Peacekeepers in the Donbas: Pro et Contra

by Daria Platonova

31 May 2019

UN Peacekeeping in Donbas? (European Council on Foreign Relations)

The conflict between the Ukrainian government and Russia-backed separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk[1] in the east of Ukraine (known as “the Donbas” or “Donbass” in Russian) has been raging since 2014. It started locally, when numerous anti-government protests in the Donbas were sparked by the radical changes of government in Kyiv in February 2014. In April 2014, the protests morphed into an insurgency, with the help of Russian military reserve officers, military intelligence operatives, and various non-state actors. In response, the Ukrainian government launched several offensives, some of which were successful, but, later, it was repeatedly repulsed by the separatist and Russian state forces. Since 2015, the “contact line,” that is the border between the government-controlled and separatist-controlled territories has calcified, in that no side has been making any significant territorial gains. The Ukrainian and separatist forces continue attacking each other’s positions; each side reports failed ceasefires almost every day. The conflict has claimed over 10,000 lives, and currently, there is no conflict resolution plan on which all parties would agree.

This article aims to discuss the proposals for the peacekeeping mission in the Donbas and the views of the separatist leaders and the people living in the republics on this mission. The main points of contention between the different sides making the proposals – Russia, Ukraine, the U.S. and EU – seem simple: firstly, the sides have conflicting views on where the peacekeepers should be deployed and, secondly, whether they should facilitate ceasefire or be deployed after an effective and long-lasting ceasefire has been established. The local people and former and current separatist leaders describe Russian and Ukrainian proposals as the “Serbian Krajina” scenario.

According to the (now former) Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s proposal first voiced in 2015, the peacekeepers’ mandate should be broad and cover the entire territory of the Donbas. Poroshenko hoped that the peacekeepers would force Russia to remove its troops from the Donbas, disarm the republics’ forces, and allow Ukraine to restore control over its border with Russia. Russian personnel must not be part of the mission. Overall, Poroshenko pinned many hopes on the peacekeepers, because currently a complete disarmament desired by Ukraine is almost impossible. Both Ukrainian and Russia-backed forces continue blaming each other for violating the ceasefires.

In September 2017, the Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed his own idea for the peacekeeping mission. According to him, peacekeepers should be deployed to monitor only the contact line between the government-controlled and separatist-controlled territories, to ensure the safety of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) conflict monitoring mission. The peacekeeping mission must be deployed after the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the contact line and the disengagement of the opposing forces, and the republics’ leaders must participate actively in the establishment of the mission. Further, according to Putin’s proposal, the peacekeepers must not come from countries hostile to Russia. The Ukrainian government interprets the Russian proposals as an attempt to “freeze” the conflict in that they seek to prevent Ukraine from gaining complete control over the territory to assert its sovereignty.

One rendering of the military situation in eastern Ukraine as of 2016 – 2017, showing Russia-induced violations of ceasefire (Lugansk News Today)

To many (such as the U.S. Special Representative in Ukraine Kurt Volker), a peacekeeping mission is the surest way forward in resolving the conflict, because, in theory, it allows to enforce a lasting ceasefire and follow it through with the implementation of the political premise of the Minsk Agreements. However, this is complicated by the potential “veto playing” role of the separatist leaders, the local people in the Donbas, and some Russians who are still influential among the people in the Donbas. Rather than accepting everything Russia is saying, as one might expect, these current and former parties to the conflict are very sceptical about both Poroshenko’s and Putin’s proposals.

To gauge separatists’ opinions on the peacekeeping mission, I selected two major separatist news and opinion outlets, Rusvesna and Newsfront, and surveyed several articles under the tag “Peacekeepers in The Donbas” (Миротворцы на Донбассе).  I also surveyed the opinions of a group of local people from Donetsk via the Russian-language social media platform Vkontakte. Finally, I consulted Vkontakte online archive. Please note most weblinks have since been taken offline.

The leaders of Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR or DNR), such as Denis Pushilin, argue that Poroshenko wants to “conquer and subdue” the Donbas using the peacekeeping mission. He also says that he would not allow any peacekeeping mission on the Donbas unless agreed with the local people. This is consistent with how former leaders of the separatist forces have described the peacekeeping plans proposed by Putin and Poroshenko. They argue that both presidents follow the “Serbian Krajina” scenario to salvage their “failing” regimes. The commander of Vostok, one of the biggest and most famous battalions, Aleksandr Khodakovsky (now in Russia) believes that Putin is proposing such a scenario, and that everyone in the Donbas should mobilise to protect themselves. The former Donetsk People’s Republic Defence Minister Igor Strelkov (Russian citizen), who arrived in Sloviansk in April 2014 to lead the insurgent forces and currently lives in Russia, has a similar view. He labelled Putin “Slobodan Vladimirovich Yanukovich” (in reference to Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Viktor Yanukovych, the fugitive ex-president of Ukraine), arguing that Putin seeks to disengage from the Donbas as Milosevic did from the Krajina Serbs during the Croatian war of independence (1991 – 1995), while Poroshenko seeks to use the mission to prepare a military onslaught on the Donbas.

Ordinary people from Donetsk and surrounding towns, such as Makeevka and Gorlovka, expressed a variety of views. Some concurred with Pushilin and former separatist leaders that Putin and Poroshenko follow the “Serbian Krajina” scenario. They cited the example of the Operacija Oluja (Operation Storm), which led to the resounding victory of the Croatian army over Serbian Krajina, after the largely unsuccessful UN peacekeeping mission in Croatia. Some were sceptical about the idea, saying that the parties to the conflict would never agree with each other on a viable proposal, and the peacekeeping initiative would therefore be stillborn. Others supported the idea only if it led to the cessation of hostilities and the final peaceful settlement. To achieve this, they said, Russians have to be included in the peacekeeping mission. More importantly, the mission would have to be placed along the contact line separating the Ukrainian army and the republics.

When the separatist leaders and local people refer to the “Serbian Krajina” scenario,[2] what do they mean? To a certain extent, they are raising an important point. Following the outbreak of a civil conflict between the Croatian government and independence-seeking Serbian communities (Krajina including) in 1991, the UN mission in Croatia was first deployed the following year. Its purpose was to “contain violence, reduce civilian hardships, and open up space for a negotiated settlement.”[3] Hence, according to the so-called Vance Plan, the several-thousand strong UN peacekeeping mission, complete with assigned infantry battalions, was to supervise the demilitarisation of irregular units in the specially created UN Protected Areas with large minority populations. In particular, the UN Protection Force in Croatia supervised the disarmament and complete withdrawal of the Yugoslav National Army that protected the Serbs and sought to carve out large areas of Croatia for Serbian independence. According to Durch and Schear, Belgrade – and Milosevic – agreed to the mission in order to disengage from the Serbian Krajina. In fact, Belgrade maintained a relatively low-profile during the mission. Despite some success in preventing loss of life, the UN peacekeeping force could not contain sporadic hostilities between the Croatian army and Serbian local militia. In the end, the withdrawal of the Yugoslav National Army and the partial disarmament of the Serbs as well as mounting economic problems facing Serbian Krajina left the Serbs helpless in the face of a potential Croatian onslaught. The Croatian government in the meantime launched a military operation against the Serbs in 1993, which led to almost complete nullification of everything achieved by the UN. In August 1995, after an intense artillery bombardment of Knin (capital of Krajina) by Croatia in the operation known as Operation Storm, Krajina was occupied by Croatia causing a massive exodus of civilians. As Lise Howard concludes, “[The UN’s] presence in effect isolated the Croatian Serbs while enabling the Croatian government to build and train its army in preparation to retake the occupied territory…”[4]

Therefore, the people of the Donbas interpret the peacekeeping mission proposed by both Putin and Poroshenko as an attempt to completely disarm the separatist forces and then “force” the Donbas into Ukraine militarily, while giving Ukraine enough time to grow its military might. They lament Russia’s unwillingness to recognise the Donbas as an entity independent from Ukraine and provide complete protection from the Ukrainian army.

To conclude, the idea of a peacekeeping mission has been voiced in various circles. The Ukrainian government’s proposal is to establish control on the entire territory of the Donbas and not let Russia participate in the mission. By contrast, Putin’s proposals include vesting the mission with the responsibility for the safety of the OSCE and monitoring of the contact line between the government-controlled territory and the republics. The separatists themselves and ordinary people in the Donetsk People’s Republic, instead of endorsing everything Russia says, are extremely sceptical about Putin’s proposals. They argue that Putin is bent on “handing the Donbas over” to Ukraine to salvage his “failing” regime.

Daria is a PhD student at King’s College London. Her research focuses on the political protests and conflict in eastern Ukraine, 2013 – 2014. She led one of the Causes of War seminars in the War Studies Department in 2017. Prior to joining King’s, she worked as a teacher. She graduated with a degree in History from the University of Cambridge in 2011. Her broader interests include European history, war studies, and interdisciplinary methods.

[1] Ukrainian spelling is used in line with the established academic practice.

[2] This section is based on W.J.Durch and J.A.Schear, ‘Faultlines: UN Operations in the Former Yugoslavia’, in W.J.Durch, UN Peacekeeping, American Politics, and the Uncivil Wars of the 1990s (New York: St. Martin’s Press), pp. 193 – 275.

[3] Ibid., p. 193.

[4] L. Howard, UN Peacekeeping in Civil Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 228.

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