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30 July 2015

How to freeze the Russian-Ukrainian war? Part 3

The other course of action: Direct military presence

On February 20th 2015, I received a call from Marielousise Beck, Member of the German Bundestag, worried about the situation in Ukraine. Debaltseve has just fallen into Russian hands two days earlier, despite the fact that the ceasefire implementation agreement signed in Minsk (generally referred to as the Minsk II agreement) called for an immediate end to all hostilities by February 15th. To the Ukrainian Army, the debacle of Debaltseve was a severe blow, and decision-makers in Berlin wondered how long military resistance would last. Moreover, the battle for Debaltseve was led by regular Russian Army formations, and the question was, how far would they want to go? What to do to make Russia rethink its strategy? How quickly could the West reverse the situation in Ukraine? What about lethal aid? What about the prospects of a peacekeeping-mission? Mariluise Beck would accompany German President Joachiem Gauck to Kyiv on February 21st, the anniversary of the successful Maidan revolution. Would Ukraine, one year after the people deposed the corrupt regime of Victor Yanukovych, collapse under a Russian assault? I offered a short paper summarizing the options for further steps on Ukraine to give some food for thought during the discussions to come within the German policy circles. The following articles are based on this paper – although I have updated and modified it to take account of recent events and the changed situation in Ukraine. Before going into depth in the situation, I want to thank her for her trust in my and the ECFR’s work and the permission to publish the paper.


Part 3

The other course of action: Direct military presence

The call from Ukrainian president Poroshenko to deploy a peacekeeping force in the Donbas was, as Elmar Brock called it, a cry for help. On the 19th of February, some National Guard battalions were demanding a separate command structure independent of that of the armed forces. Having lost all trust in the armed forces leadership, such moves could have caused the disintegration of the Ukrainian Army as such. What would the West have done then? As both sanctions on Russia and increasing military aid for Ukraine are long-term efforts, a situation on the ground might arise where the West has to react more quickly. And, in the author’s perspective more importantly, any long-term indirect strategy just continues the dire humanitarian and economic situation for Ukraine and costs lives every day. War kills, but pacifism kills as well.

If external forces would patrol the line of demarcation, further military escalation from the Russian side would come at a much higher price – at least diplomatically. But if the mission is ill conceived to the theatre and mandates are weak, then there is a considerable risk that the peacekeeping force will make a fool of itself. One should bear in mind that UN peacekeepers in Bosnia were frequently taken prisoner or hostage, used as human shields, or just sat to watch the atrocities committed by Serbian irregulars. The extensive backing of the Russian rebels by Moscow could as well make the rebels loose respect for the international forces. Provocations and humiliations could follow suit.

3.1 Expansion of the OSCE force

The expansion of the OSCE monitoring force to supervise the implementation of the Minsk agreement seems to be a logical step forward. Up until now, the roughly 480 observers could hardly supervise the vast territory mentioned at Minsk. At the time, the front line is more than 360km long and should be observed to a depth of 140km on each side. It is illusive to achieve this with so few men, even if the parties were cooperative.

But even worse, the OSCE observers are denied access to important areas once a major military confrontation occurrs or if one is prepared. In the separatist-held territories, it can only travel during the day on routes it has announced to the rebels 24hs in advance. Even then, the observers are accompanied by “rebel authorities” and have no right to inspect woods, storage-facilities, industrial plants, etc. even next to their route. The OSCE mission in its current form has neither the mandate nor the credibility to enforce anything on the ground – not even its own access to certain areas.   

Expanding the mandate of the OSCE is very difficult to achieve. Consensus of all 56 member states – including Russia - is required. The OSCE as an organisation has no experience, command structure, experts, procedures, etc. to field more robust missions. The OSCE could only operate successfully in a cooperative environment. If such an environment were not provided, the mission would either fail miserably or other organisations would be called upon. The same was true of the Balkans where the OSCE did valuable work monitoring elections, supervising local governments, police-training, judiciary, etc., but failed miserably in the peacekeeping realm. To re-invent OSCE structures and procedures makes little sense, and there is little hope that Russia would agree on this. It would be much easier to call for a UN mission on the spot. As the environment in Eastern Ukraine can hardly be described as cooperative, pushing for an expansion of the OSCE mission would only waste time and probably be a futile effort.

3.2 A UN Mission to Donbas

The idea of a UN mission to the Donbas was raised by the Ukrainian government in February 2015 and is still debated in Kyiv. Unlike the OSCE, the UN has experience, personnel, and procedures in place to field even robust missions. UN peacekeeping did made considerable progress since the Balkan wars.

There are Ukrainian objections as Russia could use such a mission to legitimize its own military presence as “peacekeepers”. However just like in other UN missions, there could be limitations on who is allowed to contribute. For example only those nations that have formally recognized Israel may contribute to UNIFIL in Lebanon, preventing Iran and others to send “peacekeepers”. Similar provisions could be made with regard to Ukraine: only those countries that have no open territorial issues with Ukraine may participate. This would effectively ban Russia because of Crimea, but Russia would not have to formally concede that it is part of the conflict in Donbas.

However the biggest issue will be to overcome Russian objections against such a mission. Russia’s veto power in the UNSC makes it easy to dilute the mandate, and it is very unlikely that Russia would agree to a mandate robust enough to make a difference on the ground. To date, Russia rejects the notion of a UN mission, stating that this would effectively be the “end of the Minsk agreement”.   

However the West could argue that since Minsk, Russia has permanently created new facts on the ground, most notably in Debaltseve. After almost 5 months after the Agreement was signed, even the most basic provisions of the ceasefire are not kept. And the Russian troops in Donbas, augmented by local guerrillas, are responsible for that. So the West has to provide its own reasons for why there is now a new situation which calls for additional measures. This could serve as a line of argumentation to at least put a robust UN mission on the diplomatic agenda. To make the mission effective, the mandate has to include the free access to the entire Donbas without reservations; the mandate to enforce the terms of the Minsk agreement by military force; and the mandate to protect civilian population from organized violence by military force. The mandate should include the strength, size, and equipment to make this mandate credible (50.000 soldiers, heavy equipment including tanks and air assets). Otherwise the mission would easily end in a farce, just like the OSCE mission before.

It is very unlikely that Russia would agree to those demands. But still they should be put forward. It would be a necessary precondition to legitimize any further steps (sanctions, military aid) in front of the domestic audience in Europe. Over the last decade, Russia has bombarded Europe and the US with diplomatic initiatives that it knew Europe would not agree on, just to get the West on the defensive (like Medvedev’s new security order, etc.). Europe could at least use the same tactic to corner Moscow. Either Russia comes up with serious counter-proposals to effectively deal with the situation that can be managed with Russia. Or the Russian stubbornness and refusal to discuss meaningful steps for further implementation provides more legitimacy to unilateral European action.

3.3  A EU/NATO force or the unilateral enforcement of peace

The deployment of a robust European force to Donbas would mean a change to the entire international setting of the conflict and entail acknowledgement that the war in Donbas  with Russia cannot be ended. Hence the option should be considered as a measure of last resort, but it has to be considered. If not, Russia will hardly get serious about contributing to the solution of the conflict.

The deployment of a robust EU or NATO force would not require Russian consensus, and therefore implemented in any circumstances. But this would have severe consequences for the further status of the DNR and LNR. It would practically shred the Minsk agreement. There would be no return of the Ukrainian border guards to the entire Russian-Ukrainian border. Russia would probably feel free to annex Donbas, or to recognize the “independence” of these “states”. On the other hand, deployment of EU or NATO forces would free Ukraine from providing services for these regions and from the responsibility  for their economic survival and reconstruction. Even if the DNR/LNR were not recognized by the West, these ‘states’ would be a permanent matter of fact. De facto ceding of additional territory after Crimea would deal another blow to the Ukrainian government. That said, the Ukrainian public has at large sobered up to the thought that these regions are lost for the time being, and any feasible way to end the war and stabilize the economy – even at the expense of excluding these regions – has much higher acceptance now than it had a year ago. There would be resistance amongst nationalist forces, as they would call for the continuation of the war. But radical forces within Ukraine have been overestimated all along, and they won’t probably matter much.

On the other hand, the deployment of a large, robust EU force that actually takes position on the Ukrainian side of the demarcation line would be the fastest road to end the war. Ukraine could embark on its course of reform and Europeanization without being dragged down by war. The electoral base of pro-western forces within Ukraine would be even stronger, as the most pro-Russian regions are effectively separated from Ukraine. It would save the EU billions of Euros that would otherwise have to be pumped into a faltering war economy, not to mention illusory ideas of “reconstructing” Donbas with European money. And most important, it would save countless lives.

To further secure Ukraine’s path of Westernization, NATO could provide a guaranty for Ukraine’s survival modelled after the US guarantee for Taiwan. A deliberate ambiguity should prevent Ukraine from seeking Western backing for a military revision of the status quo (hence dragging the West into war) but also deter Russia from threatening Ukraine or trying to open up another separatist front.

The fear that such a unilateral move will bring about the third world war is entirely ridiculous. As mentioned before, Russia backed down from invading Ukraine out of fear of further military escalation. How then it is supposed to threaten the West? The Russian military leadership, while behaving aggressively, knows very well that the defence reform started in 2008 is still an unfinished process and that the Russian military is by no means capable of taking on the entire West. Before the Maidan, Russian military thinkers concluded that the state of the Chinese armed forces will not provide Russia with the international setting to challenge Europe until 2020/2025. In Russia’s mind, a strong China is needed to bog down US forces in the Pacific. Only then would Russia have a free hand to challenge the status quo in Europe. Russian military reform was conceived to meet this schedule and be completed by 2020 at the earliest. Hence the very same Russian military intelligence circles and military leadership that advised Putin on the fateful escalations in Ukraine are those who really comprehend the shortfalls of Russia’s military might.

There may be discussions, whether this should be an EU or NATO led force. Ultimately this is a discussion of secondary importance. If the EU is serious about CFSP and responsibility for its neighbourhood, it should lead such a mission. An EU mission would also make it more attractive for countries reluctant to engage on Ukraine to join in, particularly in Western Europe. Russia would object to both, although a EU force would probably give the Russian propaganda about the “next US imperialist war” less international resonance. However, there may be serious doubts whether the Europeans are ready to do something meaningful without US leadership (which means NATO). This is as sad as it may be true.


None of the possible courses of actions discussed above should be treated as isolated options or issues. Acknowledging the fact that Russia is fighting for “state capture” in Kyiv, and that it perceives itself as the slowly winning party in a war of attrition, the West has to find ways to increase the costs of the Russian behaviour. Due to the military and administrative shortfalls within Ukraine, there is no easy or fast solution to the conflict, and the role Kyiv can play on its own is fairly limited.

The West should therefore follow a gradual approach in increasing the pressure. Most important, Europe needs to increase its level of ambiguity in dealing with the situation. Russia should never have the feeling that it won’t get worse from a certain point. Europe for example should have never officially declined to deliver arms to Ukraine. For the same reasons Europe should never say that it won’t adopt any unilateral military measures, although it would much more prefer to solve the crisis with Russia in a civilized way. For the same reasons, Russia still threatens to go to war with the West, although the chances that it would live up to this threat are not even remote.

Both the threat of economic sanctions as well as the delivery of lethal aid to Ukraine should be put forward to save the Minsk accords from collapsing. The latter will need much more time to be implemented, as it has to be embedded in a comprehensive training programme and defence reform within Ukraine. American, British, and Polish armed forces are already stepping up training and advice for Ukraine. And there still is much more to do along this line. The Special-advisory mission of the EU in Kyiv is too small and too civilian to be of much help in this area.

Discussing an expansion of the current OSCE mission is most probably a waste of time. To bring the issue in front of UN Security Council to establish a UN mission to supervise and – if necessary – enforce the truce could be a waste of time, but only if the West does not built up enough pressure or openly discusses other options. The events around Debaltseve or Marinka were convincing enough to call for such a mission without calling for a revision of Minsk. The discussion over an EU/NATO mission and security guaranties to Ukraine could be proposed to make Russia think twice about rejecting the UN mission.

Europe has different options at hand to increase and decrease pressure on Russia. Europe needs to regain the diplomatic upper hand by being more flexible, ambiguous and much more talkative about its threats than it was before. 

Read How to freeze the Russian-Ukrainian war? Part 1

Read How to freeze the Russian-Ukrainian war? Part 2