Former OSCE SMM official Alexander Hug was able to speak to people from both sides of the demarcation line and reports that they all believe this war is not theirs. In our interview, he tells us how time doesn't help as it widens the gap between the people either side of the line instead of bringing them closer. Different curriculums, different agendas make future reconciliation ever harder.
The Minsk agreement is something that has been on the table for the last few years but, of course, after the change of government here and after this agreement, the Steinmeier formula, it really got to the larger public. And there are political forces that say "it's not working, It should be dismantled." How would you assess that? From the point of view when it was approved, signed, at first in autumn 2014, then in winter 2015. What are the critical things in it? What would be your assessment of that agreement at this point of history?
The conflict in eastern Ukraine continues. The Special Monitoring Mission of the OSCE, the UN human rights monitoring missions and others continue to report about ceasefire violations, about civilian casualties, about heavy weapons in areas where they should not be.
So at first look, one might easily conclude that indeed these agreements apparently don't work. Now it is very difficult to prove that they might have been working because it would need to prove the absence of violence. And it's very difficult to prove something that isn't there. So the absence of fighting — might be a reduction of fighting — but to make that case is very difficult. What is certainly safe to say is that these agreements have helped to contain the conflict to where it is now.
Now, technically, in any armed conflict, any armed violence needs to be dealt with in similar ways. You need to stop the fighting, which translates into a non-use of weapons as it is written in the agreements, or a ceasefire by translation. You would need to make sure that the sides are not too close because that leads unavoidably to fighting. Translate it into the Minsk language, this is disengagement. You need to ensure that the weapons that reach our long distances are being pulled away to a distance where they can't reach their aim any longer, and that is — in Minsk language — the withdrawal of heavy weapons. You need to ensure the safety and security of the civilians — that means you need to demine. That has found its way into the Minsk agreements.
So now, whether these items are agreed in Minsk or elsewhere, they will be the same to deal with any armed violence of similar nature. And now this, of course, leaves away the political will that is needed to implement these measures. But looking at the technical side of things, these items will be necessary in order to stop the armed violence. Once again, it is difficult to prove that they had an effect because obviously, and the fact is that the violence continues.
If an average Ukrainian had fears about the agreement — how do you think [the Minsk agreements] could be explained [to them]? What do you think is missing from the explanation of Minsk? I don't ask you to argue and prove why it's the best agreement, we can agree that it's maybe definitely not perfect. But to those who are concerned, how would you explain it? What do you think is missing in the discussion?
First of all, to quote a very well-known person who once famously said that it's easy to start a war, but very difficult to make peace. So if pulling back to where the situation was before the conflict started, if that was easy, then we would not sit here together. So everyone has to acknowledge that the task ahead, especially after so many years, will not be an easy task. That is the first very important factor to acknowledge. It will be very difficult and it will take difficult decisions to make sure that these technical measures to end the fighting and to stop the bloodshed will be implemented. So that at first is very key and important to understand.
You mentioned the time, so many years. On whose side is the time?
Well, it's certainly not on the [side] of the people of Donbas and by extension, all of the people of Ukraine. The time passes and the war and the conflict continues.
I would argue that because this war doesn't divide people that have been divided by history, by language or ethnicity, the conflict itself is the dividing factor. And the longer this fighting lasts, the longer there is a contact line, the more risky it becomes that the Ukrainians on the non-government controlled side separate themselves from the Ukrainians on the government-controlled side and vice-versa. And the wider this gap gets, the more difficult it will become to bring it back together.
The more urgently, therefore, it is to make sure that the gap doesn't become bigger. One important measure, of course, is to try to stop the fighting because that is a key problem in this equation. The more deaths, the more tragedy, the more destruction, the bigger that gap becomes. But also other measures in terms of how Ukraine's non-government controlled areas are being perceived in areas controlled by the government, and how they themselves perceive how they're welcome is of high irrelevance because that will also give them the feeling as to how they will be welcomed across that gap. Therefore, once again, I do think time is not on the side of Ukrainians on both sides of the line, all over Ukraine.
Would you explain how exactly it plays to the life of the people, this fact that the time is not on their side? What's happening? You came to Ukraine in February 2014 and you left in 2018. Though you are no longer working — for almost a year — here in Ukraine, how did you see the development? What was the development in the non-government controlled territories, in the occupied territories, in Donetsk when you've been? How have these territories been changing? We haven't been there. Many of our viewers had no chance to go there.
This allows everyone to reflect on how this all has started. One should not forget that in early 2014, in fact, up to summer 2014 and fall, there was no contact line. It was very fluid. The fighting was in pockets. It was across areas. It was not really a line that was visible there. It wasn't there before. It had been created through the Minsk agreements, and it's therefore an artificial line. So that line in itself is a product of this conflict. And one should not forget that there was nothing dividing these people in the sense of a contact line ...
There were no obstacles on the way to travel from what is now government-controlled areas to what is now non-government controlled areas. So that is very important. Now that meant the lives of people that use these connections on the road, on the rail, on the plane to go to work, to see their relatives, to do business or simply travel for pleasure is now interrupted. It has been interrupted and now for many years, and this interruption, of course, has an impact on their lives.
One obvious impact is in security. When they still do cross — and many, thousands every day still do — this line, which is a very important figure to consider. [They] risk their lives when they do so. And that's, you know, people do still die when they do cross the line, be it out of exhaustion, of the long waiting hours exposed to the elements, or because of the security risks that they still face in these areas.
But the line, that contact line and the continued fighting, also causes other security risks. It causes risks of damage to the property these people live in, it causes damage to infrastructure that these civilians depend on, on both sides of the contact line — water, electricity, gas, just to mention a few. It has impacts further in terms of their psychology, because of the continued fighting every day, nonstop. And as I've mentioned, these ceasefire violations continued unabated throughout these years, every day. And people are living close to it.
Their lives in non-government controlled areas and their lives in government-controlled areas have taken different courses in these many years. They listen to different news. They had been educated with different curriculums. They pay with different currencies. Uh, they drive cars with different number plates. They follow different cultural events on either side of the contact line. And that now for many years, that creates different lives on these two sides of the contact line.
There are people, of course, that still remember how it was before the war started. There are many, however, who soon will not remember any longer how it was before the conflict started. A young child that started to grow up when the conflict started was five or six in 2014, is now 11-12 years old. That kid is about to graduate, be it on the government side or non-government side, but that kid will not remember or hardly remember how it was before the conflict started. But because there's formative years now, the last six years, there'll be the years that it will remember.
There is a lot of discussion that there should be good preparation, that there should be a really detailed plan, or something. But it's hard to imagine how long it should take to prepare to work with the conflict. Or do you think it's not about just preparation? How do you see the timeline of the solution, if it's there? You know, not everybody here also agrees that it should be resolved right now.
Well, certainly, it is necessary to look into all aspects of lives in areas beyond government control and government control and what impact this war had on them. I just mentioned a few before. This area should be mapped out, the problems and how to deal with them should be analyzed, but that should not take that serious amount of time.
What is also important is that if action is taken, and some action can be taken by Ukraine alone, without having to negotiate with Moscow directly ... It also requires coordination with the international community that is there also with their respective mandates to help. But what I think is equally important, that one is not getting stuck in planning, analyzing, and coordinating. It is important that actually action is being put in place with people for whom all of these should be at the end of the day, realize that action had been taken to them, that they feel that those that can make a difference to them make that difference to them, so that they feel it, that they see it and that they see a difference between now and the years before.
There is quite a huge number of people crossing the contact line these days. Is it really unusual for other types of conflict? What makes it different? Because the Donbas is unusually large territory for any conflict we know globally of these kinds. Especially in the post-Soviet space.
There is a lot of people still living in these areas. There's a lot of people who have connections on both sides of the contact line, because there was no line before the war started, and we had this discussion just earlier on.
If there would be a group on one side of Ukrainians and a completely different group on the other side of the contact line, one likely would not see that frequent crossing of that contact line. But because there wasn't a line before, because there were no two groups before on one or the other side of what is now a contact line, the people don't see each other — at least at this point to a vast majority — otherwise, the numbers would be smaller, not different. Yes, there are many of those that cross the line that do so because they claimed their pension and other benefits they get only on the government-controlled side. That one should not leave out when looking at these numbers.
But still looking at other conflicts where the contact line or the front line, if you wish, normally is a division line between people normally drawn along ethnic lines, religious lines or other lines that would define one group different from another. And I think this is the positive figure of all of the negative figures that one hears about this conflict. The figure about the people that still cross this line and want to cross this line.
How do you, with your knowledge and experience, understand these so-called Steinmeier formula? Although it's a short text, many people still don't get it.
Well, and a lot of that's still to be defined. And this is probably the reason why a lot of people still have question marks. It is a sequencing that is laid out in this formula, as to what needs to come in place in terms of elections and at which point in time these different elements will come together, but under which circumstances and where in the bigger picture this formula will be plucked in, that is not stipulated in that formula. And that requires further discussion.
So what do you think is exactly requiring further discussion? I think that the major question people have — would there be any kind of people with guns, troops at the time of their elections? Though, of course, the OSCE would say "no, if there are people with weapons, you can't recognize these elections." But this is not really clear there.
Well, one thing has to be absolutely clear, I do think, is that if you have tanks, multiple launch rocket systems still standing in areas where they can be used, if you still register up to a thousand ceasefire violations a day at the contact line, as the special monitoring mission of the OSCE does per day, if you still register civilian casualties at the contact line as a cause of the ongoing fighting, as reported by the United Nations' human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine, it is clear that there is an active conflict ongoing.
They require full implementation and verify implementation, so that it can be made sure before any other process starts, that the weapons are gone away and stay away, that armed men are gone away and stay away, and that people who move about and go about can do so safely. That applies both to civilians, but also to any international organization that would need to operate in that area.
I think why people are also struggling — they don't imagine how all of a sudden the weapon isn't there. You know, all of a sudden Russia or the separatists — they just withdraw. What should it look like? How does this demilitarization take place? When you don't have a picture in your mind, it looks impossible.
The first important phase is there needs to be a silence at the contact line. The ceasefire has to be the starting point. And, as happened now at Stanytsia Luhanska or Zolote, if the sides go further away from one another, the risk that the fighting starts is significantly reduced.
That only, however, is also possible and sustainable if heavy weapons that — often far behind these areas — are being withdrawn and remain withdrawn. And the only way to make sure that sides actually disengage and that weapons remain withdrawn is that you have a third entity to verify, not just to monitor, but to verify that these weapons have been withdrawn and remain withdrawn. And for that verification process, you require cooperation with the sides and straightforward it should be resolved there is that the sides would need to hand down to the verifier a list of equipment that they have to withdraw, so that the verifier can go to an area and say: yes, this tank is now here and the next day's here, and this tank needs to be in an area where the verifier has unhindered access and that area needs to be permanently surveyed, for instance, with electronic means or physically by having the verifier being permanently located there.
At that point, it can be verified that that tank is not any longer on the battlefield, or at least in the night and fires and goes back in the morning. But it remains there and stays there. And only then you can speak about the verification, and the verification of the withdrawal of armaments is a basis, not the only, but it's a basis to build trust between the sides. Because if one side sees that weapons have been withdrawn and remain verifiably withdrawn, only then they will be assured that if they do the same, that they will not be betrayed or the other side will take advantage.
So that has to be a mirrorlike move on both sides of the contact line. Unilateral moves in this regard will be unhelpful, they will not work.
Is it realistic from also the past experience that this happens or these kinds of simultaneous actions are doable?
These technical measures have been tested in other conflicts as well. Wherever you have small arms and heavy arms engaged, you have positions to close. It's a natural thing, you have to take the fighting sides away from another that they can't reach each other with the small arms any longer.
And you need to take weapons that have a long reach when you fire them. You need to take them so far away that they, even if they fight, they can't reach the other side any longer. And you need to park them in an area where they're not being taken out any longer at night quietly put to the front, been fired and put back again in the morning.
And this happened elsewhere. That is not unique: what is being prescribed in the Minsk agreements. It happened in other armed conflicts around the world.
Alexander Hug during the interview in Kyiv, Ukraine in November 2019. Photo: Hromadske
Does the OSCE SMM mission have the mandate and capacity to do that in case there is a political will? Maybe you can explain from your previous experience.
I do believe that a third entity — the OSCE, the UN, anyone else is likely required to assist that process. So you have one from one side, one from the other side, and the third entity, normally an international officer that then makes sure that the verification on either side of the contact line is done by the [sides] together so that no one can argue against the other. That's in the best case, where you have these military commissions, joint military commissions elsewhere. And if anything, in the Minsk agreements, the mechanism through which non-adherence to the agreements can be followed up is missing, and this is a point where, I believe, Minsk has a deficit because there is no mechanism through which violations of the agreements can be pursued. There is no follow up. There is no consequence if there is a ceasefire violation, if a person dies, if a house is destroyed, if a bridge is blown up, if a field is mined, if a tank is where it shouldn't be. There are no consequences, not for the troops on the ground and not for the politicians endorsing or not reversing it. No political costs attached. And that has to change. So the accountability mechanism or the lack of an accountability mechanism within that Minsk framework is a significant deficit that needs to be overcome. And that is certainly something I would encourage everyone that is involved in this process to consider because that will help to end the impunity with which at this point in time, these agreements are still being violated.
Do you think the discussion on this accountability helps at the moment where anyway the sides are trying to build any agreement?
It's one puzzle piece that is required. It's not the silver bullet that will bring this to a conclusion. Once again, I'm not naïve to assume that all these technical arrangements will sort out this conflict. No, political will in the end and likely only political will will. But meanwhile, those directly engaged and responsible should make sure that they build up the capacity, that they're ready to actually implement these technical measures once that political will is being materialized.
Can you explain why we are speaking about Zolote, Petrivske, Stanytsia [Luhanska]? Because there is such a long contact line. Is it just these villages and these territories in the agreement? And how much is it out of the whole contact line, of the whole territory where the troops are?
Well, first of all, the disengagement at Stanytsia Luhanska, to take this as an example, what's very important and proven, at least to this day, as being a rather successful process. It helped not only to reduce the fighting in that area. It helped to demine the area, it helped to rebuild the bridge, it helped to allow the people to cross that part of the contact line more easily. If there would have been no disengagement, all of that would not have happened. So clearly disengagement works if there is political will to it.
Zolote is also a potential crossing point. Also there it makes sense because if you want to have this as a crossing point, it will not work if it is militarized. Therefore moving people away. That, of course, would also be helpful. Then eventually, once that will be a crossing point that this will then be one to safely cross.
Now, all the three areas that now had been disengaged counting together are roughly at the length of three-four kilometers, so there is less than 1% of the entire contact line, if you take the number of 480 kilometers of all the line, depending on how you measure it. So there's much more to disengage, obviously, all along that line.
And that the fighting continues, it's not least a result of the fact that in many areas along the contact line, the sides are simply far too closely pitched at one another, very close across the road, a few meters only dividing them. And that's a recipe for more tension and the recipe for more fighting.
But it looks like with these three kilometers overall it is just a very, very tiny bit of the whole.
Yes, it is less than a percentage. 99% still needs to be done. But what it shows is that it can work. And what it also shows, what is probably even more important, that it will serve the people. It will help people to feel more safe, to have more freedom of movement, to be able to cross the contact line in a more relaxed, less tense area where they have to cross through armed men and minefields. That I think is very important. It shows that disengagement is one tool of many, again, it's not the only, but one tool that can help to calm down the situation, to ease the fighting, combine it with demining, with the verified withdrawal of heavy weapons. And before the measures foreseen in Minsk, you will be able then to stabilize and effectively install a ceasefire that is sustainable, not just holding a few hours or a few days, but sustainably, it is a resilient ceasefire because the sides are too far away to start fighting, the heavy weapons are packed away so that they can't be used any longer. The mines are gone, they're not able to hurt anyone any longer. And you have it all verified. At that point, you have a resilient, sustainable ceasefire, and that is what I think and I would suggest that implementing these measures should be aiming at.
You've come, I wonder how many times to the non-government controlled Donbas. I know the time has passed since you are not any longer officially employed by the OSCE SMM. But the mood of the people was changing, you know. I'm speaking about the civilians, of course.
Well, as you have just said for yourself, the OSCE for itself and I for myself, I believe there was never a poll taken to have a very broad and deep insight as to what people are thinking. That aside, anecdotally, indeed, people throughout the years told me quite often the same and it didn't matter on which side of the contact you would ask the question.
And the first thing people would say is they would like to have an end to the fighting. They say also, it is not their war. It's someone else's war, but not theirs. Again, an indication that it's not people against people. It is not a group-driven conflict. They also say they don't understand why this is continuing. Meaning in their view, from their own assessment, there has been no reason why this is continuing. And again, an indication that they had no disgruntlement against Ukraine on the other side and that on both sides of the contact line.
I have also met many civilians not affiliated with the armed formations in non-government controlled areas, that would clearly say that they feel as Ukrainians. When you ask them, of course, how this should be arranged in a post-conflict time, you will get all kinds of different answers in terms of how the political arrangement should be looking like. But in terms of their identification, as to where they feel they belonged to, I think there was quite a uniform response by the normal civilian that you will meet in the street. People even would communicate in Ukrainian in the streets of Donetsk when that was necessary. And that so in the presence of armed men. So I do feel that people are not necessarily reflecting as to what the news is reflecting the hearing in non-government controlled areas. Whether that is still now the case, a year after I left, I can't judge, but at the time it at least appeared to me that the conflict that the people see in front of their eyes every day for many years now, they clearly see and say and told that it is not theirs.
Currently, it was announced that there might be a meeting between president Putin and president Zelenskyy. That will be the first since many years. And the first of a new Ukrainian leader, already in December. Many says that a Ukrainian president should be very well prepared for that meeting. We really don't understand what should be exactly prepared. Do we expect a plan? I understand, it's not in your knowledge to know, but if you're a specialist, you think: What can they come out of this kind of meeting? We understand that they won't come and say: yeah, that's peace. No, you don't expect that. But what can come out of this discussion? Because there are some high, very high expectations. But also there are people who say that it is useless anyways to meet.
I would start with the expectations. One thing, it is important to make clear to everyone that this war, this conflict cannot be resolved with a single meeting. It will take more than that.
But at the same time without talking, without the dialogue of some sort, it will take even longer. So I would encourage any dialogue that would aim at a peaceful resolution of this war. But it is important to make clear to the public here and internationally, that one goes realistically into such meetings, so that one is clear from the very beginning that this is not a one-stop event, but one of many more to come. A lot has happened in the past five or six years, and that requires a lot more discussion for it all to be sorted out. Ukraine shares a 2,000-kilometer border with Russia.
For me, it is important that the two nations talk to one another. But it should be on equal footing, and it should aim to resolve that situation in eastern Ukraine peacefully.
But for you, for instance, you would definitely follow, even if you don't work, you will follow -- what do you think this kind of a minimum, a humble minimum of their realistic progress?
I think, a genuine discussion between these two presidents. It does not need to be public, but a discussion that is not driven by accusations from either or the other side, but the discussion on substance, I think is required. And the many more are required so that the facts on the ground can be discussed and not allegations being traded in this meeting.
I think it should be a fact-based discussion aimed at resolving the conflict, the war peacefully.
But you know what anybody would say: that in this conflict, there is a clear — for many Ukrainians — aggressor, the conflict is taking place on the Ukrainian soil. And for many, many Ukrainians it's clear that it's not Ukrainian government who started the war. So they also kind of want to hear that argument, that the president has this argument. Or you think at this stage of the conflict, it's obvious that there is no way that the president won't really discuss it?
It is obvious and has never been different. And it's documented by a signature of Russia on the Minsk agreement: that Russia is part of this conflict. So there is no doubt about that. The signature itself makes it very clear. Whatever you call them, but it is part of that conflict, and it has a responsibility which it has taken on by signing these agreements. So I think that is clear.
What is also clear is that finger-pointing across the border from both sides over the past five or six years has not brought this any further. It has brought it into a stalemate.
I've been looking at the stipulated arrangements that had been made in the course of the years too, which have been aimed, when you read these documents, at reducing and ending the fighting and making sure that the territorial sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine is reestablished. That should be the aim. And that has to be the aim of this discussion.
You've been working in different conflicts, globally. How do you see this one? A lot of Ukrainians would say, and a lot of people think that their conflict is unique. In some ways, it's probably unique because there is also the proxy war here. How do you see it overall? From your previous experience as well.
My own experiences of conflict and war and compared to the war here in Ukraine, is that the others have been largely, not only, but largely driven by ethnic, religious differences and division. They also had the political component of course, but here, the people on the ground had nothing to do with and still are not part of the conflict itself. They might be drawn into it, they are maybe suffering from it, but the ethnic conflict type, religious conflict type can not be found here. This again is a big difference. And it is also the opportunity to resolve this differently than other conflicts. So there is a group dynamic evolving. What is the same, however, in all of the conflicts I have seen, is the suffering of the civilian people. No matter whether it's a politically driven conflict like here, ethnically or religiously where civilians suffer most. Because unlike the people with arms and guns, civilians are not protected. They're not in the trenches. They're not in armed vehicles. They're in their gardens, in their kitchens and are not protected, and that is the same elsewhere.
What makes you after you were, let's say, disappointed about the conflict, but as well also hopeful?
Well, hopeful first. I'm hopeful because I can see that there is a lot of discussion and debate about this conflict in Ukraine. Some of these discussions are helpful, some are not, but eventually, only debate and discussion will resolve this conflict, only dialogue can resolve this conflict. The fact that people at the contact line continue to cross the line is also very positive, and I've mentioned that a couple of times now. This you don't see elsewhere. This should be their motivation for making sure that there is no division, and their motivation to stop the fighting. In the end, this all should be for the people that live there and for the people that live in the Donbas so they get back to their normal lives.
What will Donbas be without its people? That doesn't make any sense. Any action should aim at making sure that people that suffer from this conflict have an end and see an end to that suffering.
Disappointing of course, is that I know very well that with all good intentions of the civil society, of the people on the ground, the international community, the government in Kyiv, if there is no political will, and that mainly, not only, but mainly needs to materialize in Moscow, to some degree also here in Kyiv, this conflict will not be resolved and it has not been resolved. And it's the key to make sure that what has been written into Minsk and what is required to end the bloodshed has been implemented. That political will has disregarded the people on the ground. If the politicians that make the decisions to continue the fighting and not to implement what they have agreed would think of what consequences it has for the people on the ground they often claim they protect, then, I'm sure the situation would be different. So that is disappointing, of course, to see still not happening, but I'm convinced that it is still possible to end this. And I know the only way to do so is peacefully.
/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk
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