UN peacekeeping mission to Donbass is gaining momentum

  • Mihai Turcanu & Petr Boháček
  • 13.11.2017 15:51

Recent rival proposals to establish a UN peacekeeping missions restarted attempts to tackle the Ukraine—Russia conflict. The ongoing status quo might not be as attractive for Russia or the US anymore.

The idea of a UN peacekeeping mission in Eastern Ukraine, which was first initiated by Ukraine following heavy losses it suffered in early 2015, was brought back to life by Russia. Under the Russian proposal, the mission would be deployed along the demarcation line between separatists and Ukrainian forces to protect the OSCE Monitoring Mission – a move that would further alienate Donbass from Ukraine according to the US. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians and Western powers wanted the soldiers to be deployed throughout the non-government-controlled territory and on the separatists-controlled border between Ukraine and Russia. The US declared a Russian participation in such a mission to be unimaginable. Unsurprisingly, Russia has rejected the competing proposal as without logic. But the diplomatic efforts for the proposal are intensifying across the board.


Putin might not see much gain in further antagonizing the West and putting more strain on the Russian economy.


Shifting public opinion

The idea of a UN peacekeeping mission in Donbass might have seemed highly unlikely two years ago when Russia’s Novorossiya dream was still alive. Today, however, only less than half of the Russians in favour of supporting the puppet-regimes of DPR and LPR. Western and especially US sanctions continue to damage the economy. The sharp drop in oil-export revenue that the Kremlin is forced to resort to defence cuts and deep structural problems related to the Russian bureaucratic corruption and overall inefficiency further complicate any economic revival. According to a recent poll, 53% of Russians assesses their economic situation as difficult and additional 13% as unbearable. Moreover, Russians are far less inclined today to support an expansive foreign policy than they were three years ago, with polls indicating that 59% of them believe Russia’s foreign policy goal should be to “ensure the peaceful and safe existence of the country”, and only 14% support an approach “expanding the borders of the Russian influence in the world”. In this scenario, Putin, his eyes being set on the 2018 presidential elections, might not see much gain domestically in further antagonizing the West and putting more strain on the Russian economy.


More military aid, less sanctions?

Putin is not gaining ground in Ukraine. His policy rather accelerated the nation-building process and alienated many Ukrainians. Moscow lost its control over Kiev politics, European countries are finally taking defence seriously, building a momentum on the Eastern flank and NATO’s existential crisis seems to be resolved. Kiev is finally expected to receive modern and lethal military aid that the US has refrained from in the past, possibly including Javelins anti-tank missiles.

The negative picture remains lightened by Trump’s warm behaviour. An effective deal with Russia would certainly help him to dismiss accusations of his campaigns Russian collusion. During his Asia trip, the US President repeated that Russia is needed to solve crises in Syria and Ukraine while encouraging Moscow by questioning the sanctions. Since the US does not adhere to the Minsk Agreements, they can be flexible especially on the topic of sanctions; Trump's comments should be perceived as an incentive for Putin to soften his stance on Ukraine, allowing a deal that would convince the Congress to ease the sanctions against Russia. Russian-American coordination on the topic of UN peacekeeping starts on 13 November between US Ambassador for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker and Kremlin aid Vladislav Surkov in Belgrade. Meanwhile, Ukraine has been working on a new proposal with the US on the highest levels, including between presidents Petro Poroshenko and Donald Trump on 21 September.


Splitting EU’s Russia policy look very appetizing.


Allowing UN peacekeepers on the Ukraine-Russia border could be the first step to the most problematic Point 9 of the Minsk II deal on restoring Ukrainian control over its borders. Backing away from Donbass would keep in place the Crimea-linked sanctions adopted by the US and EU in March-April 2014, but it could dent EU’s tough-fought unanimity on Russia. That itself is already a strategically key goal for Moscow, more than protecting a small buffer zone.

The alternative to a UN peacekeeping mission that will allow progress on the Minsk agreements is a frozen conflict in the likes of Transnistria, Abkhazia or Ossetia, warned Volker. This used to be the strategic goal of Putin in Donbass after losing Ukraine. However, the Russian President might want to weigh his de-escalation options, among which the honourable appearance of a peacemaker, connecting deals on Ukraine and Syria, gaining election momentum or splitting EU’s Russia policy look very appetizing.

UPDATE, 4.12.2017:

War continues but Ukraine should grant amnesty to separatists says US Ukraine envoy

United States Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker said at Kiev’s national expert forum on 28 November that Ukraine needs to grant amnesty to separatists and complete its part of the Minsk Agreements (MA). He also stated that there was an 80% chance the conflict will continue for another year.

Ukrainian parliament extended the special status for Donbass on 6 October in accordance with the MA but has not moved on granting a limited amnesty to separatist fighters. The comments come after increased diplomatic efforts between the US and Russia to advance the idea of a United Nations peacekeeping force in Donbass that according to Volker yielded zero progress. The currently debated 2018 US defence budget includes a 350-million USD military aid package, including lethal defensive weapons and possibly anti-tank Javelin missiles. Due to US President Trump’s complex relations with Russia, his Ukraine policy and signature of arms sales to Kiev remain unclear. Meanwhile, clashes with Ukrainian soldiers and tensions within the separatist republics persist.



About author: Mihai Turcanu & Petr Boháček


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