The plan for a UN peacekeeping mission in the Donbas and stakes of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict

Whatever its eventual outcomes, the 2018-2019 electoral seasons in Russia and Ukraine are and will be changing Eastern Europe’s political landscape. The Russian presidential elections of March this year and their current and future reverberations in Moscow’s power corridors as well as the Ukrainian presidential and parliamentary elections in spring and autumn next year will mean new opportunities and risks in Russian-Ukrainian relations. Russia’s political leadership already has changed, to some degree, after Putin’s reelection on 18 March 2018, and new appointments, e.g. the rise of former Finance Minister Anton Siluanov to First Deputy Prime Minister, as well as decisions, like large-scale pension reform, have been made. Russia’s policies and leadership may be further transforming in the next months, as a result of more personnel fluctuation, corruption scandals, political purges etc.

In Ukraine, the repercussions of the upcoming national elections will be even larger – probably, far larger. It is widely expected that 2019 will see a major change in the composition of the executive and legislative branches. It may even see an institutional rebalancing of power between the presidency, government, and parliament. In her June 2018 programmatic New Course speech, the current front-runner in the upcoming presidential elections, Yulia Tymoshenko, has promised nothing less than a full reset of Ukraine’s political system, including a switch from the current semi-presidential to a parliamentary system.

The ongoing or forthcoming comprehensive changes in the leadership and direction of both countries may result in, among others, new chances for an end to, or escalation of, the war between Russia-led irregular separatists and Russian covert regular troops, on the one side, and Ukrainian governmental forces as well as some paramilitary units, in the Eastern parts of the Ukrainian Donetsk Basin, on the other. While the Russian and Ukrainian political leaders’ behavior is, in both cases, primarily guided by internal rather than foreign determinants, the domestic political implications of the war within Russia and Ukraine in both countries diverge. They contradict the widespread belief, among both Ukrainian and Western observers, that the leaderships of Ukraine and Russia are equally big winners of the war, on both sides of the so-called “contact line.”

Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine adventure since 2014 has been a principal source of his increased popularity ever since. It has even led sociologists to speak of a new “Crimea consensus” in Russian society – a largely manufactured, yet nevertheless wide-spread collective agreement, within large parts of Russia’s population, about the rightfulness, justice and legitimacy of Moscow’s various territorial, political, cultural and economicpretenses towards Ukraine. The conclusion of a Russian-South Ossetian Integration agreement on the first anniversary of Russia’s official capture of Crimea on 18 March 2015, or the move of the last Russian presidential elections to the date of the fourth anniversary of the signing of the Russian-Crimean annexation treaty on 18 March 2018 illustrate the importance of Russian imperial expansion to the support, cohesion and longevity of the Putinist regime. 

This is in contrast to Ukraine, and the sudden rise of the once secondary political figure Petro Poroshenko, in spring of 2014, to prime contender for, and current holder of, the first post-Euromaidan presidency. Among other factors, Poroshenko’s unexpected post-revolutionary prominence was connected to a political presumption, in large parts of Ukrainian society, that the experienced politician and negotiator would be the right choice to bring peace and security to the country, under the difficult conditions of increasing Russian aggressiveness towards, and quick socio-economic decline of, post-Euromaidan Ukraine. Initially, the triumphant victory of the anti-oligarchic Revolution of Dignity in early 2014 had suggested aforthcoming new political era with statesmen and -women from outside the old oligarchic system. 

Yet, this prospect changed under the impression of Russia’s covert military annexation of Crimea and invasion in the Donets Basin or Donbas – an East Ukrainian region named after its small Siverskyi Donets river (and neither after the city of Donetsk nor after the large Russian river Don, as sometimes wrongly assumed). Under the shock of the loss of territory, escalating war in Eastern Ukraine, and resulting economic dislocations, the Ukrainian population gave its preference to an experienced former minister, long-term parliamentarian and industrial magnate. Poroshenko had and still has the principal defect of being one of Ukraine’s leading oligarchs. However, he was, at least in spring 2014, widely assumed to be able to lead the Ukrainian state out of the quickly deepening crises in its foreign affairs, internal cohesion and industrial potential. 

The recent steep fall in Poroshenko’s popularity to the fifth place among the contenders for Ukraine’s presidency has more to do, to be sure, with the post-revolutionary President’s failures in domestic affairs than with his inability to bring peace to the country and re-establish the government’s full control, at least, over Eastern Ukraine – not to mention Crimea. Thus, Poroshenko is now seen very negatively by most Ukrainian voters mainly because of his ever more manifest unwillingness to fundamentally change the nature of Ukraine’s oligarchic order – including his failure to fully disengage from his own business interests, in and outside Ukraine. Yet, Poroshenko’s political descent is also a function of his obvious incapability to fulfill the hopes of his 2014 voters to improve relations with Russia, end the war in the east, and bring back, at least, the territories of the so-called “People’s Republics” in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts under governmental control. 

Had Poroshenko delivered on this campaign theme, many voters may have been willing to partly forgive him the various inconsistencies in his conduct of domestic governance reforms. However, Poroshenko was neither able to solve the major foreign issue, i.e. Ukraine’s bloody confrontation with Russia, nor sufficiently willing to push through a sufficiently deep domestic transformation. As a result, Poroshenko seems now to be doomed to lose Ukraine’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. In the worst case, he may repeat the unglamorous fate of his former patron Viktor Yushchenko who, as an incumbent President, lost the 2010 presidential elections, in an embarrassing fifth place and with a miserable 5.45%.

The anticipation is thus for 2019 that the imminent fundamental change of leadership within the Ukrainian executive and legislature could provide an international pretext for, and domestic impulse to, the solution of the Donbas conflict. In particular, it is hoped that a change in Ukraine’s leadership will, in combination with cumulating effects of Western sanctions against Moscow, lead to a reset in Russian-Ukrainian relations, and motivate Putin tofinally decide to pull out from the Donets Basin. In this connection, a UN peacekeeping mission – perhaps, aided by a EU civilian detachment to the Donbas – is a mechanism that provides opportunities for both, to either really implement or to merely fake a solution of the conflict – an ambivalence that all involved parties are keenly aware of. 

In spite of the risks and complications of its realization, the idea has been catching the imagination of many Western diplomats, politicians and experts dealing with Donbas conflict, since Putin indicated in September 2017 his willingness to discuss a UN involvement, in principal. To be sure, the idea’s pioneeringas well as already surprisingly comprehensive and detailed public outline had been provided by the Nuremberg political analyst Andrej F. Novak already in November 2014. The Ukrainian government had submitted an official request for a UN peacekeeping mission in 2015. Since then, a number of prominent analysts of different countries have published more or less elaborate texts detailing the prospects and challenges of the plan which mostly amount rather to a peacebuilding and not only peacekeeping operation. They included policy briefs authored by, among others, Oleksiy Melnyk (Razumkov Center, Kyiv) in 2016, Andrey Kortunov (Russian International Affairs Council, Moscow) in 2017, as well as Alexander Vershbow (Atlantic Council, Washington, DC), Vitalii Kulyk and Maria Kucherenko (Center for Civil Society Studies, Kyiv) and Liana Fix and Dominik P. Jankowski (Carnegie Europe, Brussels) in 2018. The two most comprehensive assessment of the chances and prospects of a UN peacekeeping mission haven been published in December 2017 by the International Crisis Group (Kyiv) and February 2018 by the Hudson Institute (Richard Gowan, Washington, DC). These and some other analyses outline the various mechanisms and hindrances of an implementation of the plan, by sending a combined multinational military, police and civilian mission to the Donbas, with participation of the UN, OSCE and/or EU.

The beauty of a transitional UN peacekeeping or - building mission in, and international civilian administration of, the Donets Basin is twofold. The first advantage of the scheme is that it means the introduction of a neutral third force into the Donbas conflict and of a conversion period into the solution process, by way of establishing an international temporary administration supplanted by sufficiently large and well-armed foreign peacekeeping troops as well as a provisional multinational police force, perhaps, provided by the EU. This arrangement seems, in fact, to be the only feasible way to realize in practice the transfer of power, over the currently occupied Donbas territories, from Moscow to Kyiv, and the re-establishment of elementary socio-political order in the area of the current so-called “People’s Republics.”

The three Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 are, by themselves, curiously deficient in that they foresee an unrealistically smooth transition from the Kremlin’s current de facto rule over the covertly occupied and heavily militarized eastern areas of Ukraine’s Donbas, to Kyiv’s reacquisition of full control over its lost territories. It remains, without a robust transitional third-party intervention from the UN, OSCE or/and EU, into the region, unclear how this can happen after the Russian state’s presumed removal of its crypto-regular troops, political emissaries and financial support from Ukraine’s Donets Basin. Even after such a hypothetical withdrawal, it would – without armed peacebuilders and a transitional administration – take a full-scale Ukrainian liberation war to eliminate, capture, disarm or/and chase away the remaining various anti-Ukrainian local or invited irregulars, mercenaries, extremists, adventurers andagents who, to this day, are being, in one way or another, actively financed, armed, supported, trained or/and led by Moscow.

The second advantage of the plan is that it can, once a sustainable solution becomes the preferable option for Moscow, be used by the Kremlin to save its face before the nationalistically agitated parts of its misinformed society. In as far as Russia will have to give its approval to an international armed peacekeeping mission within the UN Security Council, it can internationally influence the modus of the mission and internally spin the undertaking as a Russian pacifist initiative to help the suffering Russian speakers of Eastern Ukraine. While the latter interpretation would be a gross distortion of the origins and nature of the conflict in the Donets Basin, an employment of UN peacekeeping forces would thus provide the Kremlin a more or less convenient way out of the current confrontation – if and when Moscow starts defining, for itself, such an exit as principally useful or even necessary. To reach such a change of mind in the Kremlin, Western sanctions related to the Donbas conflict will have to not only continue, but – in view of their limited success so far – to further increase and better implemented.

For over four years now, there is lingering crypto-war between Europe’s two largest countries, including almost daily shooting with heavy arms and weekly wounded or dead, in the immediate vicinity of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant at Zaporizhia. In spite of the enormous stakes in either the solution or escalation of this consequential confrontation, European attention to this only seemingly frozen conflict remains limited, and Western slack towards Moscow the pre-eminent approach in the EU and most of its member states. While some EU institutions and figures have invested considerable time and energy in the conflict’sresolution, the majority of European politicians, diplomats and journalists suffer from a – what might be called a – “post-geographical externalization syndrome.”

The repercussions of a possible flaring up of the Russian-Ukrainian war and, in that case, increasingly possible collapse of the already battered Ukrainian state would be nothing less than catastrophic for the entire European continent. Yet, Western political elites and public opinion remain surprisingly escapist or/and optimistic regarding Moscow’s actions, instruments and intents in Ukraine. In the worst case, it may need another attention-grabbing major calamity on the Ukrainian-Russian “contact line,” comparable to the July 2014 flight MH17 disaster, to finally let the EU – as Moscow’s major trading and investment partner – become real about the explosive situation, at its eastern border. 

About the author:

Andreas Umland is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” published by ibidem Press in Stuttgart and distributed by Columbia University Press in New York.