What’s the issue? In September 2017, Moscow proposed the deployment of UN peacekeepers along the line dividing Ukrainian from separatist and Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. Such a mission would not help end the conflict. To do that, peacekeepers would need a greater role, including helping secure the Ukraine-Russia border.
Why does it matter? The Ukraine conflict has killed over 10,000 people and provoked a humanitarian crisis. It undermines Ukrainian sovereignty and is hugely detrimental to relations between Russia and the West. There are good reasons to suspect Russia’s intentions, but with implementation of the Minsk peace agreement stalled, its proposal provides a slim opening for diplomacy.
What should be done? Kyiv and its Western allies should further develop ideas on how peacekeepers might help. Discussions with Russia should continue and a more central role for Europe would make sense. Western powers must, however, better factor in developments on the ground, notably increasing resistance to the Minsk agreement in Ukraine itself.
In September 2017, Russia circulated a draft UN Security Council resolution proposing a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine’s breakaway eastern regions. There are good reasons to suspect its motives for doing so, not least that the narrow mandate and lightly armed force envisaged would do little to resolve the conflict. At most, it could establish just enough security to pressure Kyiv into making concessions to separatist held areas, which would weaken its hand and strengthen that of Russia. Moscow’s proposal does, nevertheless, present an opening for dialogue and for Kyiv and its Western allies to explore how peacekeepers might facilitate return of those areas to Ukrainian authority, including by helping both secure the Ukraine-Russia border and unblock implementation of the February 2015 Minsk II agreement. In so doing, however, their diplomacy should factor in developments on the ground, including growing Ukrainian resistance to Minsk, by promoting a more nuanced debate on the agreement and thus helping tackle this animosity. Without that, even a credible peacekeeping mission could provoke a nationalist backlash.
Peacekeepers might offer a way to help settle the conflict, but would almost certainly need to fulfil at least three core tasks: securing the line that divides Ukrainian from separatist and Russian forces after withdrawal of heavy weapons; helping secure the Ukraine-Russia border; and fostering Kyiv’s implementation of Minsk, particularly by creating conditions for credible local elections and the reintegration of breakaway areas into Ukraine. Kyiv’s and Moscow’s consent would be critical: not only to avoid a Russian veto on the Security Council and enable a mission’s deployment, but also because peacekeepers could not operate without a reasonable degree of support from both capitals. Even then, they could face considerable local hostility and potentially violent spoilers. A force would need to be relatively large and capable, but with troops from neither NATO nor Russia.
Moscow’s proposal contemplates little of that. True, it comes after three years of diplomatic deadlock; implementation of the Minsk Agreement, which foresees reintegration of separatist held areas into Ukraine, has stalled. Kyiv insists it cannot fulfil its Minsk commitments while the east remains insecure and Russia controls the border; Moscow says it cannot cede border control to Ukraine until political conditions for the breakaway regions’ self-governance are in place.
But the small, lightly-armed force that, under the Kremlin’s proposal, would protect Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors in the conflict zone does not help bridge this gap. In particular, it denies peacekeepers a role along the Ukraine-Russia border, essential for reestablishing Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moscow’s intentions in submitting the proposal are uncertain too. While, in principle, there may be reasons for it to seek a way out of a costly intervention in eastern Ukraine, the small force proposed would more likely freeze the conflict than resolve it. The draft resolution more likely served to highlight Kyiv’s failure to implement its side of Minsk, play for time and test Western resolve after U.S., French and German elections.
While Western diplomats regard Moscow’s proposal warily, some also view it as an opportunity to engage. U.S. Envoy Kurt Volker has met several times with Vladislav Surkov, aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, to discuss peacekeeping options. Europeans for the most part have supported his efforts. Some privately express concern that American diplomacy is insufficiently inclusive, but European leaders themselves have provided few fresh ideas on how to break the deadlock.
In Kyiv, suspicion of Moscow’s draft runs deeper still, particularly given the narrow mandate and deployment area envisaged. Many Ukrainians fear Moscow intends to create just enough security to compel Kyiv to implement Minsk while retaining leverage in the east. Peacekeeping talks that fail to address this concern risk escalating violence on the front line, or even in government-controlled areas.
Talks also need to factor in other critical developments in Ukraine: anger at elites; mutual distrust between not only Kyiv and separatists but also Kyiv and other parts of the east; and, especially, mounting resistance to Minsk. Many see that agreement, signed in the wake of two disastrous military defeats, as reaffirming Russia’s gains in the conflict rather than guaranteeing a just resolution. Minsk political provisions – notably on special status; local elections; amnesties; and reintegration of separatist held areas – are widely disparaged. Even reformist politicians denounce them, while heated parliamentary debates on related legislation provoke nationalist protests. Anger at Minsk could colour the 2019 election campaign and strain Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s ruling coalition, which comprises the only parties – bar pro-Russia ones – that still support the agreement. Absent efforts to reverse it, the deployment of peacekeepers, even were Moscow to concede to their role on the border, could provoke a backlash.
Reaching consensus on peacekeeping for now appears a stretch. But Western allies are right to try; indeed, they should expand efforts. The Volker-Surkov meetings provide a useful direct U.S.-Russia channel. Europe’s influence in Kyiv and enormous levels of assistance to Ukrainian development and reform should give it a more central role; appointing a high-level European Union (EU) envoy could complement Volker’s diplomacy. The Normandy Format, currently comprising French, German, Russian and Ukrainian leaders, could be expanded to include both the EU and U.S. (at least at ministerial level). For now, neither an EU envoy nor expanded Normandy Format appears likely, but Europe’s diminished involvement leaves a gap; genuine progression in negotiations will require it to play a more active role. Too many parallel tracks also risk forum shopping by Moscow or Kyiv.
Continued discussions require Western diplomats to develop incentives for Russia. They could, for example, specifically address the concerns (whether genuine or not) that Moscow raises about the risk of reprisals in separatist areas. The core incentive for Russia’s withdrawal must remain the prospect of lifting sanctions only once Minsk agreements are fully implemented or once Russia gives up its military and political interference in Donbas and facilitates the return of the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine-Russia border to Kyiv's control. At the same time, Western diplomats should reassure Kyiv that Ukrainian security concerns lie at the heart of negotiations. They should also promote debate in Ukraine on Minsk by encouraging leaders currently stoking resistance against it to instead clarify measures – whether peacekeeping modalities or forms of Western support – that could make its implementation more palatable.
After several years of deadlock, Moscow’s proposal opens a window, however small and potentially disingenuous, for diplomacy. Developing peacekeeping plans would be valuable: were Moscow ever to seek an exit, a neutral, UN-mandated force would likely be required to facilitate its withdrawal and the return of Ukrainian authorities. Kyiv’s Western allies should redouble diplomatic efforts, but also better factor in conditions on the ground. For Ukraine, the only scenario worse than continued Russian interference in the east would be nationwide civil unrest over a mismanaged rollout of Minsk political provisions.
Brussels/Kyiv/New York/Vienna/Washington, 15 December 2017
The conflict in Donbas is entering its fourth winter and has claimed over 10,000 lives. Implementation of the February 2015 Minsk II agreement, which Ukraine’s Western allies and Moscow still insist is the only way to end the crisis, has stalled. In fundamental breach of that agreement, high concentrations of heavy weapons and forces persist along the line of separation, leading to daily exchanges of fire and cutting off the separatist-controlled areas – the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk – from the rest of the country.
Normandy Format meetings, which comprise Ukrainian, Russian, German and French leaders and give a political steer to the Minsk process, have helped hammer out a number of partial ceasefires. OSCE Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) working groups, consisting of representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE and primarily responsible for implementing Minsk, have met dozens of times and provide a forum for valuable exchanges. But progress – whether withdrawal and cantonment of heavy weapons, agreement on procedures for local elections, hostage exchanges, even the provision of humanitarian assistance – has been minimal. Talks are stalled too: Moscow points to Kyiv’s lack of progress on Minsk political provisions; in turn, Kyiv argues it cannot implement those provisions while there is no security in the conflict zone and adjacent segment of the Ukraine-Russia border.
Given this deadlock, Russia’s circulation in September 2017 to other members of the Security Council of a draft resolution for peacekeepers in Donbas came as a surprise. The draft went through two iterations. The first called for lightly-armed UN forces along the line of separation to provide security to civilian teams working with the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM). Kyiv and Western powers on the Security Council rejected this: not only did it not envisage peacekeepers securing the border, a critical step toward reestablishing Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, but it also fell short of providing security throughout the zone of conflict, where heavy weapons are the greatest risk, including to SMM monitors. In the words of a UN diplomat, the draft was a non-starter because it would “effectively freeze the conflict” and legitimise the de facto entities.
The content of Moscow’s second draft has not been widely publicised. It appears, however, to have conceded to UN deployment throughout those areas covered by the SMM mandate (in principle all of Ukraine),without explicitly foreseeing a role for peacekeepers along the border.By suggesting willingness to extend peacekeepers’ area of operations – and thus potentially some readiness to compromise – this draft generated more interest among Ukraine’s Western allies.
Moscow’s proposal was all the less expected because it followed repeated Russian rejections of calls by Kyiv for peacekeepers. President Poroshenko first floated the idea, which Russia at the time opposed, of deploying UN forces to the Ukraine-Russia border in spring 2015. In September 2017, he pressed the issue again at the annual high-level UN General Assembly meeting, though Kyiv, perhaps pre-empted by Moscow’s draft, has yet to submit its own. In November 2017, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin announced a fresh Ukrainian proposal was ready, but the U.S. reportedly discouraged its submission, opting to focus instead on further diplomacy with Moscow. With little progress made on the margins of the General Assembly, negotiations moved from New York to capitals: Moscow, Washington, Berlin, Paris, Vienna and even Minsk and Belgrade, both of which have hosted meetings in which Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now special representative for Ukraine negotiations, and close Putin aide Vladislav Surkov have attempted to tease out common ground.
This report examines the extent to which Moscow’s proposal represents an opportunity, particularly for Kyiv’s Western allies, to explore how peacekeepers might play a role in Donbas. It looks at competing perspectives from Moscow, Washington and European capitals, the gap between negotiations in those capitals and developments in Ukraine, challenges on the ground that peacekeepers would have to overcome and options for the role and composition of such a force. It draws on interviews with Ukrainian civilian and military officials; U.S., UN, OSCE, EU and Russian officials; Donbas residents; and Russian experts.
II.Competing Perspectives in Capitals
Russia’s proposal has generated a mixed response in the capitals of Ukraine’s Western allies. Distrust between the West and Moscow, the Kremlin’s rejection of the idea of peacekeepers in the past and doubts that it genuinely intends to facilitate the return of separatist-held areas to Kyiv mean that many Western officials are sceptical about its intentions now. A wide gulf still separates what Russia has proposed and what Ukraine and Western powers would accept. Absent better alternatives, many Western diplomats have been willing to explore whether Moscow’s proposal represents an opening, however small, to break the deadlock.
The U.S. has been particularly active, mainly through Volker’s meetings with Surkov. European officials have supported U.S. diplomacy, even as many privately express concerns it has been insufficiently inclusive. Some argue, too, that European security mechanisms should lead efforts to resolve the Ukraine crisis. But while Germany and France provided decisive leadership to contain the conflict through the Minsk I and II agreements, neither they nor the EU have actively proposed ways to unblock the stalled settlement process. The appointment by the EU of a new envoy and the expansion of the Normandy format to include the EU and U.S. might be ways to reinvigorate discussion of peacekeeping options, although both for now appear unlikely.
Moscow’s peacekeeping overture is, on paper, a notable shift in posture, but the intentions behind it are far from clear. The proposal could have been a first step in a genuine attempt to find a way out of an increasingly expensive entanglement in Donbas, a way to test the West’s appetite for compromise – particularly with a view to sanctions relief – after U.S., French and German elections, or simply a tactic to divert attention from the question of its withdrawal from Donbas by burying the conflict in negotiations over peacekeeping modalities. Russia’s willingness to compromise on a mission’s strength, composition and mandate clearly hinges on what kind of role for peacekeepers, and what outcome, it seeks. A Russian diplomat confirmed to Crisis Group that Moscow preferred a limited mandate, along the lines formulated in its draft resolution, with the force protecting, not replacing, the OSCE SMM. This does not indicate much flexibility. Regardless, Moscow’s proposal opens up opportunity for discussion of what role peacekeepers in Donbas could perform should that option be seriously considered.
There are reasons why Russia might, at some point, seek a face-saving way out of eastern Ukraine. Its role in Donbas incurs a significant financial toll. Some costs are direct; a leaked September 2017 Russian finance ministry memorandum, which calls for Moscow to move funds away from Donbas into Crimea and Kaliningrad, suggests Moscow funding keeps the self-proclaimed republics afloat. Russia spends over $1 billion a year on pensions, social benefits and salaries to de facto officials and the separatist forces and even more on the military. These direct costs may be significant but are unlikely decisive. More significant are indirect costs, related to sanctions. While the Russian economy has largely stabilised, thanks to consumer borrowing and higher oil prices, experts suggest Putin is increasingly eager to have sanctions lifted. Russian experts say that Moscow knows Donbas is a liability, not only financially, but also to Russia’s reputation on the world stage at a time when it seeks greater recognition as a global power. The intervention in Donbas drives a significant anti-Russia backlash in the rest of Ukraine; in that sense, too, the deadlock incurs costs.