The attendance of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session (September 12–25, 2017) highlighted the importance Kyiv places on the draft resolution it submitted to the UN calling for an international peacekeeping mission in Donbas. Indirectly reacting to Poroshenko’s August 22 announcement of the resolution Ukraine had planned to submit, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated, on September 5, that he had agreed to the deployment of UN peacekeepers in Donbas. But he declared that those UN peacekeepers should be tasked solely with providing security for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission (OSCE SMM), which is already present on the line of contact. Putin stated that a UN mission was possible once heavy weapons are fully withdrawn from the Donbas frontline, and he demanded that the mission be coordinated between Kyiv and the separatist (Moscow-backed) leaderships of the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” (DPR, LPR) (RT, September 5). On the same day (September 5), Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs submitted to the United Nations this competing resolution on a UN mission to guard the OSCE monitors (TASS, September 5). Incidentally, Putin did not attend this year’s UNGA in New York City.
In contrast to the Russian proposal, Petro Poroshenko urged, on September 7, that the UN mission should have the mandate to operate on the whole territory of Donbas, and Ukraine responded by submitting its alternative draft resolution that day (UNIAN September 18). While courting Germany to support the Russian proposal, Putin ultimately agreed that peacekeepers could accompany the OSCE inspectors deeper into occupied Donbas (RT, September 11). Nonetheless, this still does not provide for monitoring of Ukraine’s internationally recognized (but DPR-LPR-controlled) border with Russia.
The Ukrainian side rejected Moscow’s limits on the UN mission’s ability to operate on the border. Furthermore, parliamentarian Iryna Friz, a prominent national security voice within the ruling Petro Poroshenko Bloc, wrote in an op-ed that any UN peacekeeping mission deployed to Ukrainian territory should not include any nationals from Russia or other members states of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Additionally, the UN peacekeepers should have the right to monitor and review cross-border Russian-Ukrainian traffic to prevent the further flow of weapons into Ukraine; and they should be engaged in humanitarian peacebuilding missions (Lb.ua, September 14).
While engaging in the debate around UN peacekeepers in Donbas, Kyiv is largely focused on avoiding a “trap,” whereby Russia manages to institutionally freeze the conflict. But the deliberations inside the Ukrainian government have not considered the possibility that the Kremlin may in fact be trying to shape a “failed” outcome from the outset, in which no agreement about peacekeepers is reached at all at the UN. At some point, this failure might even provide Russia the cover to insert its own forces into Ukraine as “peacekeepers” should the situation on the ground escalate further. These new Russian troops would supplement Moscow’s proxy military in Donbas with a more professional force grouping, thus cementing Russia’s protectorate over the territories not controlled by Kyiv.
Meanwhile, Putin’s existing peacekeeper proposal would allow Russia to avoid having to hold democratic election in occupied Donbas, despite these being a requirement in the 2015 Minsk Two ceasefire agreement. If actually conducted openly and responsibly, such elections could lead to the collapse of the puppet DPR and LPR governments. In fact, in the past, Ukraine had specifically called for sending an international peacekeeping mission of 18,000–20,000 personnel in order to guard against election violations in Donbas (UNIAN November 3, 2016).
The small-sized UN police mission that the Kremlin envisages is unlikely to be accepted by the OSCE. The presence of armed peacekeepers would make the OSCE monitoring mission members targets. To actually provide sufficient protection in a war zone, a reasonably sized peacekeeping mission would probably need to resemble the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade in the Democratic Republic of Congo, established in 2013, whose mandate includes engaging in offensive operations for peace enforcement purposes. It is unclear whether the Normandy Group (Ukraine, Russia, France, Germany) or the United States could compel Russia to agree to an international peacekeeping mission with such a mandate.
In addition to the military element, the UN mission should ideally be “complex”—that is, work alongside the peacebuilding process. Likewise, there is no reason for the international community to simply accept Moscow’s characterization of the conflict in Ukraine’s east as internal to Ukraine as a prerequisite to deploying a UN peacekeeping mission to Donbas. On the contrary, some UN peacekeeping operations specifically deal with essentially interstate disputes, such as for example India and Pakistan (Un.org, accessed September 20).
Clearly, the Kremlin is using the issue to try to splinter Transatlantic unity among the US, Germany and France. Having made a symbolic gesture toward Chancellor Merkel, Moscow won the praise of Germany’s Social-Democrat foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel. In an interview, Gabriel asserted that if an agreement on a UN peacekeeping mission in Donbas can be reached and if the subsequent ceasefire holds, the European Union should gradually reduce the Russian sanctions (Auswaertiges-amt.de, September 19). Meanwhile, Putin urged French President Emmanuel Macron to support the Russian initiative (Kremlin.ru, September 15).
While in China earlier this month, the Russian president hinted that Moscow controlled the military power of the DPR and LPR. While referring to them as “proclaimed republics,” Putin threatened that these stateletes could extend hostilities to the other (Kyiv-controlled) areas of Donbas (UNIAN, September 5). In effect, Putin has been playing “good cop” and “bad cop” at the same time.
The current situation surrounding the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict should bring to mind the findings of a 2000 UN panel study, “The Bahimi Report.” Among this document’s conclusions is the point that when one party to a peace agreement “clearly and incontrovertibly” violates its terms, the “continued equal treatment of all parties by the United Nations can, at best, result in ineffectiveness and, at worst, amount to complicity with evil [sic]. No failure did more to damage the standing and credibility of United Nations peacekeeping in the 1990s than its reluctance to distinguish victim from aggressor” (Un.org, August 21, 2000).
Any peacekeepers sent into the Donbas warzone could potentially become involved in serious combat—although they are much more likely to mostly engage in light use of force to protect themselves or civilians. Still, the presence of a truly international and properly equipped mission with a sufficient mandate would nevertheless act as a strong deterrent, preventing Moscow from trying to further escalate the conflict.