As the war between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists in the east continues, the need for a peaceful solution to the conflict increases. The latest development on this front is the renewed possibility of a UN peacekeeping mission to the Donbas region, something which not too long ago seemed rather unlikely.
Although the idea of sending the UN’s “blue helmets” into the Donbas region has been around for a while, renewed discussions on the matter were triggered by an unlikely figure - Russia’s President Putin, who proposed a peacekeeping mission along the contact line in front of the press on September 5.
Ukrainian President Poroshenko has also publicly expressed interest in introducing the “blue helmets” into eastern Ukraine and the occupied territories, both in an address to the Ukrainian parliament and in his speech at the UN General Assembly last month.
However, there exists a certain amount of skepticism over Russia’s surprise change of heart – one reason being the need for a peacekeeping throughout the region, including the Russia-Ukraine border, and not just along the contact line.
According to the Former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow there is further reason for this skepticism: “We may find very quickly that the whole thing is purely a PR maneuver designed to give Russia the appearance of being a peacemaker but actually is prolonging or alternatively freezing the conflict - either would be an unacceptable outcome.”
Hromadske sat down with Former Deputy Secretary General of NATO Alexander Vershbow at last weekend’s Riga Conference to discuss why Putin’s proposed peacekeeping mission may not lead to a resolution to the conflict and whether or not the US could have done more to counter Russian aggression.
Ambassador, so the hot topic in Ukraine is the UN peacekeepers, but you raised some of the concerns, and also we know that the decision depends on Russia, so it’s important to be pragmatic and realistic in how much Ukraine can achieve in that. So what are the things that you concern?
Well, I think that President Putin’s proposal by itself is inadequate, but it could be an opening for serious negotiations over a mandate that could lead to a force that would not only end the violence but implement the Minsk agreements and restore Ukrainian control over the Donbas. So it’s an opportunity that can’t be ignored. But I think that for any peacekeeping force to be credible, it would have to have access to all of the territories that are now occupied by the self-declared separatist regimes. We may find very quickly that the whole thing is purely a PR maneuver designed to give Russia the appearance of being a peacemaker but actually is prolonging or alternatively freezing the conflict – either would be an unacceptable outcome. I think many skeptics say that it is just to freeze the conflict because the proposal would put the peacekeepers only on the line of contact, which would basically turn that into an international border and do nothing to bring about the withdrawal of the regimes and restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty.
So you mentioned the observation about the contact line, so what are also the things you…It’s already some time since it exists. It’s on the border but do you realize the issue that the status quo isn’t really the best for… ?
No, we had made a very brief visit to the contact line a couple of weeks ago. I could see first hand that it’s maintaining a reduction of the violence, but it doesn’t end the violence. We’ve seen daily shelling; these areas where the two sides are depending on each other for water, electricity and of course they don’t trust each other. The infrastructure is collapsing. So it’s not a satisfactory situation. So for humanitarian reasons but, also given that Russia signed up to the Minsk agreements, we should insist on finding a real solution. And the Russians need to understand that they’ll never see a serious improvement in the U.S.–Russia relations unless the Donbas is solved. That is for me the sine qua non for any improvements in the U.S.-Russia relations.
There is a feeling of some frustration by some of the Ukrainian population that during the escalation and from the very beginning there wasn’t a fast enough adequate response from the West, including NATO; that more could have been done if things had been done on time, not way later. Having your position, being in the leadership of NATO and now not being in that position, what do you think could have been done differently? Do you regret some other things?
Well, realistically I don’t think it was ever in the cards that NATO would actually intervene militarily to prevent the Russian aggression and the illegal annexation of Crimea. But perhaps stronger response immediately to what they did could have perhaps discouraged them from the next step, which was the sponsorship of this aggression and the so-called separatism in the Donbas. If the Russians have paid a heavier price right on the spot in Crimea, they might have been less inclined to go ahead in eastern Ukraine. But it’s hard to know. Obviously Russia has enormous leverage with the ability to mass tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s border, and obviously, Putin has a great determination to re-establish hegemony over the former Soviet space. But I think we’ve learned some bitter lessons: we learned about hybrid warfare, and we didn’t even fully appreciate what was happening in Crimea until it was too late. I think Ukraine was in the same situation.
I recently just talked to the U.S. ambassador to Russia, McFaul, who was a representative of this reset policy. And now there are a lot of talks about the change of the… You know, a lot of people who knew Vladimir Putin in 2000 as you did, being a diplomat in Russia... Of course, there is a thing that we could have known better, and Russia looked more willing to talk to the West and be the part of NATO. Do you think that something has been missed or he changed critically? And is this something that you really understand – that, you know, you can’t play the same rules of containment as they were in 2000 – and before everything that should happen in Ukraine?
Obviously it is easy to say retrospectively that we should have seen what was coming. Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 made it very clear that he was not satisfied with what he described as the unipolar world order and with the U.S.’s effort to dictate its values and its solutions to other powers, in particular, Russia. And we should have learned even more that he didn’t just say that, he acted upon it when he invaded Georgia in 2008. So we should have appreciated that for Putin Ukraine’s closer relationship with the European Union was just about as bad as its closer relationship with NATO and that he would react to the setback when the Maidan occurred. But I think we never fully imagined that he would literally break international law and annex territory the way he did. I think we’ve learned that lesson too – that we can’t underestimate Mr. Putin.
And for the solutions... There are two schools of thought about how Ukraine can build their relations with NATO. Some people would say that talking about the NATO accession for Ukraine would be a provocation. And maybe you [need to] do the things slowly, silently and without doing that. And maybe even that for some time Ukraine shouldn’t speak about that in order to get Crimea back, and that would be the part of the concession. The others, especially a lot of people here involved, would say that, you know, Putin misuses this situation when he understands there is a bit of softness. So what would you say: how much can Ukraine get at this stage from NATO and how strong it could be and might be in their public willingness to join NATO?
I think it calls for a certain diplomatic nuance. On one hand, I don’t think Ukraine should be in any way shy or inhibited about saying that its ultimate ambition and its goal is to become a member of NATO and insist that NATO allies stand by their positional principle on the open door and on the right of any country to choose its security arrangements, as it’s set forth in the Helsinki Final Act. At the same time, the fact is that Ukraine isn’t ready for membership today and NATO allies are probably not ready to vote in support of Ukrainian membership today. So, in practical terms, Ukraine should focus on preparing itself: maintain the principle but don’t submit your application tomorrow. Do what I think President Poroshenko has said: carry out the necessary work to complete defense reforms, to bring Ukrainian forces more in the line of NATO’s standards, to do more exercises and training with NATO. So in a few years time – he’s talked about 2020 – Ukraine may be more in a position to actually submit an application and turn this from an issue of principle into a practical issue.
But what could be the sign for NATO and NATO members that Ukraine is ready? Because we heard the talks that Ukraine has to do its homework, but what would be the sign that the homework is more or less done?
Well, there’s a complex array of criteria - there’s no one single thing. But I think one more important benchmark would be to appoint a civilian minister of defense, and that is ultimately seen as the test of consistency with NATO standards and traditions and the civilian control of the military. But then there’s a whole array of other professional measures of effectiveness, of interactability, of readiness. I think cleaning out the corruption that still exists in the defense sector would be important but that’s a work of years, not months or days. And I think realistically reaching some kind of political solution in the Donbas will make it easier for allies to contemplate the actual decision. If there’s still an undeclared war going on, realistically then the allies will say “let’s not decide this now, let’s postpone.” So I think it’s in everybody’s interest to try to bring about the diplomatic solution sooner rather than later. In the United States, I think by talking about providing Ukraine more defensive weapons it’ll help focus Russia’s minds on the reality that the situation for them will get worse rather than better, prolonging the delay of the political solution.