The Price of Peace: The Parameters of a Possible Compromise in Donbass
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Andrey Kortunov

Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Moscow, Russia





Director General
ORCID 0000-0002-3897-6434
Scopus AuthorID 24782993000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: +7 (495) 225 6283
Address: 1 Bolshaya Yakimanka Str., Moscow 119180, Russia

In the mid-19th century, Otto von Bismarck described politics as the “art of the possible.” A century later, John Kenneth Galbraith, American economist and philosopher, questioned the Iron Chancellor’s definition, arguing that, “Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.” In essence, however, these two formulas do not contradict one another. Both of them warn against political idealism and romantic black-and-white thinking, and both of them call for the construction of a political course that takes real conditions into account — conditions that are often far from ideal.

It thus follows that if the conditions are not ideal, then the results of political strategies — even the most carefully thought-through, well considered and justified — will inevitably be flawed as well. In other words, successful political practice by definition involves concessions, difficult compromises, and forced deviations from previously declared positions. Just like life, politics is not always fair. Nations, like individuals, do not always get what they rightfully deserve, but rather what they manage to get in negotiations with their counterparts. This is why one of the most difficult decisions for a politician to make is where exactly to draw the red line separating the inevitable concessions and compromises from capitulation, treason and personal shame. In other words, the politician has to learn what can and cannot be the subject of political bargaining.

It is precisely this difficult decision that Russian and Ukrainian politicians must make today in determining their positions with regard to the deployment of the UN Blue Helmets in Donbass. There are at least seven aspects of the possible peacekeeping mission that require some kind of compromise to be reached by Moscow and Kiev — even if they are purely tactical with hopes for further revision in the future. A lack of mutual understanding on just one of these aspects will inevitably put the future of the entire operation in jeopardy, prolonging the “hostile” phase of the disastrous conflict in the center of Europe.

1. The Sides in the Conflict

Every single one of Ukraine’s proposals regarding an international peacekeeping mission over the past two years has invariably included the same goal. The Ukrainian leadership desperately tied to directly or indirectly revise the Minsk II Agreement signed on February 12, 2015, which states that the parties to the conflict are not Russia and Ukraine, but rather Kiev on the one hand and the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics (DPR and LPR) on the other. Had the Ukrainian side succeeded during the discussions about the peacekeeping mission in having Russia’s status in the conflict changed to that of an acknowledged direct participant in the conflict, then Kiev would have had significant momentum to exert international pressure on the Kremlin. Equally as important, such a decision would have allowed Ukraine to continue avoiding direct negotiations with the leaders of the DPR and LPR and, consequently, any direct recognition of their legitimacy. In sum, redefining the sides to the conflict would mean a major victory for Ukraine and a major defeat for Russia.

However, since the critical significance of this issue is obvious to Moscow as well, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which Russia would agree to have its current legal status in the conflict changed. Such a concession would entail a significant revision of the official Russian narrative with regard to the Ukrainian crisis (“the conflict in Donbass is a civil war situation in Ukraine”), as well as a rejection of Russia’s primary achievement in the Minsk II Agreement.

At present, Moscow’s position looks stronger than that of Kiev: neither Europe nor the United States is prepared to make any radical revisions to the Minsk II Agreement. Let us not forget that the Minsk II Agreement was officially acknowledged by the UN Security Council under S/RES/2202 on February 17, 2015. Any action carried out by the United Nations in Ukraine has to be based in one way or another on that resolution. This, by the way, is why the idea that pops up with great regularity in Kiev of invoking UN General Assembly Resolution 377, which would allow the issue of establishing peace and security to be delegated to the General Assembly in the light of the Security Council’s continuous inability to do so, is unlikely to work. S/RES/2202 bocks GA/RES/337.

On the other hand, Russia’s demand that Kiev holds direct negotiations with the DPR and LPR today is just as unacceptable as it has ever been for Kiev, which categorically refuses to acknowledge the legal existence of these entities. As far as Kiev is concerned, the current authorities in Luhansk and Donetsk are nothing more than puppets of Moscow, representing the interests of their Moscow masters only. There is no any indication that this position will change in the foreseeable future.

Does this fundamental difference close the door on the possibility of a UN peacekeeping mission being deployed in Ukraine? Not necessarily. De jure, the peacekeeping mission is to be deployed in the territory of a single country, which means that Kiev’s consent is all that is needed. De facto, interaction between Kiev and the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics is unavoidable if the task is to stabilize the situation in the country. However, such interaction already takes place within the tripartite contact group format, in which the Ukrainian side is represented by the country’s second president, Leonid Kuchma. It is obvious that the search for a compromise should be conducted first of all with a view to enhance the efficiency of the contact group while preserving the “constructive ambiguity” of the group’s status. And it is also clear that the status of the leaders of the DPR and LPR will continue to be a source of sharp disagreements and intense bargaining in the negotiation process between Moscow and Kiev even after the deployment of the peacekeeping mission. Still, these disagreements and bargaining should not create insurmountable obstacles to a possible peacekeeping operation.

2. Mandate

The most recent Russian proposals put forward by President Vladimir Putin in Xiamen (China) in early September and then further expounded upon by Sergey Lavrov in New York presuppose an extremely narrow mandate for the peacekeeping mission. Specifically, the peacekeepers should safeguard the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission only, provided that the observers are fulfilling their obligations as set out in the Minsk Agreements. Any other use of the peacekeepers would effective constitute an on-the-ground revision of the Minsk Agreements, to which Russia is firmly opposed. Accordingly, the number of Blue Helmets in Eastern Ukraine should be modest — preferably a few hundred, or a few thousand at the most.

The Ukrainian side is insisting on a “full” UN peacekeeping mission in the territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, which equates to a much broader mandate. The UN does have experience of acting upon similar proposals, most notably the UNTAES operation that was carried out in the Serbian Autonomous Oblast of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Syrmia in spring–summer 1996. The mission served both to prevent clashes between Serbian separatists and the Croatian Army and helped promote integration in the region in the Croatian legal and political field. Of course, Kiev insists on greater numbers of Blue Helmets in Donbass; Ukrainian experts estimate that an international contingent of some 20–30,000 troops is needed, with some calling for as many as 50,000 men. What is more, the opinion is often voiced in Kiev that the peacekeeping forces should have “peace-enforcement” as well as «peace-keeping” capacities in Donbass.

In the current situation, the “classical” international “peace enforcement” operation that the Ukrainian side is demanding is hardly realistic, and there are a multitude of differences between 1996 Croatia and 2017 Ukraine. However, a compromise between the two positions is still possible, if the sides agree to see the achievement of lasting peace through the ceasefire envisioned by the Minsk Agreements as the primary goal of the peacekeeping mission.

In order to reach a compromise, it would be wise for Russia to agree to expand the mandate previously proposed by Moscow — that it should include both safeguarding OSCE observers and ensuring a stable ceasefire, including suppressing possible provocationsfom both sides. The number of peacekeepers and weapons at their disposal, as well as the right to use these weapons against anyone who breaks the ceasefire, should all be in line with this mandate. For its part, Ukraine should not have insisted at this stage that the Blue Helmets be given additional functions that go far beyond the fulfilment of this primary task. It stands to reason that, as we move forward in the implementation of this task, the peacekeeping forces could have been given a new and broader mandate.

3. Area of Deployment

As we know, Russia’s proposals involve deploying international peacekeepers in the areas where the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission is active, including the line of demarcation that separates the warring sides, as well as several objects inside DPR and LPR territory that are subject to OSCE monitoring. That is, the territory in which the peacekeepers are deployed is fixed to the narrow mandate of the peacekeeping operation.

It is clear that Kiev strongly objects to this position. As far as Ukrainian politicians see it, this use of the peacekeeping forces carries the risk of the conflict being “frozen” and the borders of the DPR and LPR territories being officially recognized as permanent. As such, the belief in Kiev is that Donbass will gradually turn into a new Transnistria, only on a larger and more dangerous scale. In rejecting the Russian proposal, Kiev in turn demands that the mandate of the peacekeepers be extended to cover the entire DPR and LPR territory, including unhindered access to weapons and military equipment storage sites. Kiev also insists that provisions should be made for the peacekeepers to patrol the sections of the Russia–Ukraine border that it does not control. Even more so because this kind of patrolling has long been part of the UN peacekeepers’ normal practice and therefore presents no major technical problems.

At first glance, these positions are wholly incompatible. And this is precisely how they will stay if the peacekeeping mission is viewed statically rather than dynamically. If we think of the UN’s involvement as a process broken down into several stages, then space opens up for a potential compromise. The resolution of the priority task to guarantee a mutual ceasefire and the withdrawal of military equipment would make it possible to raise the issue of the gradual expansion of the peacekeepers’ mandate and the territorial coverage of peacekeeping operation in line with that mandate.

In the long term, the best solution would be to expand the peacekeeping operation to cover the entire DPR and LPR territory, with the understanding that this expansion would run in parallel with the implementation of the entire package of Minsk Agreements. While no such mechanism has formally been written into the Minsk Agreements, it would not run counter to them. After all, the Minsk Agreements provide for the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty over the entire territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics and the reestablishment of control over all sections of the Ukraine–Russia border upon the conclusion of the conflict.

The international peacekeepers could contribute to the implementation of the Minsk II Agreements in their entirety, rather than just the first two or three points. All the more so because the peacekeeping operation would involve various functions depending on the territory and the stage of the operation — from monitoring compliance with the ceasefire regime and mine clearing to providing humanitarian aid and helping organize and hold local elections. This type of phased approach based on the situation in the respective territories would help the sides to avoid a clear, rigid and long-term administrative distinction being made between the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics on the one hand, and the rest of Ukraine on the other — a distinction that Kiev fears could be used as a mechanism for “freezing” the conflict, and with good reason.

4. Composition of the Peacekeeping Forces

Kiev also fears that Moscow could try to go further than simply including a Russian contingent in the peacekeeping mission by turning that contingent into the core of the peacekeeping forces, thus legalizing Russia’s military presence in Donbass. As far as Kiev is concerned, the existing precedents of Russian peacekeepers having been deployed in Georgia and Moldova clearly demonstrate the political risks and long term negative repercussions of such a decision for “host” counties. At the same time, Ukrainian experts refer to the established UN practice of country’s not taking part in peacekeeping missions in countries with which they have a common border. If we follow this unwritten rule, then it is not only Russia that will be unable to take part in the peacekeeping operation, but also Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Moldova and Romania.

On the other hand, Moscow, as well as the DPR and the LPR, fear that the Kiev may use the UN peacekeeping mission to try to bring in NATO forces, or forces from countries that are unfavourably disposed towards Moscow and sympathetic towards Kiev. There are numerous examples of UN peacekeepers from western countries for whatever reason being unable to perform their functions properly and impartially (“In Bosnia, Dutch peacekeepers gave up Bosniak Muslims at the Srebrenica massacre, and in Kosovo, Albanian terrorists ran rampant under the protection of UN peacekeepers”).

When discussing the likely composition of the UN peacekeeping forces, it is necessary to take the procedures for forming these forces into account. The Security Council is responsible for determining the mission’s mandate, while individual countries are invited to take part by the UN Secretariat. Under current rules, no countries are allowed to have an absolute majority in terms of the size of their contingent in the mission. The UN Secretariat’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations is directly involved in determining the composition of the peacekeeping forces, and the decisions of the Department do not require secondary approval from the Security Council. The rules for forming and managing peacekeeping missions involves several mechanisms that prevent attempts by any one country or group to achieve a dominant position within a given mission. None of the deployed units is considered the main (core) unit. The command headquarters is made up of officers from various countries, while the commanding officers themselves are rotated on a regular basis. On the whole, these mechanisms should be considered reliable; the UN has learned from the mistakes and miscalculations it made during the peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia at the end of the 20th century.

It is nevertheless logical to assume that Moscow will in any case consistently oppose the involvement of NATO member countries in the UN peacekeeping mission (although Russia’s relations with individual NATO members vary wildly — Lithuania and Greece are perfect examples). It would be strange, however, if Russia were to object to the participation of military contingents from, say, Pakistan or China. If Ukraine is worried about Russia’s close partners taking part in the mission, or if there are any concerns as to the competencies of their peacekeepers, then it is worth considering some of the European countries that are not members of NATO (Finland, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden and Serbia, among others). It would be logical to form the peacekeeping forces based on the specific tasks that these forces have been called upon to resolve. The long-term demarcation of the opposing sides does not require an in-depth knowledge of the ethno-cultural features, traditions and language of the local population. The same cannot be said, however, of the further mission to re-integrate the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics into the Ukrainian legal and political space. On the contrary, such knowledge is of vital importance.

As for Russia itself, it could have a nominal presence in the multilateral peacekeeping forces, as a necessary security guarantee for the local population — at least, at the initial stage of the mission. However, Russia’s actual involvement in the operation would likely be at the level of a multilateral mechanism for managing the peacekeeping operation and as part of the tripartite contact group, whose functions should be modified and expanded. Russia cannot be completely excluded from the peacekeeping process. Even if it were possible to keep Russian out completely, it would not be Ukraine’s interests anyway — as a “stakeholder” and participant in the peacekeeping operation, Russia is by definition a more constructive partner than it would be if it were excluded from these processes, peeking jealously from behind the backs of Chinese and Swiss peacekeepers.

5. Length of the Operation

Russia’s initial proposals were for the UN peacekeeping operation to last six months. Such a tight deadline could be an additional motivator for the peacekeepers to work intensively to achieve the mission’s goals. But it is hard to disagree with the critics, who noted that the absence in these proposals of a clear and unambiguous reference to the possibility of extending the mandate creates additional risks that the situation will return to its original state once the operation is complete. There are few examples in the history of UN peacekeeping missions in which the objectives were achieved within the course of several months. As a rule, peacekeeping missions tend to last years or even decades. This is all the more true for situations where the mandate of the UN’s peacekeepers should be extended or modified as the operation progresses.

What is more, launching the mission will itself take considerable time, if only for the fact that it will be impossible to select, form and finance thousands of UN peacekeepers in a speedy manner. Even with the political will of the parties and the necessary financial resources from the Security Council, the time from idea to rollout of a large-scale peacekeeping mission under the auspices of the United Nations is at least six months. In the case of Donbass, given the difficulty of reaching an agreement that is satisfactory for all sides and the high costs of the operation (as much as several billions of dollars per year), nine to twelve months would be more realistic. Although, of course, certain elements of the peacekeeping operation can and should be deployed earlier.

It is likely, and logical, that the timeframes for completing the UN peacekeeping mission in Ukraine will be tied to the timeframes for implementing all the points of the Minsk Agreements in full. At the same time, nobody is standing in the way of implementing the procedure for the mandatory confirmation — or alteration — of the Blue Helmets’ mandate every six months depending on the progress made in ensuring peace and changes to the priorities of the peacekeeping operation. Since the issue of who will lead the peacekeeping operation continues to be an extremely sensitive one for all the sides involved in the conflict it would be worthwhile to discuss operational procedures on a more frequent basis than is currently provided for, including rotating commanding officers at various levels. In any case, disagreements about the length of the peacekeeping operation in Donbass should not be considered fundamental to the adoption of a compromise solution by the UN Security Council.

6. Peacekeeping and Development

All international peacekeeping missions in Donbass are doomed to failure if they are not combined with urgent efforts to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the region. One does not have to be an expert in peacebuilding to see a direct causal link between the level of unemployment and the level of violence in a conflict region, between the lumpenization of the population and the growing popularity of political extremism. Unfortunately, the prospect of a humanitarian catastrophe in Donbass remains very real — socioeconomic problems continue to worsen, particularly in rural areas and in small working communities that were not exactly prosperous before the crisis began in 2014. Economic ties and transport links between Donbass and the rest of Ukraine have been severed, heaping additional pressure on the region. A significant portion of the working population fled the region during the war, and the issue of returning more than 2 million refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes remains up in the air.

Lifting the economic and transport blockade of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics on the part of Kiev will therefore be a necessary condition for the success of the UN peacekeeping mission, in return for allowing enterprises operating in the territory back into the Ukrainian legal space. All the more so because keeping the blockade in place inevitably leads to companies that are based in the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics to fully reorient their businesses to the Russian market, which will in turn make future attempts to reintegrate the region into Ukraine’s economic space that much more difficult.

Without a doubt, international economic cooperation should not be limited to joint efforts to prevent a humanitarian and demographic (and environmental!) disaster in Donbass. The experience of international peacekeeping activities shows that in today’s world, the concepts of security and development go hand in hand. Without security, sustainable development is impossible in principle; but outside the context of development, security remains fragile and unreliable. Accordingly, financial and technical support to help restore the region’s infrastructure must be provided alongside humanitarian activities. This could include the formation of an international consortium of donors and investors, both private and public, and the coordination of their efforts.

It is unlikely that Donbass will be fully restored to the industrial centre that it was before the hostilities began. Nor would doing so be a particularly desirable outcome, as the region’s basic industries were some 20 or 30 years behind in terms of their need for restructuring. This means that new sources of growth need to appear in place of the coal and metallurgy industries that dominated previously — mechanical engineering (including precision engineering), instrument engineering, shipbuilding, new materials production, etc. Ideally, the region should serve both the European and CIS markets, with a view to becoming one of the main bridges bringing Ukraine and Russia together.

I imagine critics will object to these statements, arguing that now is not the time to engage in economic fantasies or build technocratic utopias with regard to the Donbass of the future. But if one does not give the region hope in terms of its social and economic future, if we do not offer the people an attractive long-term “social contract,” then we will never be able to bring back those who have left or motivate those who remain into action. And if people do not act, then even the most successful peacekeeping mission will fail to resolve the region’s problems.

7. Peacekeeping and the Future of European Security

Judging by the numerous statements made by the Ukrainian leadership recently, the official narrative of the conflict in Donbass, like three years ago, remains fundamentally Manichean: the war in Eastern Ukraine is presented as a great global battle between good and evil, light and dark, western civilization and eastern barbarism. In this struggle, Kiev is at the forefront of the battle; it is a kind of fantasy city not dissimilar to Tolkien’s Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings, straining its last remaining forces to fend off the onslaught of the countless hordes of Sauron, the ruler of Mordor and the personification of word evil.

Russian political discourse is similarly Manichean — note the widespread use of the terms “Kiev Junta” and “Bandera-Fascists,” for example. Kiev refuses to see that the drama in Donbass may well have at least some domestic roots. Moscow questions both the subjectivity of the Ukrainian leadership (“they are all propped up by the West and carry out the orders of the regional committee in Washington”) and even the mere existence of the Ukrainian people as an independent ethno-cultural community (“Russians and Ukrainians are the same people artificially divided by the West”).

Is it possible to negotiate with Sauron? Is it worth looking for compromise with puppets when you can bargain with the puppet master himself? Sometimes you can get the impression that in Kiev are counting on a repeat of the August 1991 scenario — the ultimate collapse of the Russian Federation under the burden of sanctions. Similarly, in Moscow they hope for either the total disintegration of the Ukrainian state or the coming to power of entirely new faces in Kiev, people who are prepared to make radical changes to the country’s current domestic and foreign political course. As long as these ideas persist, and even dominate the public consciousness in Russia and Ukraine, we cannot count on any significant progress being made in the bilateral relations — with or without the help of peacekeepers.

No crisis can be resolved if the main aim of the combatants is to inflict as much damage to each other as possible, constantly increase the cost of the conflict for the other side, and hope for their full and unconditional capitulation. Such tactics might be good for an all-out war, but they are severely lacking when it comes to foreign policy in conditions where there are no signs that either side will capitulate in the foreseeable future. If they do not want the stalemate to last for an indefinite period, Russia and Ukraine face the difficult and painful task of correcting their long-held narratives with regard to the current crisis. They also need to throw away the axiomatic supposition that increasing the economic, political and other costs for the other side is an acceptable (and even preferable) alternative to the search for compromise.

In the longer term, resolution of the Ukrainian crisis is impossible without the formation of a new security and cooperation architecture in the Euro-Atlantic space in which Russia and Ukraine will have equal status as full, legitimate and respected participants. At the end of the day, Russia’s main problem is not so much the expansion of NATO or the European Union as it is the progressive ousting of Moscow to the margins of the development of the European security system and the regimes of European economic independence. Until this fundamental problem is resolved, Russia will continue to be a major complicating factor for European security. In practical terms, it is still too early to talk about a new common and indivisible European architecture. The whole idea of such a system has been severely compromised in course of the current crisis. However, as long as we do not have such an architecture in place, it will be impossible to achieve stability on the European continent. Which means that, in one way or another, we will have to return to this issue.