. All monitors must sign the agreement, which obligates them to “refrain from any action that might cast doubt on their ability to act impartially.”

When in October 2015 a clearly intoxicated Russian mission member in the Luhansk region was shown on Ukrainian TV saying that he was an operative for his country’s military intelligence service, the man was immediately removed. No evidence was presented to prove his drunken claim, but reservations among Ukrainian officials clearly remain. Just this January, Ukrainian General Boris Kremenetskiy said in a widely quoted interview that all Russian OSCE mission members are intelligence officers.

Kremenetskiy, who until December served as the Ukrainian head of the Joint Center for Control and Coordination, a Russian-Ukrainian military observer mission overseeing the ceasefire, refrained from demanding the Russians’ removal from the mission. But such demands have been voiced in the past. It is highly unlikely they will be heeded, given that the OSCE’s strict consensus principle would require Moscow’s approval.

The Ukrainians are not alone in their criticism. Spying allegations are a common feature in the separatists’ military dispatches as well. In May 2016 the Donetsk “People’s Republic” even alleged that monitors were transporting ammunition – a claim that was never backed up by any evidence.

Observers Are No Peacekeepers

These political limitations also tend to frustrate local civilians, who often expect that an international mission will do something to stop the fighting around them. But the OSCE observers cannot act as peacekeepers. They have no executive powers, meaning they cannot even stop a soldier on the street and demand proof of his citizenship. This is why the mission does not report regularly about Russian soldiers in the rebel-held “republics,” even though fighters recently introduced themselves to the observers as Russian citizens.

The fact that the mission is unarmed and composed of civilians also means that, with the current level of violence, patrolling must be limited to daylight hours. As this is widely known to both sides of the conflict, major attacks often happen at night. This has in turn led to increasing demands that the OSCE institute night patrol. An article in The New York Times last year accused the mission of keeping “bankers’ hours” instead of helping to “end the only active war in Europe.”

It is doubtful, however, that sending monitors out in the dark would do anything to change that. Given the strict curfews and soldiers’ nervousness along the contact line, it is likely that any vehicle or person approaching military checkpoints in the dark would be fired upon. The mission is lucky that there have been no fatal casualties among its members so far. Should this change, it will certainly test the contributing countries’ commitment to the extreme.

Under these circumstances, the mission has to walk a fine line between its obligations and the security of its own staff. Becoming a buffer or shield between the opposing sides is not just too dangerous for the monitors, it would also clearly overstep their mandate.

Over the past 18 months, the OSCE has done a lot to expand its monitoring capacities. It has spread out to permanently manned forward patrol bases, meaning that there are now 14 locations from which monitors can operate along the contact line, thus reducing travel times. It has introduced night watches from hotels and installed 24-hour surveillance cameras at hotspots like Donetsk Airport and Shyrokyne.

It has also started using smaller and flexible unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to monitor areas deemed too dangerous to enter. The mission used to employ long-range UAVs, but their flights were suspended last summer after a series of crashes believed to be the result of direct fire.

The new OSCE chairman in office, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, has said that he wants to strengthen the mission. After talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on January 18, Kurz suggested both that monitoring would be extended into the night and that monitors should be better equipped. Lavrov said that the numbers of observers should be increased, and that they should be present around the clock.

However, this does not necessarily mean patrolling during the night. As in the past, the mission can use technical equipment like cameras and drones to carry out risky nighttime observations, and they can demonstrate 24-hour presence at weapons storage sites and the contact line by opening forward patrol bases there.

As Strong as Its Weakest Links

The OSCE mission’s limitations described here in many ways reflect what the West is ready to do collectively to restore Ukrainian sovereignty in the Donbass. While Kiev has long campaigned for an international peacekeeping presence, led by the UN, NATO, or even the OSCE, influential Western governments like Germany, France, and Italy agree that the conflict can only be solved if Russia is a party, rather than an adversary. In consequence, the OSCE, being the only regional security organization that includes Russia as a member, has become a keystone to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Its unarmed and civilian nature makes the observer mission acceptable to both parties and retains the spirit of the Minsk agreements, which call for the secessionist regions to be returned to Kiev’s administration by political compromise.

But with negotiations over the agreements’ implementation in a deadlock, Ukraine has over the past months stepped up its call for an armed mission, including the proposal to transform the current mission into an OSCE police mission.” The German Foreign Office, however, has argued that this would undermine the mission’s neutrality and unleash a host of new and more difficult problems.

The costs of an armed peacekeeping presence in Eastern Ukraine would also be massively higher than the current mission’s annual budget of just €100 million. For a robust peacekeeping mission in Eastern Ukraine to be effective, the international community would have to deploy around 50,000 troops, according to contemporary Russian and Ukrainian history expert Andreas Umland – more than seventy times as many as the current OSCE mission.

Most probably, Russia will be decisive for the future of the OSCE observers. Moscow itself has pushed for enlarging the mission – while at the same time turning a blind eye to the fact that the separatists restrict the mission’s work far more than government troops. It has also allowed campaigns in state-controlled media and protests against the SMM to go forward, as last happened on February 15 in Donetsk.

Put simply, improving the monitoring mission’s efficiency could be easy – if only there is political will.

N.B. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the chief monitor or the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine.