It was once an unlikely goal. Now, however, the prospect of sending a United Nations peacekeeping mission to Ukraine’s war-torn Donbas region appears increasingly likely. First raised several years ago, the issue has received renewed international attention since September 5, when Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed a mission along the Ukrainian conflict’s contact line.
This week, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will travel to the United States for a UN General Assembly session and to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump. In these meetings, he will likely address the issue of creating a peacekeeping operation throughout the Ukrainian Donbas region.
Though Putin instructed the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to bring a draft resolution on the mission to the UN Security Council, Russia’s conditions for the peacekeepers have proved to be a source of skepticism.
As political leaders, government officials and world experts converged on Kyiv for the annual Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference on September 15-16, Hromadske was on site to find out what some of the world’s top policy minds think about the future of UN peacekeeping in Ukraine.
For the Ukrainian side, the question of where specifically to deploy the peacekeeping mission has proven to be a sources of controversy. While Russia proposed a UN presence along the contact line, Ukraine and its allies want to see peacekeepers throughout the separatist-controlled territories in the east and along the Ukraine-Russia border.
According to Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin, such a mission is currently impossible due to Russian military presence in the region:
“The mandate of such a peacekeeping mission should involve the removal of Russian forces from the occupied territory of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and should eliminate all troops, mercenaries and military equipment brought into this area by Russia. And the first steps to achieving stabilization and a return to normalcy include, for example, disarmament,” he told reporters.
Klimkin did, however, emphasize Ukraine’s intention to bring up the issue of the peacekeeping mission and its mandate at the next meeting of the UN Security Council.
While Russia and Ukraine’s disagreement over the peacekeeping mission could prove its downfall, other officials believe it has potential.
U.S. Special Representative on Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker was particularly optimistic about peacekeeping as a means of breaking what he described as the “cycle of stagnation” surrounding the Minsk negotiations.
“A peacekeeping force, if there were one, that had responsibility for the area, instead of Russian forces being there occupying the area could be a way to provide security for people and to provide access for Ukrainian authorities, to provide a space where you can have elections, a space where you can see the implementation of the Minsk agreements,” he said.
While Volker was also opposed to seeing peacekeeping implemented on Russia’s terms, he was adamant that dialogue surrounding such a mission is a good thing. Furthermore, he insisted that Russia’s intentions in making the proposal to the UN Security Council can be taken seriously:
“[The Russians] weren’t talking about this in New York before, they weren’t talking about the UN, of course not. That’s now on the table as a Russian proposal,” Volker said. “The issues driving this are not paper negotiations in New York, the issue driving it is Russia’s sense that the status quo is not good for anybody: it’s not good for Russia, it’s not good for the people of the Donbas, it’s not good for Ukraine. And if we could find a better way forward, let’s work to do that.”
But other experts were not prepared to take Putin at his word.
“We don’t yet know whether President Putin’s proposal was serious or not. I tend to be very skeptical, I think it was designed to portray an image of a Moscow that’s interested in settlement,” Steven Pifer, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Hromadske.
Pifer suggested Ukraine “test” Russia’s intentions in New York by working with other countries on the Security Council to reshape the proposal into “a robust peacekeeping process that applies not just on the line of contact but throughout all of occupied Donbas, including on the Ukraine-Russian border.”
However, he still has his doubts. “My guess is Moscow’s not prepared to see that kind of peacekeeping force,” Pifer said. “The Russians seem content with the kind of simmering conflict that you now have in Donbas. I would like to be wrong on that. And that's why I would like to see the Russian proposal tested. If the Russians are looking for a way out of the quagmire that they have themselves in in Donbas, we ought to find a way to help them, but I don't yet know that the Russian proposal is serious.”
The war in Ukraine began in 2014, when Russian forces annexed the country’s Crimean peninsula and invaded its eastern regions. 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.
/Text by Eilish Hart