Putin’s Comment on Sending UN Peacekeepers to Donbas, Explained
7 September, 2017

On September 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprising declaration. Speaking before the press, he proposed a United Nations peacekeeping mission along the front line in Ukraine’s east.

Putin also instructed the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to bring a draft resolution on the mission to the UN Security Council. But the conditions under which Putin called for the peacekeepers remain a source of skepticism.

The introduction of UN “blue helmets” in Donbas is the most popular idea for an international peacekeeping mission in the past year. Photo credit: United Nations Peacekeeping Follow/MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti

Just two weeks ago Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister and representative to NATO, announced that Russia was blocking all international peacekeeping missions in Donbas.

Meanwhile, Ukraine had already suggested several options for peacekeeping missions in the region. Initially, it proposed a special armed police mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). However, members of the OSCE considered this idea unrealistic since they had never before conducted such a mission. Ukraine also proposed an EU police mission. But the most popular idea over the last year was the so-called “blue helmets” — a UN peacekeeping mission.

Implementing this type of mission would require a UN Security Council decision. Given Russia’s veto power there, the idea seemed unlikely.  

But this appears to have changed after Tuesday’s BRICS summit (an international meeting involving Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), when Russian journalists asked President Putin about “attempts by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to push a peacekeeping mission through the [UN] General Assembly.” Unexpectedly, Putin supported the plan:  

“I believe that this would be useful for solving the problem in the southeast of Ukraine. But, of course, it is also about ensuring the security of [existing] OSCE [monitoring mission] staff members, first of all. Secondly, forces should be placed along the contact line, and not on any other territories. Thirdly, this question doesn’t need to be resolved until after the troops and heavy weapons have been withdrawn. It can’t be decided without direct contact with the representatives of the so-called [Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic]. If all of this isn’t done, the problems in southeast Ukraine will not be resolved. Consider this instructions for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to bring the appropriate resolution to the [UN] Security Council.” 

Russia has the right to veto decisions of the UN Security Council, and has always been against any peacekeeping missions in Donbas. However, after the BRICS summit Putin unexpectedly agreed to the presence of “blue helmets.” Photo Caption: UNMINUSTAH/ Logan Abassi.

President Poroshenko is expected to bring the question of a UN peacekeeping mission to the next General Assembly meeting on September 12. During a phone conversation between the leaders of the Normandy Format in July, Poroshenko underscored the importance of introducing a UN peacekeeping mission in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. However, he did not specify exactly where the peacekeepers should be deployed.

Iryna Herashchenko, the Ukrainian President’s humanitarian envoy for the peaceful resolution of the war in the Donbas, was one of the first to react to Putin’s proposal. She reiterated Ukraine’s position that peacekeepers should be at the state’s border with Russia and not on the contact line between Ukraine and the separatists.  

“It’s not the Ukrainian border, and so it’s out of the question that there should be peacekeepers along the contact line,” she said. “The Kremlin’s scenario is an attempt to substitute concepts that distorts the very idea of peacekeepers. [It] will not pass. Peacekeepers should be introduced in all of the Russian-occupied territories in order to monitor the security situation and demilitarization. Their mandate should be at the Ukrainian-Russian border.” 

Although it appears that Putin’s position is not to oppose the peacekeeping mission, many doubt that he actually wants to reach a compromise to resolve the war. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry alleged that Putin’s proposal to place peacekeepers on the contact line — hence, on Ukrainian territory — aims to demonstrate that the conflict in Ukraine is a civil war. Another condition — that the mission would only be possible after the withdrawal of heavy weapons and that this requires contact with the separatists — also challenges Ukraine’s refusal to directly negotiate with the self-proclaimed “republics.”

Additionally, Attempts to remove troops and heavy weapons from the contact line have been ongoing for more than two years.  Both the OSCE and the Joint Coordination Center for a Ceasefire, which involves both Ukrainian and Russian soldiers. However, OSCE monitors have noted that heavy weapons are constantly returning to the front line. The last demonstrative withdrawal of troops occurred in 2015.

The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) was deployed on March 21, 2014, following a request to the OSCE by Ukraine’s government and a consensus decision by all 57 OSCE participating states. The SMM is an unarmed, civilian mission, present on the ground 24/7 in all regions of Ukraine. Its main tasks are to observe and report in an impartial and objective way on the situation in Ukraine and to facilitate dialogue among all parties to the crisis. 

Furthermore, there are a number of hotspots on the frontline where shooting almost never stops precisely because the opposing sides are too close to each other. The current plan for the Ukrainian Army to pull back — even slightly — is not realistic at this time.  

Hromadske’s diplomatic sources in the presidential administration suggest that Putin’s statement are meant to demonstrate to the partners in the Normandy Format, as well as the United States, that negotiations are not possible.

Attempts to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from the contact line in Donbas have been going on for more than two years. Photo credit: EPA/Sergey Vaganov 

At a meeting in Sochi with President Putin in May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she does not see an alternative to the OSCE SMM. Following Putin’s proposal, however, the German Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, congratulated him on the initiative and said that this could be an opportunity for negotiations on a ceasefire in Donbas.

However, like their Ukrainian counterparts, American diplomatic sources directly involved in resolving the conflict in Donbas also consider the idea of introducing the “blue helmets” unrealistic.  

The war in Ukraine began in 2014, when Russian forces annexed the country’s Crimean peninsula and invaded it’s eastern regions. Since then, more than 10,000 people have been killed and around 24,000 have been injured in Ukraine, the UN reports. According to the European Commission, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has affected over 4.4 million people, 3.8 million of whom are believed to be in need of humanitarian aid.

/Written by Nastya Stanko

/Translated and adapted by Eilish Hart