Keeping an International Eye on Ukraine

Keeping an International Eye on Ukraine

Leaders should insist that Russian separatists in the east not obstruct cease-fire monitoring missions.

Wall Street Journal
August 16, 2016
Op-ed by Ambassador Daniel Baer

For the third year in a row, August is proving a particularly deadly month in eastern Ukraine. Russian fighters, funds, weapons and equipment have kept the conflict burning—a conflict that has devastated buildings, roads and public works, led to massive population displacement and widespread human-rights abuses, and claimed the lives of nearly 10,000 people, with tens of thousands more injured.

New Russian military equipment has been spotted in recent weeks, and Ukrainian soldiers have now become accustomed to being on the receiving end of coordinated Russian and separatist artillery strikes, often fired from residential areas, with the targeting assistance of Russian unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. International observers confirm that the majority of the fighting in eastern Ukraine is being initiated by the Russian-separatist side.

Washington has not and will not abandon diplomatic efforts to jump-start a cease-fire and the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements—several agreements Russia and Ukraine signed, with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as witness, in 2014 and 2015. Unfortunately, these efforts have so far not borne fruit.

The latest effort is to secure disengagement—essentially a pullback of soldiers and weapons—in several hot spots along the line of contact. The hope is that once these hot spots are calmed, a cease-fire and weapons pullback along the entire line of contact will follow, and the additional steps—such as free and fair local elections, as well as the return of the international border to Ukrainian control—could take place.

But cease-fire and weapons pullbacks need verification to build confidence. If they are to stick and be sustainable, actors on the ground need to know they are working.

Which is why it’s especially worrying that the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine is being blocked, threatened, shot at and harassed by Russian-separatist forces. The OSCE mission has nearly 700 civilian monitors from more than 40 countries, most of whom are deployed in and around the conflict zone.

Combined Russian-separatist forces have consistently used obstruction, threats and violence to stop the OSCE monitors from seeing what they don’t want them to see. Between April and July, OSCE patrols were blocked more than 120 times, overwhelmingly by combined Russian-separatist forces. The separatists have also held monitors at gunpoint, and have shot at patrols and organized mobs to burn their vehicles. The OSCE mission is routinely denied access to border areas outside of government control. These are the actions of someone with something to hide.

Given that cease-fire violations often provoke a defensive response, it’s important to try to document who shot first so that accountability for violations can be assigned. To this end, the OSCE mission set up 24-hour monitoring cameras at two important hot spots two months ago. Shortly after they became operational, Russian separatists cut their power—in an apparent effort to stop the cameras from documenting their attacks. It took weeks to bring them back online.

The OSCE Mission uses unmanned aerial vehicles to complement the work of monitors on the ground. The UAVs have played a crucial role in supporting patrol planning and in identifying prohibited weapons on the battlefield. Again, combined Russian-separatist forces have mounted an apparently systematic effort to bring them down—OSCE UAVs have spotted sophisticated Russian military zhytel jammers; later UAVs have crashed after being jammed by Russian or pro-Russian forces.

The last image one UAV sent before it was apparently shot out of the sky was of a Russian Strela-10 antiaircraft system—with its barrel aimed at the UAV. After three crashes or shootdowns in less than three months, the OSCE has no long-range UAVs left. As the secretary-general of the OSCE said recently to assembled ambassadors in Vienna, “This appears to be an effort to blind us completely.”

Moscow’s failure to support unfettered and safe access for the OSCE while pouring sophisticated weapons and ammunition and other supplies into eastern Ukraine calls into question the sincerity of Moscow’s claims to support a cease-fire.

There have been occasional incidents involving Ukrainian military forces. Though much less frequent than in Russian-separatist controlled areas, these moves are unacceptable. And Kiev’s political and military leaders have made that clear themselves. Unlike the other side, Ukraine has taken such incidents seriously, reiterating instructions to troops to allow the OSCE safe and free access, and following up to identify and discipline those responsible for incidents when they happen.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine remains a chosen tragedy: an unnecessary war with horrific human costs inflicted by Russian intervention. The road map to end this tragedy—the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements—starts with a complete, sustainable cease-fire, followed by additional security and political steps. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission can do its job only if it has safe, unfettered access on the ground.

Mr. Baer is the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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