Eastern Ukraine has seen a surge in the usage of heavy weapons over the last several weeks along the contact line between the Ukrainian-controlled territory and the unrecognized “people’s republics” occupying parts of the country’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, according to the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.
“Last week alone, the Mission has seen an increase of the ceasefire violation by 45% compared to the week before,” says Alexander Hug, the mission’s Principal Deputy Chief Monitor, adding that both sides still maintain heavy weapons.
In August, the sides recommitted to the existing ceasefire outlined in the Minsk Agreements. And while the pledge has had some positive effects, Hug says that the sides still fail to take action based on the OSCE’s reports: “Ceasefire violations that we document are not a natural phenomenon, it’s something that real people have commited. And these real actions by real people require real intervention by those who have taken these commitments.”
Referring to Moscow’s proposal of deploying a UN peacekeeping mission to the region, Hug says that “peacekeeping suggests that there’s a peace to keep.” The only way to resolve the conflict is to cease fire immediately and to disengage and withdraw weapons, he suggests.
“We stand ready to cooperate with any initiative that will bring us closer to a resolution,” Hug says.
Hug sat down with Hromadske to discuss the current situation in Ukraine’s east, failed disengagement, and the proposed UN peacekeeping mission to Ukraine.
The situation on the front line is getting worse as we see. In your opinion, why is it happening so?
It is true that in the past several weeks, the Mission has seen an increase in the use of weapons at the contact line. Last week alone, the Mission has seen an increase of the ceasefire violation by 45% compared to the week before and has seen an increase in the use of heavy weapons – we have seen over 300 times the use of heavy weapons last week compared to just about 30 times the week before. This development is in fact in line with what we have seen last year. Also the recommitment of the school school year we have seen a gradual increase in violence culminating then with a deterioration of the situation, massively so, at the end of January, beginning of February this year. It is also a development that is entirely foreseeable and we have warned about this before because the sides still maintain heavy weapons in areas where they should not be. Heavy weapons and firing in engagements distance, as well as the close proximity has not been addressed.
Photo credit: HROMADSKE
The recommitment to the ceasefire, however, had some positive effects. We have seen a decrease in the ceasefire violations when we compare the months of August and September. We have seen in August over 22 thousand ceasefire violations, as a total in the month, and in September, just above 8.5 thousand. There has been an effect, a positive one, during that period. And there is also a correlating development, whenever the ceasefire violations decrease, the civilian casualties decrease. And comparing these two months again, we have seen almost a 60% decrease in civilian casualties, when we compare these two months. The development also shows that the sides can stop the violence if they want to.The civilians tell us ever since this conflict started that they want it to end, because it’s not their conflict.
Do you consider the latest “school” ceasefire efficient? You say that the sides can stop the conflict if they only have such a desire. Whom do you mean under “sides?”
First of all, we have to be very clear. What happened in August and September is not a new ceasefire, it is a recommitment to a ceasefire agreed a long time ago. And nonetheless, there has been a decrease in the violence, we still monitor every day the breaches of the ceasefire rather than the ceasefire. You don’t need to be an expert to understand that weapons don’t fire by themselves; weapons are fired by people. And people act on instruction or act in violation of their instruction.
Photo credit: HROMADSKE
So it is the sides that have taken on the responsibility to stop the use of weapons. Back in 2014, they have signed that commitment. But there are other stakeholders who have a role in this, and the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination (JCCC) plays an important role to ensure a comprehensive ceasefire. And the OSCE Monitoring Mission also contributes to it providing objective information as to whether the sides in fact adhere to the commitment, not to fire, or if they violate it.
What is missing since the beginning of this conflict and since the beginning of our reports is that the sides take action based on our reports. Ceasefire violations that we document are not a natural phenomenon, it’s something that real people have commited. And these real actions by real people require real intervention by those who have taken these commitments.
As I’ve mentioned before, we often see that there is one Donbas that is being described in Minsk, where people have signed up to commitments and who claim that they are adhering to those commitments. And then there is the other Donbas, that is some 800 km away from here, where we see the reality of the Donbas. That real Donbas some 800 km from here, real civilians suffer from real action by real people. And real people have signed the agreements.
Disengagement of forces happened in Petrovske and Zolote more than a year ago. However, it didn’t happen in Stanytsya Luhanska. Are there any military in these areas?
First of all, we have seen some disengagement in the area of Petrovske and Zolote but the sides have failed to allow us full and safe access to this area. So we can’t verify in full whether positions and hardware have actually been removed. No disengagement did take place at the proposed area in Stanytsya Luhansk. And we did observe in fact hardware and personnel inside the disengagement area of Zolote of which we have been recording publically.
Photo credit: HROMADSKE
The point is that as only the agreement on forces disengagement in Stanytsya Luhanska is reached, the shelling begins. Why does it happen so?
Look I can’t speculate on why it doesn’t happen. But the fact is that it didn’t happen because it had now been pending since September 21, 2016. Over a year this has been already agreed and like with many other commitments, this one hasn’t been fulfilled.
On some days up to 8 thousand Ukrainians cross that crossing point on foot, under very difficult and dangerous circumstances. And it is for those 8 thousand Ukrainians that disengagement should happen because it would allow for the repair of the bridge. The special Monitoring Mission has increased its presence in the area; it has installed two cameras on each side on the disengagement area, and has reestablished its patrol base in Stanytsya Luhansk itself.
There even was an incident when your camera was “blinded” by the so-called LPR.
There had been a man using what we assume was a laser device for a couple of hours. The camera is now back fully in operation and the so-called LPR has indicated that they have taken action against the perpetrators.
Let’s come back to the crossing point in Zolote. It was decided in Minsk to open it on October 20. Why didn’t it happen?
Any road that is now closed should be opened. There is no agreement that foresees the closure of these roads. It’s very important to understand, there is no agreement that foresees the closure of roads across the contact line. That’s completely at random and happened without agreement.
Photo credit: HROMADSKE
In Zolote, indeed, there is a road which leads across the contact line where there is a railway line and we, the SMM, use that road to cross that contact line on a regular basis, so there is no technical problem to use that road with vehicles, and our vehicles are very heavy.
And I was last week personally at the Zolote disengagement area and we the SMM have been facilitating the clearance of mines on the shoulders of the roads, on both sides of the contact line, as well as the clearance of vegetation away so that the preparation. And that should happen at any other crossing as well. And the civilians that we talked to on both sides of the contact line always tell us that they do not accept that there is a line. They see it in reality on the ground, but for them, the crossings have to be open because they have to bring their kids to school, visit their relatives, pick up their pensions, go to work and so on. For them, this line does not exist in their minds. It does exist as a tragic reality on the ground. We fully accept that the government wants to make sure that crossings are being conducted secure, and that weapons and persons that should not cross will not cross. But this objective should not interfere with the right of Ukrainians to cross this line, to go about their normal lives.
What’s the problem with the opening of this crossing point? Is the matter in the so-called LPR?
Well at the moment, the sides are willing to reach compromise to reach agreement and coordination, which is really important to open this crossing point. It will lead to the endangerment of the civilians because we have seen that one side has opened it and civilians got into that crossing and were not let through, and were stuck in the middle. I’m not making diplomacy here but you know and I know that finger pointing will not help the civilians in this case and one should see it positive, and I’m sure it will deliver. We the SMM will not give up until that and any other crossing will be open.
Photo credit: HROMADSKE
The issue of the UN peacekeeping mission has been on the top of the agenda recently. According to Russia, it has to protect the OSCE observers. Will the observers feel safe when protected by the armed people? Especially taking into account the regular pressure made on them and the violations they [observers] suffer.
A very important question and I know it’s one question that has been debated here and elsewhere quite frequently since the submission of this proposal by the Russian Federation on the 5th of September.
I have to be really clear, the only way to solve this conflict is to ceasefire immediately, to disengage and withdraw weapons, put them behind the agreed withdrawal lines, increase the proximity between the forces and positions, all of which has already been agreed.
That’s very important to note because peacekeeping suggests that there’s a peace to keep. The major risk the SMM is facing is that of mines and unexploded ordinance, as well as being caught in crossfire. And those risks can only be dealt with effectively by the sides because they can demine and the sides can stop fire which puts us at risk at being caught in the crossfire. The full implementation of the Minsk Agreements start with the ceasefire, with the withdrawal of heavy weapons, would benefit all civilians including the Special Monitoring Mission.
Quite a lot of experience at the contact line over the past three and a half years, and we stand ready to cooperate with any initiative that will bring us closer to a resolution. But it’s also important to note that it will be the UN Security Council that will determine if, when, where and how such a peacekeeping operation will be put in place.
/By Anastasia Stanko