By Anastasia Voronkova, Editor, Armed Conflict Survey; Research Fellow for Armed Conflict and Armed Conflict Database
On 5 September 2017 Russia proposed a draft resolution asking that the UN Security Council considers the authorisation of a UN peacekeeping force deployment to the Donbas. While peacekeeping appears an appealing option, it is too early to be optimistic about the feasibility and effectiveness of this 'solution' due to the inconclusive and narrow nature of the core provisions. On 11 September the Russian president Vladimir Putin expressed willingness to consider a wider mandate for UN peacekeepers that might be deployed beyond the contact line. This statement represents a welcome rapprochement between Russian and Ukrainian positions on one of the key contentious issues of the UN force's parameters. The proposal entails the deployment of a UN protection force armed with small and light weapons to provide enhanced protection to the existing OSCE Monitoring Mission, thereby enabling the Mission to concentrate on and be more effective in the monitoring of the situation on the ground and to contribute to the implementation of the Minsk II security provisions.
The consideration of such a proposal itself is not new. It was discussed during Track II meetings between Russian and US experts in November 2014. The Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko had repeatedly called for the deployment of a UN-authorised peacekeeping force, including shortly after the signing of the Minsk II agreement in 2015. The timing of the public support of UN peacekeeping by Putin appears to have been largely driven by his pragmatic desire to project the image of a leader who is willing and able to devise constructive conflict de-escalation strategies, as well as to make compromises. A softer international position on Ukraine is important in the context of the potential easing of EU sanctions. It might also boost Putin’s domestic popularity among the electorate in the run-up to the presidential election in March 2018. The financial cost of supporting the separatists in the self-proclaimed republics of eastern Ukraine is likely to be an additional, increasingly unbearable burden on the already strained state budget.
However, while this proposal is a welcome shift that to a limited extent reenergises peacemaking efforts in the conflict and has the potential to positively contribute to longer-term conflict management, several major problems remain with its implementation. Firstly, it is uncertain whether and when concrete steps will be taken on this proposal. Russia conditioned the deployment on removal of heavy weaponry in the Donbas that is as yet unfulfilled, despite also being part of Minsk II. Any deployment will need to be authorised by the UN General Assembly and sanctioned by the UN Security Council – a process that is likely to take significant time and will not begin until the other core conditions have been firmly agreed upon. Secondly, the short-term nature of the peacekeeping force (six months) is highly problematic given the duration, magnitude and increasingly entrenched quality of the conflict itself, and is unlikely to be sufficient to proactively add to pacification.
Thirdly, the scope of the force’s mandate will need to be better and more robustly specified. As the experience of UN peacekeeping elsewhere demonstrates, forces that are too constrained and too ambitious or ambiguous in terms of the range of objectives tend to be very limited in effectiveness.
Finally, the sequencing of steps and involvement of the Russian-backed areas in eastern Ukraine remains a contentious issue, unlikely to be resolved in the near future. Without some form of consent and regular contact with the self-proclaimed republics in the east, UN deployment will not be possible. Yet the authorities in these areas are unlikely to agree to such a deployment without the prior granting of special autonomy status – a parameter that although already present in Minsk II remains as yet unfulfilled and is quite widely seen in Ukraine as a reward for the rebels and a dangerous step towards the breakup of the state.
Despite all these stumbling blocks the very evidence of movement on the idea after a long period of deadlock indicates there is an opening for more meaningful dialogue that is worth pursuing.