It all began three months ago to the day, in the Chinese town of Xiamen. During a news conference following the BRICS Summit, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin proposed the use of international peacekeepers under auspices of the United Nations in the east of Ukraine.
The idea was not totally new either: it had been discussed, in a variety of formats, ever since the very first months of the military confrontation in Donbass. However, it was the first time that Russia had officially proposed a peacekeeping initiative at the highest level. The President of the Russian Federation suggested a fairly narrow mandate for potential peacekeepers, yet his initiative took all the parties in the conflict by surprise.
This is no surprise. On the eve of Putin’s statement, official Russian representatives had resolutely rejected the very idea of involving international peacekeepers in the Ukrainian conflict. Moscow’s usual argument was to cite the Minsk agreements, which do not envisage such a possibility. Kiev’s intermittent calls for involving the United Nations or the European Union in the settlement process effectively indicated the desire of the Ukrainian authorities to divest itself of any responsibility for the implementation of these agreements.
The proposal of the President of the Russian Federation gave rise to numerous conjectures as to the Kremlin’s possible motives and intentions.Was Putin’s statement merely a tactical ploy aimed at driving Kiev into a corner? Or had Russia’s position on the Ukrainian changed dramatically? Should the parameters of a possible UN peacekeeping mission outlined by Putin be taken as Moscow’s new red line? Or are they a bargaining chip for the future? Finally, who were Moscow’s proposals primarily addressed to: the Ukrainian leadership? The participants in the Normandy format? Or the Donald Trump administration?
Even now, three months on, the possible answers are being heatedly debated. All the more so as the public discussion of possible ways to resolve the conflict remains extremely emotional and not necessarily constructive. External observers who are not privy to the various informal consultations still know very little about them. Nevertheless, the statements, comments and interviews with the main actors that are available to us give us an approximate idea of the disagreements that have up to now stood in the way of implementing the peacekeeping discussion in practice, as well as an idea of what needs to be done by all stakeholders in order to overcome these differences.
Does Russia (and Ukraine) Want War?
The following arguments are based on the assumption that both Kiev and Moscow want to find a political solution to the Donbass problem. Any political solution would imply that the parties are willing to compromise. If at least one of the parties lacks the desire and readiness required, and is looking at a violent resolution instead, one that would result in the opponent’s unconditional surrender, then it would naturally be senseless to talk about the prospects for an international peacekeeping mission. At best, we might see certain tactical agreements designed to gain time, regroup, accumulate resources and resume political (if not military) pressure on the enemy at the appropriate moment. Another possibility is that the statements made by the parties to the effect that a political solution is the only viable solution are nothing more than propaganda. The presumption that the sides are prepared for a political compromise is certainly open to criticism, but if we do not allow for this possibility we are better off ending this discussion right here and now.
Other assumptions are that Kiev is not currently ready to let Donbass go, and that Moscow is not interested in absorbing the DPR and LPR or in securing the status of “unrecognized states” for them. As is known, many people in Russia doubt the validity of the former solution, and many people in Ukraine question the legitimacy of the latter. It is unlikely that anyone, with the possible exception of the leaders of the two countries, knows for sure what ideas the Russian and Ukrainian governments are currently considering. Nevertheless, official statements from both sides allow us to treat the aforementioned assumptions as being justified and lawful.
The third important assumption is that the four years of conflict have taught both Moscow and Kiev to assess the current situation, and its perception by the opposing side, in a realistic manner. Back in late 2014, some people in Russia thought that Ukraine could disintegrate at any moment, that the mounting economic difficulties would undermine the socio-political foundation of Ukrainian nationalism, and that the West would be either unable or unwilling to keep Kiev’s sinking “comprador” regime afloat. Now, in late 2017, no intelligent person can conceivably entertain such ideas any longer. On the other hand, a widespread idea in Ukraine was that the Russian economy would quickly collapse under the weight of the Western sanctions, that political support for Putin would crumble, and that Russia would soon be facing a new 1991. Today, such a scenario appears to be something taken from a parallel universe, completely unrelated to the actual state of affairs in Russia.
Looking back, we must admit that both Kiev and Moscow (or, rather, the Ukrainian and Russian people) have demonstrated the steadfastness, resilience and flexibility. And this has come as a surprise to many external observers. You can call this staunchness as stubbornness, or you can blame the insidious government propaganda. However, this does not change the essence of the matter: the Ukrainian and Russian people, with the exception of a handful of dissidents, are prepared to continue to bear the costs associated with the Donbass conflict.
This means that the hopes formerly held in Kiev and Moscow that the situation would resolve itself it quick time, that time was on “their side” and that victory was guaranteed because their cause was just, stood no chance of persisting on either side of the conflict. Neither side is likely to achieve a decisive victory in the foreseeable future. And a protracted crisis will mean the accumulation of long-term problems for both Ukraine and Russia. In this conflict, time is working against both Kiev and Moscow, even though the people of both countries have somehow adapted to living in a situation that would have seemed totally inconceivable only four years ago.
What are Kiev and the West Afraid of?
The three months that have passed since Putin made his proposal have been rich in commentaries, criticisms and counterproposals by the Ukrainian leadership, experts and analysts. The peacekeeping idea provoked an equally vivid reaction in the West. Parts of this reaction lacked a certain coherence and consistency, yet the response itself allows us to draw several conclusions as to what it is about the Russian proposal that does not suit Kiev and its Western partners.
Donbass as a frozen conflict. To begin with, the deployment of peacekeepers exclusively along the demarcation line between the opposing sides could turn Donbass into another “frozen conflict.”  This kind of deployment would recognize the status quo, which, as is illustrated by many conflict situations, including in the former USSR, often plays into the hands of separatists. Kiev cites the examples of Transnistria and Abkhazia, where delimiting the sides did nothing to resolve the respective conflicts but rather consolidated and accelerated the centrifugal processes. This means that a “dividing line” is capable of putting an end to the prospects of Donbass subsequently being integrated into the political, economic and social life of Ukraine.
Legitimizing Russia’s military presence. Kiev believes that if Russian troops are included in the peacekeeping contingent (a matter on which the DPR and LPR authorities insist), Moscow will be able to secure a legitimate military presence in the east of Ukraine under the auspices of the United Nations. In addition, Russian peacekeepers cannot be a politically neutral force, given the current state of relations between Moscow and Kiev. In fact, the UN peacekeeping traditions preclude the participation of countries that border the areas where peacekeeping operations are being carried out.
Recognition of the DPR and LPR authorities. Throughout the conflict in the east of Ukraine, Kiev has demonstrated a continuing reluctance to have anything to do with the leadership of the unrecognized DPR and LPR as the second party to the peacekeeping talks, something that Russia has always insisted on in its proposals. Ukraine believes that any direct interaction with the current Donbass leadership on peacekeeping issues would effectively mean the recognition of that leadership as the legitimate representatives of the DPR and LPR population. This is politically unacceptable to Kiev. Kiev believes, therefore, that any peacekeeping talks should be conducted exclusively with Moscow, and that it is for Moscow to make sure that its “stooges” implement the agreements reached.
Easing of Western pressure on Russia. The decision to launch a peacekeeping operation in the east of Ukraine, in any format, could lead to the activation of forces in the West that have always promoted the restoration of cooperation with Moscow, including the lifting or mitigation of the sanctions against Russia. Such a scenario understandably worries the current Ukrainian leadership. In Kiev’s opinion, the very fact that Russia has made proposals on a peacekeeping mission indicates that the Western sanctions are having the desired effect. Therefore, in order to make progress in the resolution of the conflict, the pressure on Moscow needs to be maintained, or perhaps even intensified.
What are Moscow and the DPR/LPR Afraid of?
The past three months have demonstrated Russia’s unwillingness to make any fundamental concessions to Kiev and its Western partners. Moscow objects to Ukraine’s version of international peacekeeping involvement (extending the peacekeeping area to cover all of the DPR and LPR and the state border with Russia; the refusal of Kiev to negotiate with the Donbass leadership; and the rejection of the idea of Russia’s direct involvement in the peacekeeping operation, etc.). The Kremlin’s objections grow even more resolute and uncompromising when transmitted via the leaders of the unrecognized Donetsk and Lugansk republics.
Donbass massacre scenario. At the heart of Russia’s objections lies the suspicion that an international peacekeeping contingent would not be able to provide sufficient security to the Donbass population, especially given the widespread radical nationalist and revanchist sentiments in Ukrainian society. Moscow points out that the Ukrainian leadership remains incapable of controlling the numerous autonomous armed groups and paramilitary radical political movements that might terrorize the DPR/LPR territories, threaten their political opponents and contribute to the spread of crime in the region. It is possible that this could be followed by new waves of refugees and internally displaced persons from Donbass towards Russia.
Peacekeepers as a pretext for revising the Minsk agreements. The Ukrainian version of a possible peacekeeping operation raises numerous questions in Moscow linked to the future of the Minsk agreements. Russia suspects Kiev of attempting to use the new settlement plan as a pretext for overhauling the Minsk agreements, or even abandoning them outright, particularly those provisions that concern political reform. In addition, should the Ukrainian version be implemented, Moscow would lose all its current influence on the situation, effectively becoming an outside witness to Ukrainian nationalists engaging in a “mopping-up” operation in Donbass. As far as Moscow is concerned, the commitment of Western countries to the Minsk agreements is by no means a sure-fire guarantee that the agreements will be observed by Kiev. 
Moscow’s flexibility resulting in greater pressure on Russia. Whereas the Ukrainian government fears the erosion of the West’s anti-Russian consensus and the weakening of pressure on Moscow, the Russian government has reasons to believe that, should Moscow make any significant concessions with regard to the peacekeepers in Donbass, Kiev and the West (the United States at least) would perceive this as a sign of weakness on the part of Russia and might try to apply greater pressure on Moscow.  If Russia decides to give up Donbass, then Crimea might become the West’s next target.
Wrong time for concessions. As far as we can tell, Moscow does not see Kiev’s latest proposals, which have been supported by the West, as a compromise. Should Russia adopt these proposals, it will be difficult to present this as another foreign political victory (even a formal victory) for the Kremlin to domestic and outside audiences. The presidential election campaign is under way in Russia, and the Kremlin is likely use the foreign policy victories it has earned in the past few years to bolster its chances of winning. This means that any “retreat” on the Ukrainian front would appear ill-timed, to say the least. It could even entail unnecessary political risks. On the other hand, the Kremlin points to the numerous uncertainties that remain in the West, including the domestic political crisis in the United States and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s inability to form a coalition government. As far as Moscow is concerned, it would be better to postpone serious discussions on the Ukrainian issue until next summer or autumn.
Where is a Compromise to be Found?
As is characteristic of any complex and multifaceted international crisis, the situation in the east of Ukraine represents a tangle of subjective and objective factors, external and internal circumstances, personal ambitions and long-term social trends, specific interests of individual political groups, and banal mistakes caused by the incompetence or incomplete awareness of the parties. This is why solutions to this problem – in the plural, as there is no single solution – should be sought at different levels and on different planes. Listed below are just the most obvious ingredients required for a successful peacekeeping mission in the east of Ukraine.
Agreeing on the current priorities. Even though the diverse tasks facing the peacekeeping mission are absolutely important, the most urgent and important objective is to put an end to the violence, stop the loss of life and ensure the implementation of the first three conditions of the Minsk agreements (a bilateral ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and the implementation of monitoring activities). This objective should inform priorities with regard to both the territory where the peacekeeping are forces initially deployed (the demarcation line) and to the initial mandate of these forces (preventing possible violations of the ceasefire agreement, regardless of which side commits the transgression). For Russia, it would be worthwhile to think about expanding the mandate it originally proposed to include not only the protection of Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers, but also the provision of a stable truce. This mandate needs to be consistent with the number of peacekeepers, the weapons in their possession, and their right to use such weapons against those who violate the truce. For its part, Ukraine should not insist on giving the blue helmets any additional functions at this stage. As things progress, the peacekeeping force might be provided with a new, broader mandate.
Overcoming phantom fears. Some of the concerns of the two parties seem to be far-fetched. And that is putting it mildly. It is, for example, fairly difficult to believe that, under the current circumstances, any NATO member – no matter how much Kiev pleads – would be prepared to commit significant military contingents for a peacekeeping operation in Donbass, certainly not before they have obtained sufficient security guarantees from the DNR and LNR. Furthermore, the existing UN procedures for setting up and managing peacekeeping forces exclude even the theoretical possibility of a single country (including Russia and the United States) or group of countries (including NATO) unilaterally controlling the progress of a peacekeeping operation. There appears to be nothing preventing the peacekeeping force from comprising representatives of countries trusted both by Kiev and Moscow; everything would depend on the political will of the two sides and their readiness to make balanced compromises.
Taking prior experience into account. Existing peacekeeping experience does not support the idea that negotiating with unrecognized entities within a given territory serves as the first step towards the international recognition of those entities. For example, the United Nations has been coordinating its peacekeeping activities in Cyprus with the government of Northern Cyprus for decades, ever since Turkey invaded the island in the summer of 1974, even though the territorial entity is not recognized by anyone except Turkey. A similar situation arose in the course of numerous attempts by the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), and then the OSCE, to mediate the Nagorno-Karabakh issue: the presence of Nagorno-Karabakh representatives at the negotiating table since 1992 has not, and will not, lead to the recognition of the territory as a legitimate subject of international law. There is no doubt that, should the sides agree on this and demonstrate a degree of flexibility and creativeness, a similar formula could be devised for Donbass.
Sharing the responsibility for the peacekeeping mission. Observing Ukraine’s demands to the letter – that Russia take no part in the peacekeeping operation and that negotiations with the Donbass authorities do not take place – would raise the logical question of who is to act as the guarantor of uninterrupted peacekeeping work in Donbass. Is Kiev prepared to bear sole responsibility for inevitable incidents, outbreaks of violence and attacks on the peacekeepers? It appears that at this point in time, Ukraine’s interests would best be served by the active involvement of both Moscow and the Donbass authorities in the settlement process. The particularities of such involvement, however, are quite a different matter. The existing experience of the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine should be carefully studied again, as should the experience of practical interaction between the OSCE monitoring mission and the Donbass authorities. As for Russia, its strategic role should be to define the mandate of the peacekeeping operation within the framework of the UN Security Council, as well as planning and monitoring that operation. Speaking of Russian peacekeepers in Donbass, some form of presence, however symbolic, would be an additional guarantee that all the parties to the conflict will fulfil the terms of the peacekeeping agreement.
Considering the dynamic side to the agreement. Many of the disagreements between Moscow and Kiev would appear less fundamental if the mandate, area of deployment and the timeframe of the possible peacekeeping mission were viewed as dynamic, rather than static, values. In other words, the mission should be perceived as a set of successive stages, with the objectives of each subsequent stage defined by the preceding stage’s achievements. For example, it would be correct to expect the peacekeeping mission’s deployment area to expand gradually (all the way to the border between Russia and Ukraine), its potential to grow over time and its functions to gradually transition from the initial objectives (ensuring the cessation of hostilities) to more complex matters (including, for example, technical assistance with the organization of local elections). Both Kiev and the West fear that Moscow will retain the right to block the transition to the next stage if it is not satisfied with the current results of the peacekeeping mission. However, Russia would reserve such a right irrespective of how the UN peacekeepers are used. Also, peacekeeping missions eventually acquire their own dynamics and inertia; politically, it is always more difficult to block the continuation of a successful mission than prevent the launch of a new one.
Synchronizing the peacekeeping mission with the implementation of the Minsk agreements. There exists the opinion that, since the Normandy format has reached an impasse and the focus of the current Donbass settlement consultations has shifted to the “shuttle diplomacy” exercised by Kurt Volker’s successor as the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine, the future UN peacekeeping mission should eventually replace the “outdated” mechanisms and procedures envisaged by the Minsk agreements. It appears that, rather than becoming an alternative to the Minsk agreements, the mission should represent an additional instrument for their implementation. Such an instrument is not provided for in the text of the Minsk agreements, but it does not contradict the spirit of the document in any way. Having assisted the parties to the conflict in the implementation of the first three clauses of the agreements, the peacekeeping mission could move on to deal with the other clauses, including the distribution of humanitarian assistance, the disarmament of illegal groups, the enforcement of law and order, etc. The timeline of the Minsk agreements would certainly need to be revised accordingly to reflect the progress of the peacekeeping mission.
Keeping the pan-European perspective in mind. There is undoubtedly a bilateral causal link between the current crisis involving Ukraine and the more general problems related to European (or Euro–Atlantic) security. For as long as the Ukrainian crisis remains unresolved, the European security system cannot become indivisible; nor will it be possible to overcome the new east division of the continent. At the same time, the Ukrainian crisis cannot be resolved completely all efforts are focused on it alone, outside the context of solving broader European problems. Restoring peace in Donbass, normalizing Russia–Ukraine relations and finding new approaches to European security in general need to be viewed as parallel objectives, not consecutive ones. It will take many years, if not decades, to solve these problems. However, the launch of a UN peacekeeping operation in Donbass could become a pivotal event in European politics, one that would result in a negative trend being replaced by a positive one. We are left to hope that this shift will take place in 2018. The longer the current crisis lasts, the harder it will be to emerge from it.
First published in our partner RIAC
[i] “First, I believe the presence of UN peacekeepers or, should I say, of those people who would ensure the security of the OSCE mission, to be fairly appropriate. I see nothing wrong in this; on the contrary, I believe this would help resolve the situation in the southeast of Ukraine. Of course, we are talking exclusively about ensuring the security of the OSCE officers. Second, these forces need to be stationed exclusively along the demarcation line and nowhere else. Third, the decision is to be made only after the sides have disengaged and withdrawn heavy equipment. No decision can be made without direct contact with the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.” (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/55535).
[ii] Ukraine’s first official detailed response to Putin was Petro Poroshenko’s address to the UN Security Council on September 20, 2017, which proposed a comprehensive UN peacekeeping operation across the entire territory of the DPR/LPR, including the stretch of the Ukraine–Russia border that is currently not controlled by Kiev (https://www.unian.net/politics/2145861-poroshenko-obratilsya-k-sovbezu-oon-o-razvertyivanii-mirotvortsev-na-donbasse-video.html).
[iii] We can cite, for instance, the following statement by Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Pavlo Klimkin: “We have absolutely no use of a frozen conflict here, simply because this is something that Russia needs by definition. The entire logic of Russia’s actions boils down to attempting to influence us and destabilize use via the occupied Donbass, via this Russian colony in Donbass. This is why even this schizophrenic Russian proposal to protect the OSCE by means of peacekeepers (read: protect from Russia itself, because nobody else can influence them there) also contributes to nothing more than the freezing of the conflict. The same can be said of placing peacekeepers exclusively along the contact line, which is nothing more than the creation of a new frontier.” (https://www.ukrinform.ru/rubric-polytics/2312434-klimkin-nazvav-rosijsku-rezoluciu-po-mirotvorcam-sizofrenicnou.html).
[iv] Following his meeting with U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker in Belgrade on November 13, 2017, Russian Presidential Aide Vladislav Surkov stated that, out of the 29 proposals made by the United States, Russia had only been able to concede to three, those which generally reiterated the inviolability of the Minsk agreements (https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2017/11/14_a_10985108.shtml).
[v] As Putin told the Valdai Club conference in October, “Closing the border between Russia and the unrecognized republics would result in a situation akin to Srebrenica. A massacre will follow there. We cannot, and never will, allow that.” (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/55882).
[vi] There are grounds for such concerns. Consider, for example, the recent statement made by the Minister of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov (https://rian.com.ua/politics/20171128/1029853624.html).
[vii] Moscow refers in particular to the events that took place in Kiev on February 21, 2014, when a number of European officials facilitated an agreement between President Viktor Yanukovych and the Ukrainian political opposition on a transition period that was subsequently breached by the opposition at the West’s “connivance” (http://www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/55882).[viii] When Jon Huntsman Jr., the new Ambassador of the United States to Russia, conditioned the lifting of the U.S. sanctions on progress in Donbass (https://topspb.tv/programs/stories/466132/), the general reaction from Russian politicians and experts was extremely sceptical. The overwhelming majority of commentators believed that the sanctions were there to stay and that, no matter what Moscow did, the decision of the United State Congress was irreversible, regardless of the Trump administration’s desires.