Peacekeeping in Ukraine’s Donbas: Opportunities and Risks

The war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region will soon enter its fifth year. In September 2017, talk of a settlement picked up after Russia circulated a draft UN Security Council resolution proposing the deployment of UN forces along the front line separating Kyiv’s forces, on one side, from Kremlin-backed separatists, on the other.

Moscow had ignored Kyiv’s calls for peacekeepers since early 2015, so its proposal was regarded with suspicion by Ukraine and its Western allies. Most saw the small force envisaged along the front as a non-starter, more likely to freeze the conflict than end it. Nonetheless, the proposal spurred fresh thinking about ways out of the stalemate.

U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker has now met several times with Vladislav Surkov, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, to discuss what a compromise on peacekeeping might entail. After their fourth meeting in Dubai in January 2018, both expressed cautious optimism regarding initial aspects of force composition and deployment. In February, former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, whose political consultancy group runs a strategic campaign called the Ukraine Initiative, floated a detailed proposal for a peacekeeping force.

While scepticism about Moscow’s intentions is justified, the Kremlin’s willingness to discuss peacekeepers marked a shift in the tenor of dialogue on Donbas, as Crisis Group argued in its December report Can Peacekeepers Break the Deadlock in Ukraine? Whether the change in tone brings a change in substance remains to be seen. The evolution of the peacekeeping debate, and the fact it even remains on the table, suggest it should be taken seriously. So too should the impact inside Ukraine. As the country prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019, Moscow’s peacekeeping overtures – genuine or not – risk fuelling political infighting motivated more by competition to establish patriotic credentials than by efforts to reintegrate Donbas.

Competing Perspectives

Since Russian-backed separatists seized parts of Donbas in early 2014, fighting has left more than 11,000 dead and thousands injured. Millions of civilians are either displaced in Ukraine or living as refugees in Russia. The February 2015 Minsk II Agreement sets out a framework that leaders both in Russia and among Kyiv’s Western allies say they view as the only way to end the conflict. That agreement foresees the withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons from the area and reestablishment of Kyiv’s control over its side of the Ukraine-Russia border. It also sets out political provisions for the reintegration of separatist-held areas into Ukraine, including on local elections in those parts of Donbas, self-governance of these areas and amnesties.

Kyiv’s argument has been that continued fighting and Russia’s financial and military support for separatists prevent Ukraine from advancing the political elements of Minsk. But more fundamentally, most Ukrainians see the deal as generally favourable to Moscow and the separatists. Kyiv has long seen the war in Donbas as an inter-state conflict involving Russia rather than a civil conflict. A new reintegration law signed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in February 2018 makes this view explicit, labelling Russia as an aggressor and Donbas as an illegally occupied territory. Political and civil society actors in Kyiv insist this designation was necessary to place full responsibility for the conflict – its costs, as well as the human rights protection of those living in rebel-held Donbas – on Russia, and prevent it from participating in a peacekeeping operation, as the Ukrainian side formally considers Moscow a party to the conflict. Parliamentary Chairman Andriy Parubiy says the next step is to enact a de-occupation law. In this climate, Ukrainian leaders are likely to accept peacekeepers only if they believe the mission would safeguard Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, at the very least by monitoring the Russian border.

For its part, Moscow blames the deadlock on Kyiv’s failure to implement the Minsk agreement’s political provisions. The Kremlin also voices fears of reprisals against inhabitants of separatist-held areas were Ukrainian forces to return. In principle, Russia may gain from finding a way out of eastern Ukraine, where its interference has incurred both financial costs – due to U.S. and EU sanctions, as well as expenditures required to keep the regional administration afloat – and wider reputational costs. But despite the Volker-Surkov talks, it is unlikely that Moscow is seeking a way out, almost certainly not ahead of Russian elections in March 2018.

At this stage, Putin’s peacekeeping proposal and participation in subsequent dialogue probably aim to gauge reactions from others; possibly, to explore under what conditions Western powers might lift sanctions; and likely, to test how much pressure prospects of reintegrating Donbas by implementing the political provisions unpopular among most Ukrainians could put on Kyiv ahead of elections there in 2019. Whether Moscow is more willing to find a constructive solution after its elections remains unclear. Its degree of openness will depend on the nature of Putin’s domestic and foreign policy calculations after his almost guaranteed re-election. An optimistic scenario has Russia compromising on Donbas to help reframe relations with the West and prompt the lifting of sanctions. But some Western diplomats in Kyiv fear Moscow may float proposals that would stop short of guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty, all the while increasing the onus on Kyiv to deliver on the divisive political aspects of Minsk.

Of Ukraine’s Western allies, the U.S. has been most active in exploring peacekeeping options, primarily through the bilateral channel between Volker and Surkov. Talks among the Normandy Four – the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany – complemented by more frequent exchanges among their respective advisers, and the Trilateral Contact Group comprising representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, proceed in parallel with the Volker-Surkov track.

Volker’s diplomacy continues to overshadow any European role. In 2018, however, Germany’s leaders appear to have again found their voice. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel called for a UN peacekeeping mission in early January, and Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces Hans-Peter Bartels announced on 15 February that Germany is ready to contribute troops.

Renewed European attention to Ukraine, particularly from the EU itself, could be useful. The EU’s close political ties to Ukraine and substantial aid give it critical leverage in Kyiv. A first step might be for Brussels to nominate its own special envoy or representative with a mandate similar to that of Volker. According to one EU official, a senior former politician would stand the best chance of making an impact, particularly given the sensitivity of the agenda and differences among member states.

Including the EU and U.S. in an expanded Normandy format might make sense, too. For now, that course appears unlikely, but it would serve to keep all actors on the same page and discourage both Moscow and Kyiv from shopping among rival forums.

Ukrainian Resistance to Minsk

Russian interference in Donbas is not the only obstacle to ending the crisis. In Ukraine, resistance to the Minsk agreement’s political provisions is growing. It is already a central campaign issue ahead of the 2019 elections.

Bar pro-Russia factions, President Poroshenko’s party stands alone in endorsing the accord. Even some in the president’s ruling coalition reject it. His junior partner, the People’s Front, openly declares that Minsk is dead, says Ukraine never endorsed its contents in the first place, and argues that Kyiv signed only to check the Russian-backed separatists’ military momentum and buy time. Indeed, even Poroshenko’s own commitment to Minsk is not entirely clear; he may merely be paying it lip service, so as not to alienate Kyiv’s Western allies. The vast majority of Ukrainian parties and civil society groups consider Kyiv’s obligations under Minsk unwanted concessions to the Kremlin, whose leverage in Donbas looks set to endure even if Russia pulls out its forces.

A narrative appears to be taking hold among Ukrainian elites that implementing controversial Minsk provisions could provoke a new wave of anti-government violence, even if the Minsk security provisions are implemented. The provisions on amnesties and self-rule for the now rebel-controlled areas are particularly contentious; many Ukrainians would see granting the special status stipulated in the agreement to parts of Donbas as rewarding a separatist area with privileges no other region in the country enjoys. For now, however, there are few visible omens of mass civil disobedience. Little suggests Ukrainians would come out onto the streets in large numbers, other than their recent history of doing so. The failure of successive revolutions to root out pervasive corruption appears to have provoked fatigue as much as anger among many. And Western diplomats have been speculating since October 2017 that the government was preventing the assembly of crowds outside parliament and on Maidan by occupying traditional demonstration spaces with an uninhabited protest camp and large outdoor exhibition. Authorities’ sudden March 2018 clearance of these may indicate government fears of public turmoil have largely abated. After the dismantling of the camp outside parliament, some prominent reformers and social media influencers criticised what they called aggressive policing reminiscent of old regime tactics, but the immediate reaction on the street has been muted.

Still, animosity toward Minsk fuels an early pre-election campaign in which discourses are hardening, as elites seek to outbid each other in their expressions of patriotism. A G7 diplomat privately commented: “Moscow knows full well how much damage it can create in Ukraine by floating more peace plans”, and said he expected it to do so after Russia’s presidential election. Peacekeeping dialogue needs to factor in this resistance and anxiety across the country about how the disputed areas would be reintegrated. European powers, in particular, could push Kyiv to explore how it might enact Minsk in a way that would not challenge Ukraine’s national cohesion and sovereignty. They should also help Kyiv prepare for the social and political challenges that the implementation of Minsk might engender.

An Expansive Peacekeeping Mandate?

To help resolve the conflict, the mandate of any peacekeeping mission would likely have to involve at least three elements. First, peacekeepers would need to establish control over the front line, protect civilians, provide security across the conflict zone, and verify the cantonment of weapons, disengagement and withdrawal of forces. A sustained ceasefire (a tall order, given that the record, set in September-October 2017, is twelve days) should be a precondition for any deployment. Second, peacekeepers ought to be mandated to monitor the Ukrainian side of the border with Russia to deter infiltration to the extent possible, with the eventual goal of reestablishing Kyiv’s control over its own side. Third, peacekeepers would have to lay the groundwork for Kyiv to implement the Minsk political provisions, starting with creating conditions for credible local elections that guarantee all candidates the right to safely campaign.

The composition of a potential peacekeeping force – which nations would contribute troops – has been the topic of some discussion in Kyiv. NATO and Russian forces would likely be unacceptable: Russia is predisposed to reject the former, Ukraine and its Western allies the latter. Many Ukrainian military and civil society experts also posit that Collective Security Treaty Organization members like Belarus or Kazakhstan be excluded. Other options might include troops from countries such as Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, all of which would probably be acceptable to most Ukrainians. That said, even were consensus to emerge on the principle of peacekeeping, finding a mix of troop contributors acceptable to both Kyiv and Moscow, and persuading those countries to commit forces, would likely prove a challenge.

Another decision relates to the number of peacekeepers required. Volker and some Ukrainian diplomats have floated the concept of a force of 20,000, a number now widely cited by Kyiv and its Western partners as necessary to carry out a robust mandate over a large and heavily populated area. That number would already be at the upper end of existing UN operations, but a smaller force would likely be unable to both monitor the border and project force across all of Donbas as local elections approach. Many Kyiv elites contemplate a higher number that would exceed 30,000.

The Security Council would also need to decide on the degree to which UN peacekeepers would enjoy explicit enforcement capability, how robust a posture they would adopt in the face of spoilers, and the manner in which they would deploy. Even with the consent of both Moscow and Kyiv – a prerequisite for any mission’s deployment – peacekeepers could still face local hostility.

Phased deployment – first along the front line, then within a wider radius, and finally across the entire disputed territory, including the Russian border – almost certainly would be required to dispel dual fears of non-compliance and reprisals. While Kyiv might oppose such a proposal, given suspicions that the Kremlin could obstruct latter phases, a fast deployment with clear deadlines might mitigate such concerns. Western officials say they are exploring options for a phased deployment that would combine security and political steps: deployment along the line of contact; followed by Kyiv’s adoption of legislation on greater autonomy for conflict regions; then deployment all the way to the border; and finally, local elections in Donbas. There are many hurdles to such a scenario, which would, however, address key points of the Minsk framework.

Any mission should also facilitate the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and commuters who continue to live on both sides of the front line, as well as refugees. IDPs and commuters could be a politically moderating force in reintegrating a Donbas society dominated, on the rebel-controlled side, by a siege mentality and exposed to potent anti-Kyiv and anti-Western propaganda.

A final question is whether the Security Council ought to establish a temporary UN administration to govern separatist-held areas until the return of Ukrainian authority. Some past UN missions – Eastern Slavonia, Kosovo and Timor Leste – played this role. Whether such an intrusive mandate is needed in eastern Ukraine remains a divisive question for Kyiv. Ukrainian authorities would not be able to return immediately, but many elites also resent the notion of outsiders meddling in domestic affairs. Existing local de facto authorities are largely out of the question; indeed, the U.S. has long insisted on a change in their leadership as a precondition in its negotiations with Russia on Donbas, and Kyiv clearly would prefer a temporary UN administration to one led by pro-Russian separatists. If the UN does not play an administrative role, it is unclear what a transitional regime might look like. At the very least, the Security Council would need to empower a peacekeeping mission to help local state institutions perform basic functions during the transition.

A Rare Opening

Ukraine’s Western allies need to reassure Kyiv that any deal on peacekeeping would be acceptable only if it addressed security concerns without further undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty. Ukraine must not become a bystander to this process; spoilers on either side could easily exploit the perception that Kyiv is unable to influence the outcome. The West should continue to make clear to Moscow that non-Crimea sanctions on Russia will be lifted only once Minsk is fully implemented or when Russia ends its interference in Donbas, and that partial withdrawal will not give rise to partial lifting of sanctions.

A peacekeeping mission may still be a distant possibility. It is far from clear that Moscow is seeking an exit. Mounting resistance among Ukrainian leaders to the Minsk accord presents another challenge, which Russia may well be factoring into its calculations. Nonetheless, the current talks represent a rare opening to test ideas on how to settle the eastern Ukraine conflict and reintegrate the disputed Donbas into Ukraine. All parties should make the most of it.

Magdalena Grono, Program Director, Europe & Central Asia, Brussels. Jonathan Brunson, Senior Analyst, Ukraine/Eastern Neighbourhood, Kyiv, Ukraine.

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