More than 400,000 ceasefire violations by both Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian armed forces have been recorded in eastern Ukraine during 2017, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe or OSCE.
On July 1, a ‘bread ceasefire’ – a temporary truce to allow farmers to harvest their crops – was supposed to come into effect. But Ukraine’s Joint Forces Operation press center reported Russian-backed forces quickly breached the orders.
Alexander Hug, Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, said the during the first couple of days the ceasefire had largely been complied with, which showed both sides “have it absolutely in their control to end the fighting.”
“But they do not address these root causes that bring and have brought this instability to the area,” he said.
Hug said in addition to more than 400,000 ceasefire violations, OSCE last year recorded more than 4,000 weapons violations.
“What we see at the moment is that the sides maintain heavy weapons, tanks, mortar, artillery, including multiple launch rocket systems in areas where they shouldn't be as agreed in Minsk, in engagement distance,” he said.
“In fact in all of the areas that we have seen in the past year and this year fighting, the sides are standing too close, and we see not only old minefields, but we see that the sides continue to lay minefields.”
Hug said these weapons, which are placed where they shouldn’t be, pose a risk to OSCE monitors. OSCE mandate allows monitors to operate across Ukraine, including non-government controlled areas. Hug said they are permitted to go the 408-kilometer long unsecured border between Ukraine and Russia. But because monitors have to pass through several checkpoints, the armed forces are notified of their arrival in advance, which means everything they see is “highly controlled”.
“And because we are not allowed to establish permanent presence nearby in towns like ...Amrosivka or Novoazovsk nearby this insecure border, we also have to return rather quickly back to the base in Luhansk, Donetsk, or other locations, which means the time we can spend at the border is rather limited,” he said.
Photo credit: OSCE/Evgeniy Maloletka
“What we have seen in particular this year is a rather systematic refusal of armed men to let our patrols stand in for longer times at these border crossing points. Our colleagues are then asked to move back at a distance from which independent or complete and effective monitoring is no longer possible.”
Last December, Russia withdrew from the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination – a tool for implementing a ceasefire on both occupied and Ukrainian government-controlled territory.
This means that not only are Minsk-assigned tasks such as assisting in comprehensive ceasefire and coordinating demining not being fulfilled, but the work of OSCE observers has become more dangerous.
OSCE monitors would often consult the center before patrolling certain areas. The center would then inform them whether it was safe to travel to a certain location or take a certain road.
Now the center is only staffed with Ukrainian forces, who cannot assist monitors on both sides of the contact line.
“Any measure that will be brought to the equation of trying to find a solution, including a reestablishment of a functioning center for control and coordination, can only be welcomed,” Hug said.
Hug added while he was not “privy” to the discussions between Kyiv and Moscow, he expected additional measure will be put in place “not least to address the violations we document on a daily basis.”
Hromadske caught up with Alexander Hug at the Donbas Media Forum taking place on July 6-7 this year to talk about the ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine.
We are coming to a period of what is called a "bread ceasefire". We are in a period when people are remembering four years after freeing Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. So what are you expecting this summer, what are the things you are looking at first of all?
What we have been seeing this year is what we have been seeing last year, it's what we've been seeing the year before with different numbers, to different degrees, but for the same reasons. And these reasons, the military-technical reasons, continue to exist on the ground. What we see at the moment is that the sides maintain heavy weapons, tanks, mortar, artillery, including multiple launch rocket systems in areas where they shouldn't be as agreed in Minsk, in engagement distance. We see that the sides are in many areas at the contact lines far too close, in fact in all of the areas that we have seen in the past year's and this year's fighting, the sides are standing too close, and we see not only old minefields, but we see that the sides continue to lay minefields. Unless these root causes for much of the suffering, for destruction, injury, and death, that we register at the contact line are being tackled, the situation will only change in numbers but not in substance. What is happening now that is happening with this ceasefire that you refer to is a symptom treatment. It is an issuance of orders that admittedly, at least in the first couple of days, have been largely complied with, which also demonstrates that the sides have it absolutely in their control to end the fighting, but they do not address these root causes that bring and have brought this instability to the area. As long as these root causes are not addressed, the situation will remain unpredictable and highly volatile.
There was a recent news about attacks on the OSCE special monitoring mission. What is going on? How safe is the mission? What can we observe?
The risks for all civilians including our civilian monitors are caused by these heavy weapons in areas that are placed where they shouldn't be where they're used and we are caught in a crossfire. There is a high risk that our monitors, our staff, like other civilians will be affected by it. The second cause for concern is that of mines and unexploded ordinance that are littering this area where fighting is taking place. These two are the main risks for which we have medication training that can mitigate some of it but not all of it. There will always be remaining risks that our monitors will be exposed to and this risk that I and my colleagues take is the contribution of the OSCE special monitoring mission to Ukraine, to finding a solution to the problem. Now, what is the cause of these obstructions and the risks that we are exposed to are often very blatantly clear, and that is that the sides do not want us to see beyond the point that we are allowed to go. They do not want us to implement our mandate because to implement it would be to expose the facts on the ground makes for uncomfortable reading for the sides and the sides do not want to see these facts, these realities, being included in our reports that we make public every day.
When you talk about the access – it's been a while since we've talked about the opportunity of a special monitoring mission to be at the Russian-Ukrainian border – so how successful are you? Has anything changed in the last years? How far were you able to get there within the period of the last half a year?
The mandate given to us by the 57 participating states of the OSCE mandates us to operate in all of Ukraine, including the areas where they have no control, up to this 408-kilometer long unsecured border between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. We do patrol towards that border on a regular basis, but the problem is, until we get there, we pass through multiple checkpoints and by the time we arrive at these checkpoints, the people there, these armed men, they will know we are coming, so anything they see there is highly controlled, and because we are not allowed to establish permanent presence nearby, in towns like Antratsyt, Amrosiivka, or Novoazovsk nearby this insecure border, we also have to return rather quickly back to the base in Luhansk, Donetsk, or other locations, which means the time we can spend at the border is rather limited. What we have seen in particular this year is a rather systematic refusal of armed men to let our patrols stand in for longer times at these border crossing points, our colleagues are then asked to move back at a distance from which independent or complete and effective monitoring is no longer possible.
If we speak about longer times, how long? Are you talking about hours or days?
Our monitors can only stay for a few hours at a time at these border crossing points if they are allowed to stay there. But of course because of the distance they have to drive, the fact that it is known that they are arriving, anything our monitors see is likely highly controlled and cannot be described as effective and independent monitoring.
So what does it depend on? Is it solely political will for the mission to have access? Because it's lasting for too long, let's say.
These armed men at these border crossing points or the armed men at the checkpoints on the way to the border crossing points, they take orders, they do what they are told. Orders require someone issuing them, and for that issuance of orders, will is required. So yes, indeed, at the beginning of access stands a decision to allow us getting access. And once again, the reason why we don't have access is also clear to us, it's because those that prevent us from accessing certain areas do not want us to see the reality on the ground because they know we will report about it and these reports will be made public. In that sense, and that's very important to note, that every restriction we face on the ground is a fact in itself. It is a fact of preventing the implementation of our mandate, and it's a fact that behind the area where we have no access, it is likely that there is something that those who stop us don't want us to see.
If we speak about the humanitarian situation, in particular on the uncontrolled territory, your mission still has an opportunity to be in Donetsk, Luhansk, in the region. So what are the most important things to know? Because this is very precious information and there is very little information as Ukrainian journalists are not allowed, and there is less and less communication. So if we speak about the money people have, access to healthcare, what are the most critical issues we should understand going on in Donetsk, in Luhansk, and in the region?
For people, Ukrainians on either side of the line, including on the non-government controlled side that live close to the contact line, their biggest concerns are safety and security. They are exposed to daily shelling, daily firing, and exposed to mines and unexploded ordinance that are in the path of their way to work. In the fields, they need to conduct agricultural work, it is on the way to school. Unexploded ordinance lies around, kids pick them up and are exposed to these dangerous objects, so the threat to life is the biggest concern these people have. Directly connected to that is freedom of movement, to move around in these areas, to access shops. Even in government-controlled areas because, especially when you live close to the contact line, the last checkpoint might be preventing you from getting out of these areas or only on foot, not in car, and that of course then prevents you from getting access or supplies back into these areas close to the contact line. Because the continued fighting destroys infrastructure, because people rely on electricity, water, gas, and often these places are without electricity and some of these interruptions have wide reaching consequences. If we have no electricity in some of these villages, you cannot refrigerate your food, you can't listen to the music, you can't charge your mobile phone, which in itself creates additional problems for these individuals. By some measure, of course, these concerns are not much different than the ones we see on the government-controlled side, close to the contact line. But what is different as you rightfully say, is that the information of how these people live there is scarcely available, and our reports try to reflect some of the suffering there. We also try to alleviate some of the suffering, but once again here, under the root causes, the close proximity of the sides and the presence of weapons on the both sides of the contact line, the suffering of these people on either side of the line, in particular very close to the line, will continue. Yes, we can alleviate it, it's symptom treatment, but it does not address the root causes of their suffering.
It's very hard to appeal to the larger audience when things on the stable level are bad. People are wondering if anything is changing. For instance, when we are expecting the so-called election in the self-proclaimed [Donetsk People's Republic] and [Luhansk People's Republic] this autumn, will there be tighter security or anything that may make things difficult for international organizations to work? Or is it more or less stable and difficult all the time?
Well, it's an unstable, unpredictable situation every day. And I think what has been said on many occasions is that behind all these facts and figures that I have presented today, there are real people living in real places. I think it would be wrong to say that it's the same all the time. It is every time for these people that live near the contact line a new challenge, every day is a new, real problem. I think we should all realize that despite the fact that the numbers may be the same, the developments may be the same, the reality for these people that live there is different every day. They have had a struggle for four years to keep themselves alive and keep themselves in areas where they are currently residing.
For the last half a year we haven't had any Joint Command and Control mission between Ukrainian and Russian officers. So any moment in that regard, how does this make your life different, and the situation on the ground? Is there any point they will be back there?
It's important to stick to the facts. It's a bilateral arrangement between Ukraine and the Russian Federation that started back in September 2014, and it's for these two sovereign states to resolve that bilateral issue. What is important to note also is the tasks that the Minsk agreement has assigned to the JCCC center are no longer being covered because it is only now staffed by Ukrainian officers. So largely, part of the task for seeing the agreements, assisting in a comprehensive ceasefire, coordinating de-mining but also helping us in organizing our own safety and security, are no longer fully covered. As you know, we are present on both sides of the contact line and have been in contact with all involved since the beginning of the conflict. We have the ability to talk to those decision makers and what concerns our own issues, our own security, we will continue that dialogue, but any measure that will be brought to the equation of trying to find a solution, including a reestablishment of a functioning center for control and coordination can only be welcomed and we would continue to cooperate as we have done up to the middle of December last year, with that sentiment.
Photo credit: HROMADSKE
But it doesn't seem that there is any news that that would happen any time soon.
I am not privy to the discussions that may happen between Kyiv and Moscow but we expect that additional measures are being put in place, not least to address the violations we document on a daily basis. Last year we have seen over 401,000 ceasefire violations and over 4,000 weapons in areas where they should not be. For these facts to be addressed, to be remedied and to take preventative actions, an additional mechanism is necessary. The mission has no mandate for that. For this, you need a coordinated, functional body, such as the Joint Center for Control and Coordination, in order to ensure that the same violations do not repeat and that those who violate the agreements are being held to account. The lack of accountability leads to impunity, and impunity leads to more violence.
My final question. The Ukrainians are following news of "re-gaining" as it is said by the government, of the town of Zolote. What we know is that there was still the Ukrainian army there, but any kind of military movement made people frightened. It was under government control, so it's very hard to understand the news for people. So did the Ukrainian government really move somewhere?
The OSCE special monitoring mission has never reported that Zolote-4 was controlled by the armed formations. In fact, if you look back at our reports this year, on every occasion we did report about Zolote, we said it was controlled by the government. Now what is different in recent days or weeks now, is that we see more military hardware inside that specific settlement or parked near houses. All of these facts are being reflected in our daily reports which are available to the general public in the Ukrainian, Russian, and English languages.
/By Nataliya Gumenyuk