OSCE special monitoring mission in Ukraine: Five years of crisis management

Markko Kallonen,
PhD in Diversity Management and Governance,
Expert of Civilian Crisis Management,

A conflict is raging on for the fifth year in eastern Ukraine. The United Nations has estimated that the conflict has already claimed over 13 000 lives and generated 1,8 million internally displaced people. The waves of the conflict have been felt on the shores of the Baltic Sea in terms of security, politics, diplomacy and economy.  The fracture in traditional security architecture has led the states around the Baltic Sea to strengthen their defence policy and seek closer alliances – both inside and outside of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) umbrella.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (SMM) was deployed in November 2014 following a request by the Government of Ukraine. The OSCE is the world’s largest inter-governmental security organisation with 57 member states. The decisions of the organisation are based on consensus and thus the deployment of the SMM had to be endorsed by all member states. The SMM is an unarmed, non-executive impartial civilian monitoring mission, which is facilitating implementation of the Minsk agreements signed by Ukraine, OSCE, Russia and by the separatists (self-proclaimed People’s Republics in Donetsk and Luhansk) to end hostilities. The mandate of the mission is subject to renewal on annual basis and thus it has so far been renewed for five times.

Currently, the mission consists of 1500 monitors from over 40 participating states. The monitors hold considerable experience with varying relevant professional backgrounds. This supports the mission on one hand to generate a profound and accurate understanding of the overall situation and on the other hand assign monitors to positions, which require specific skills. The SMM covers the entire Ukrainian territory (there are in total 10 teams in the country) but the focus is in Donbas, in the conflict region in the east. Two of the SMM teams are operating in non-government-controlled territory (namely, in Luhansk and Donetsk). The reports the mission compiles are made public and available in Ukrainian, Russian and English on the OSCE website. Due to their politically sensitive nature, the mission’s reports are strongly scrutinized by the involved parties.

The SMM is utilising unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to support monitoring. Moreover, there are 25 SMM cameras positioned along the contact line to record cease fire violations. The SMM is the only larger international actor who is focusing on the security situation in Ukraine. Thus, its reports are also utilised by other stakeholders.

On an average day, the SMM conducts approximately 70 patrols, which in the east usually consist of two armoured patrol vehicles. The length of the contact line is approximately 450 km. The Mission experienced a serious incident in April 2017, when one of the two vehicles of an SMM patrol triggered a mine in the Luhansk Oblast. In the explosion, the SMM paramedic was killed and two SMM monitors were injured. Consequently, as a risk mitigation measure, the operation ceased patrolling on unpaved surfaces. This restriction, coupled with the fact that the SMM monitors do not operate outside of daylight hours for their own safety, at times causes frustration among the conflict affected civilians who feel abandoned.

The freedom of movement of SMM patrols is regularly restricted. As a result, the monitors are not able to use the planned routes or visit desired locations. The SMM UAVs are also being targeted by weapons. Shooting and shelling occurs frequently close to the SMM monitors. Moreover, mines and unexploded ordnances (UXO) in the soil create additional hazards. The sides have not been able or willing to (re)commit to a permanent ceasefire and the shooting continues.

Despite these existing challenges, the SMM has been able to improve the situation for the conflict affected civilians by facilitating repair and maintenance works on critical civilian infrastructure (water, electricity, gas and GSM networks).

The protracted conflict has been assessed by some observers as a miscalculation of the Russian Federation (who denies being an active party to the conflict) and its proxies with regard to the determination and strength of the Ukrainian society and military.  On the other hand, Russia succeeded in halting Ukraine’s western enlargement toward NATO and the European Union (EU). Conversely, according to some assessments, the ongoing low intensity war together with the consequential economic sanctions drain resources from Russia and stimulate a negative impact on the popular support of its political leadership among the population. The picture is complex and blurred with disinformation and alternative interpretations.

The peaceful presidential elections in April 2019 and the following parliamentary elections in July transformed the domestic political landscape in Ukraine with new President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Servant of the People’ s party (with 73% and 43% of the votes respectively). Some observers hope that there is now a fragile momentum for some advancement in peace talks. The new president has stated that peace in Donbas and the end of the occupation in the eastern territories is his main goal as the head of state.  Moreover, Zelensky signed in October 2019 the so-called Steinmeier Formula to implement Minsk agreements. The implementation of the formula would require OSCE to assess elections in Donbas, to ensure that the elections are free and fair, and that they meet the international standards. This entails considerable challenges. Some observers say that it would be utterly dangerous for Ukraine to hand over to Russia long-lasting influence over Ukraine.  Thousands of demonstrators in Kyiv were displaying their discontent to any compromises with the Russian supported separatists. Despite this impediment, President Zelensky still enjoys large popular support. According to some observers, the attempts to break the deadlock are half-hearted as the existing status quo is crucial for the existence of the so-called People ’s Republic in Luhansk and in Donetsk. Finally, many purport that the aim of the Russian leadership is to destabilize Ukraine – not to end the conflict.

The SMM maintains an important role as an impartial observer endeavouring to mitigate the mistrust between the parties in Donbas. Money is ‘well spent’ if the SMM’s existence can play a preventative role and halt the outbreak of full-scale conflict. Ultimately, the SMM can only contribute in creating conditions where sustainable conflict resolution can take place. Because – as an adage goes – nobody can create other people’s peace. The solution and will have to come from within.

The article solely presents the views of the writer.

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