A UN peacekeeping mission, connected with an International Provisional Administration in the Donbas region, is currently regarded as a popular solution to the Ukraine conflict by many people in Ukraine and abroad. UN peacekeepers would go into the occupied territories, make sure that Russian soldiers and mercenaries leave the country and establish a temporal administration that will peacefully reintegrate Donbas and its people into the Ukrainian state. Ukraine, alongside with the international community, then seems to be the winner of this conflict, Russia the loser. Many in Ukrainian politics consider this scenario to be the only possible solution to the conflict. Looking at the conditions, however, under which a powerful peacekeeping mission can be deployed, a UN mission cannot be part of the solution to the Donbass conflict, but rather a result of its solution.
In 2015 Ukraine already proposed the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission to solve the conflict in its eastern territories. In September 2017 Russia showed first signs of agreeing to such a mission. Since the UN Security Council decides about and deploys peacekeeping missions, as a permanent member, Russia has to agree on the mission’s mandate. Without Russia’s consent, a UN mission is not going to come into existence. Therefore, Russia’s informal agreeing to send peacekeepers in 2017 looked like a big step in the right direction.
The problem is, mandates proposed by Russia and Ukraine couldn’t be more different. While Russia is ready to agree on sending peacekeepers into the area along the line of contact to protect the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, Ukraine wants blue helmet soldiers to control the entire territory of the non-occupied regions all the way to the Ukrainian-Russian border. In addition, the UN mission should guard the process of establishing an International Provisional Administration. Furthermore, both sides also have different opinions about the armament and the competences of a possible peacekeeping operation.
The second conflict of interests between Russia and Ukraine is, who should take part in the mission. According to UN treaties a country that is actively involved in the conflict cannot be part of a peacekeeping operation. While having strong objections against NATO members taking part in a peacekeeping mission, Russia still denies to actively take part in combat in Donbas and therefore does not see any reason why it should not deploy peacekeeping soldiers to Ukraine. Russian army members officially operating in Ukraine, however, is strictly rejected by Ukrainian politicians. One option could be trying to agree on a neutral mission. Deploy soldiers from Austria, Sweden or Pakistan. Every state must decide for themselves, though, if they are willing to send soldiers. So even if Russia, Ukraine and the international community agreed on a mandate, they would still need to find a country, willing to send its soldiers into one of the most dangerous regions worldwide.
A third important issue is the question who must agree on foreign soldiers being sent to their country. UN legislation states that the government of the country where a peacekeeping mission is deployed to has to formally agree. For the international community that would be the government of Ukraine. But it is hard to say, who it will be for Russia. The Russian Federation is the only country that is currently accepting passports of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as official legal documents. The Russian railway and some Russian airlines allow passengers to travel with passports given out by the separatists. So even if Russia and Ukraine agreed on a mandate representing Ukraine’s interests, there is still a possibility that Russia will demand Ukraine to ask for the separatist’s permission to send peacekeepers, a term that the current Ukrainian government would not accept as it does not consider the separatists as a negotiation party.
Russia is currently actively destabilising Ukraine to pursue its own geopolitical interests. Many observers see Russia using the Donbass conflict to prevent a further eastern expansion of NATO and to gain leverage over Ukraine to accept the current status quo in 2014 annexed Crimea. In addition, Russia uses the conflict with the West and the hybrid war in Ukraine to form a new Russian identity based on protecting the Russian speaking population in eastern Ukraine from so-called Ukrainian “fascists” and “Banderovtsi”. This implementation of an idea of the Russian people having to stand together against fascism and a degenerated western world is consolidating the rule of Putin’s regime. To impose a successful UN mission that can bring back the occupied territories under Ukrainian state control, Russia must first let go of its interests in destabilising the Donbass region. This can only be achieved through a combination of sanctions and negotiations with Russia about the objects of Russian interest.
To answer the question, if it is possible to deploy a UN mission with a powerful mandate to reintegrate Donbass regardless what Russia’s interests might be, it is worth looking at some other territorial conflicts in which Russia is directly or indirectly involved. A very clear example are the territories South-Ossetia, Transnistria and Abkhazia, all members of the Commonwealth of Unrecognized States. In all three conflicts separatist movements were supported by the Russian army, in the cases of Abkhazia and South-Ossetia, Russia as one of only a few UN members is recognizing them as independent states. Especially in these two Georgian regions Russian interests of preventing the EU and NATO integration of a former soviet republic, such as gaining military control over the Black Sea, are very similar to what Russia is currently pursuing in Donbass. The only UN peacekeeping mission that was ever deployed to one of the unrecognized states was the UNOMIG mission from 1993 to 2009 in Abkhazia. Despite the long time that UNOMIG was operating, Abkhazia didn’t return under Georgian control ever since. The mission was ended by Russia vetoing in the Security Council against a renewal of the mandate, when on the background of the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, a UN mission in Georgia was not in Russia’s interests anymore.
For Ukraine it means that a UN peacekeeping mission, which could be able to end the war and return Donbass on the background of the current status quo is highly unlikely. As history shows, there is no example of Russia agreeing on a peacekeeping mission that was able to solve a conflict, in which Russia is directly involved. It is not very probable that the conflict in Ukraine is going to become the exception to this rule. A UN mission only has a chance operating freely in Ukraine, if the conflict of interests with Russia has already been solved. The UN peacekeeping mission to Ukraine should therefore not be romanticized as a quick solution to the Donbass conflict, but should be regarded as a measure of rebuilding the region, after the war is over. It is a possible result of a solution to the conflict, not a solution to the conflict itself.
Felix Döhla, intern-volunteer for CAY East