It was no surprise when pro-Russian forces seized eight European military monitors in eastern Ukraine last week. A growing number of international observers have deployed to Ukraine over the past two months, and it was only a matter of time before some were snatched. A United Nations envoy, Robert Serry,
had to make a quick exit
from Crimea in early March after an encounter with a posse of armed men. The monitors’ captors have accused them of being NATO spies and forced them to make a humiliating appearance before the press, although one officer has since been released
for medical reasons.
The European soldiers were traveling together in a bus with Ukrainian personnel in a volatile area, which raises questions about their security procedures. They were inevitably attractive and vulnerable targets. But the episode also raises strategic questions about the goals of international civilian and military monitors in Ukraine. Does their presence calm or complicate the conflict? Might a larger peace support operation eventually be necessary to stabilize eastern Ukraine?
This is a politically loaded debate. Separatist groups in the east have demanded
that Russian “peacekeepers” come to their aid. Moscow has reserved the right to intervene as a last resort. Earlier this month, Ukraine’s acting president pled for a U.N. force
to back his military campaign to regain control of the east, but Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon diplomatically noted that
“it doesn’t seem very practical to send troops.”
A number of more limited international monitoring efforts are underway, including a U.N. human rights mission, which infuriated Russia by cataloguing the harassment and chicanery
surrounding Crimea’s March secession referendum. The most heavily engaged institution
is, however, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an unwieldy body whose role in peacebuilding in the Balkans and former USSR has become increasingly peripheral since the 1990s.
OSCE monitors’ lackluster performance in some cases has earned it the nickname “Organization for Sitting in Cafes in Europe.” But as I predicted in WPR in March
, the organization has come to the fore in Ukraine. If this is partly because of a lack of better alternatives, it also reflects the fact that the OSCE still has a wide range of crisis management tools at its disposal. The captured European soldiers are members of a military verification mission established at Kiev’s request, but the organization has also sent
independent minority rights experts, election advisers and other specialists to track the crisis.
The centerpiece of these efforts is a civilian Special Monitoring Mission
, separate from the military team, that may grow to some 500 personnel and has a broad mandate to report on security and “reduce tensions and promote normalization.” OSCE rules require the support of all the group’s members, including Russia: That Moscow gave its assent a few days after Crimea’s referendum was widely seen as a first small step toward de-escalation.
Events in eastern Ukraine suggest that this was a false hope. The OSCE’s secretary-general has admitted that his monitors have only had “mixed” access
to separatist-held areas. The mission is thinly spread—Moscow insisted that the mission send some teams to western Ukraine, where tensions are minimal—and it is barred from Crimea. When Russian, American, Ukrainian and European officials met in Geneva in mid-April to discuss the crisis, they agreed
that the OSCE should help the separatists disarm under an amnesty, but this pact has fallen apart.
Even where OSCE officials do get to trouble spots, they often have to rely on gossip and guesswork to learn what is going on. “It is very difficult to describe the trends,” one monitor observed
last week, “but we definitely aren’t seeing a trend [toward] . . . increasing stability and de-escalation.” Armed groups have detained
a number of monitors in eastern Ukraine since the military party was captured, and while these other incidents have ended relatively quickly, there is a risk of further serious hostage crises.
Does it make sense to keep such a mission on the ground, especially if threats to its security increase? History suggests that monitoring missions cannot induce peace through their presence alone. The OSCE sent 1,400 personnel to Kosovo in 1998, but could not halt mounting ethnic violence. The U.N.’s 2012 supervision mission in Syria, with nearly 300 military observers, lasted for just four months
before being forced to withdraw. The Ukraine conflict has not reached the intensity of these earlier crises, but can the OSCE keep it from becoming more dangerous?
There are three basic arguments for keeping the mission in place. One is that it creates a tripwire, helping deter Russia from intervening directly in eastern Ukraine. Yet Moscow’s allies have found ways around this obstacle by using guerrilla tactics to seize government buildings, leaving the monitors to play catch-up and worry about their own safety. The second argument in favor of the OSCE is that its reporting can cut through the fog of competing claims about human rights abuses in Ukraine emanating from Moscow, Kiev and the West. It has already succeeded in this to some extent by, for example, developing contacts with Jewish community leaders to assess claims of mounting anti-Semitism among pro-Russian separatists.
But the OSCE risks being drowned out by both Russia and the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his advisers continue to lambaste
the “fascist” takeover in Kiev. While OSCE officials have carefully avoided stating definitively whether or not Russian commandos are in eastern Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared last week
that the American intelligence community knew Moscow had provided “personnel, weapons, money, operational planning and coordination.” If tensions rise further, the OSCE’s reports will, at best, be exploited selectively by both sides.
The final argument for maintaining an OSCE presence is that it may be the precursor for a longer-term peace support operation if an all-out conflict can be avoided. The crisis may well end with Kiev unhappily granting eastern Ukraine some sort of special status in return for a more-or-less convincing Russian promise of nonintervention. It may be necessary for international civilian and police monitors to oversee such a deal, or even for military observers to patrol the border with Russia. The OSCE, perhaps with the U.N. or European Union, might have to implement this deal. As last week’s seizure of the European military monitors shows, this would be risky—and almost certainly the greatest operational challenge for the OSCE in its history.
Richard Gowan is research director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His weekly column for World Politics Review, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.
Photo: Military visitors from OSCE participating states wait at a checkpoint between Ukraine and Crimea, Armyansk, Ukraine, March 6, 2014 (OSCE photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution - No Derivative Works license).