What’s peace in the Donbas worth to us?

My article on this topic, which I first tweeted about on 27 August 2014, was first published in November 2014 when the topic of a peacekeeping force in the Donbas had not yet been widely discussed. Since at the time of the Munich Security Conference 2018 the introduction of a peacekeeping mission into the occupied parts of the Donbas is being considered in earnest, the reintroduction of my original 2014 article as „Munich Security Conference 2018 Edition“ hopefully can add valuable aspects and insights to the debate. – Andrej Ferdinand Novak, February 2018

What’s peace in the Donbas worth to us?

by Andrej Novak, European Cosmopolitan Consulting

Why the international community should propose a UN protectorate

When listening to journalists, analysts and politicians alike, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that the pro-Russian separatist-controlled areas in the Donbas region of Ukraine will remain a “frozen conflict” similar to Transnistria (in Moldova) for the foreseeable future. The international community appears complacent and passive regarding the violent conflict going on in the area and the humanitarian catastrophe there that is about to be exacerbated by winter very soon.

Precious months have already been wasted without any serious multinational initiative for a solution being proposed by world leaders. This passivity exposes the uninspired, lackluster and short-term-oriented attitude of muddling through of Western leaders that often means that that the international community is being outmaneuvered by the Kremlin’s brinkmanship and (more or less) surprise moves. By now it should have become obvious that a more ambitious, innovative and strategic approach is needed to overcome the challenge to peace, security and European values that the Russian government’s aggression in Ukraine constitutes.

After several months of war, the population of the war-torn Donbas region by now has for the most part lost faith in both the pro-Russian forces and the Ukrainian government. What the population in the area under separatist control demands is first and foremost peace, security and the ecomomic means to survive and begin the task of rebuilding. With distrust to both sides of the conflict very high, there is an obvious opportunity for the international community to come in and fill the void with a United Nations protectorate similar to what was practiced in the 1990s and 2000s in the former Yugoslavia.

Of course a UN protectorate in the Donbas would be costly and require a multinational force of UN blue helmets with a robust mandate. It would of course require Russian support in the UN Security Council, which many observers would consider unlikely to be forthcoming. Yet, the Kremlin might just decide that a UN protectorate bankrolled for the most part by Western countries would solve a number of primarily financial, but also political and military problems and serve as the elusive off-ramp allowing a somewhat face-saving way of getting out of the costly mess in Ukraine. But as I will argue later on, even a Russian veto in the UN Security Council would not be a reason for Western leaders not to work actively towards making the Donbas UN protectorate a reality.

While hardly anyone speaks of the possibility of a UN protectorate in the Donbas today, there were a number of them in the Balkans in the 1990s and 2000s. What lessons and options for the Russo-Ukrainian conflict these offer is worth taking a look at:

Brief overview of UN missions in the Balkans in the 90s and 2000s

UNPROFOR (Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, 1992-1995)

The United Nations Protection Force’s main tasks were monitoring and maintaining a buffer zone between the conflict parties along negotiated lines of separation as well as the protection of humanitarian convoys and delivery infrastructure, the protection of the civilian population, particularly in so-called UN safe areas and protecting its own personnel.

While helping to transform the conflict from a “hot” phase to a “cold” phase along lines of separation and thus temporarily preventing more casualties, UNPROFOR did not lead to a negotiated settlement of the conflicts but rather in the case of Croatia helped freeze the conflict for a while and in the case of Bosnia to alleviate the humanitarian situation. However, the mission failed miserably at providing security to the “safe areas” as genocide in Srebrenica and elsewhere and widespread sniper fire in civilian areas as well as cat-and-mouse games and hostage takings of UN blue helmets mostly from the Serb side demonstrated. And the “cold” conflicts turned “hot” again in Operation Storm and Operation Sana in 1995 and led to the basis for the end of the conflict being laid primarily on the battlefield by changing the balance of power in the conflict rather than at the negotiating table.

A weak mandate combined with indecision and conflicting objectives of UNPROFOR contributed to its failures. The blue helmets of UNPROFOR often were only allowed to protect themselves but not the civilian population, e.g. in Sarajevo, where they were not allowed to open fire on snipers shooting civilians as long as they did not shoot at UN personnel. They were also too lightly armed to put up real resistance when threatened themselves and therefore often surrendered (leading to frequent hostage-takings and theft of weaponry) or withdrew (cp. DUTCHBAT in Srebrenica) when threatened.

Among the lessons to be learned from UNPROFOR is that peacekeeping operations need to be supplied with a robust mandate for the protection of civilians and their own personnel and have the equipment and superior backup resources to respond to any challenges to security in their territory. When situations arise where the objective of neutrality in the conflict collides with providing protection to civilians, the latter needs to be the priority. All conflict parties should understand that it is a bad idea to provoke or mess with UN blue helmets, because they have the credible force of the international community behind them.

 UNTAES (Eastern Slavonia, Croatia 1996-1998)

The United Nations Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium was set up after the parties in the conflict reached the negotiated Erdut Agreement on the peaceful reintegration of the mission area in to the Republic of Croatia. It was the task of UNTAES to oversee, guard and monitor the process of the handover of the authority from Serb to Croatian control, ensuring that the process would be gradual for the civilian population and that Croatia would guarantee not only the civil rights of the Serb population, but also provide it with additional minority rights.

This mission began after the hot phase of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia had ended and was a key element in preventing a Croatian offensive in the area to reintegrate the area by force. Although the process required the readiness to compromise from both sides and thus led to a number of issues and plenty of criticism, the mission was overall successful. The area has been under full control and administration by Croatia since 1998 and no armed conflict has since reemerged, although ethnic tensions and post-war issues will require attention, judicial review and reconciliation efforts for years to come.

UNMIK (Kosovo 1999-2008/ongoing with reduced scope)

The United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo was the most wide-ranging UN mission in the Balkans and established a de-facto UN protectorate in Kosovo, while the region legally remained part of Serbia (at least until Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 that is still the subject of dispute internationally).

As Serb institutions were unacceptable to the vast majority of Kosovo Albanians after the conflict and the Kosovo had no functioning alternative that would be able to organize the state functions and guarantee access to the entire population including Kosovo Serbs and other non-Albanian minorities, the international community followed up on the humanitarian intervention by setting up a quasi government with broad funtions.

Its tasks were divided into 4 pillars:

  • Police and justice
  • Civil Administration
  • Democratization and institution building
  • Reconstruction and development

In these pillars, other international entities and organisations such as the OSCE, the EU and the NATO-led KFOR international military presence were involved by providing support directly or indirectly or by running some of the programmes. The pillar on police and justice was later for the most part transferred to the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX). After the Kosovo declaration of independence, UNMIK tasks gradually were taken over by the government of Kosovo. However, due to the disputed nature of Kosovo’s independence, UNMIK continues to function under the UN Security Council Resolution 1244, although mainly observing the areas it was originally tasked with.

While UNMIK in combination with the other supporting entities managed to prevent major violence or a continuation of the war, it left much to be desired and has many critics in the region including Serbs, Albanians and Roma to name just a few. In the end, the international presence in Kosovo amounted to a large investment in the future of a volatile region with a predominantly Muslim population of less than 2 million in Europe’s backyard. This presence was and continues to be one of main reasons why the period since 1999 and in particular the secession of Kosovo from Serbia in 2008 passed without major bloodshed.

Conceptual considerations of a UN protectorate in the Donbas region (“UNIAD”)

Drawing on the experience of the UN missions in the Balkans, my proposal for a UN protectorate in the Donbas looks as follows:

  1. A stable cease-fire is established between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces and the UN Security Council passes a resolution on the establishment of the UN interim administration in the disputed areas of the Donbas (“UNIAD”). The mission covered by UNIAD could be the separatist-controlled areas plus the 15-20 km buffer zone that is part of the Minsk Agreement. Both requires Russian support or at least acquiescence.
  2. A well-equipped force of at least 50,000 UN blue helmets with a robust mandate is deployed to the area to oversee its demilitarization and to prevent further violence and human rights abuses. The mission would not include Russian and Ukrainian military and should otherwise be diverse. Whether it makes sense to have US troops in the mission would be controversial, so if they were to be included they should be small in number. Because this is a question of European security, there should however be a large share of troops from Europe (EU and non-EU). If possible, no single country should contribute more than 5% of the total number of UN blue helmets.
  3. A civilian UN administration takes over all necessary government functions, ideally also supported by the OSCE, CoE, etc.
  4. The World Bank, the EBRD and donor countries commit to rebuilding the Donbas’ infrastructure and economy for the entire period of the transitional administration.
  5. The time frame for the transitional administration would be 5-10 years until a vote on the future status and another 5 years for the transition to that status, so the whole issue should be resolved by 2025 or 2030 at the latest, thus removing the Donbas frozen conflict issue from hampering Ukraine’s potential future EU accession.
  6. In 5-10 years time, a vote would be held in the Donbas on its future status as part of Ukraine (cp. UNTAES) or independent country/entity. Depending on whether the future Russian administration offers it, a third option of joining Russia could also be included. The voting would have to meet all internationally recognized standards for elections, including free long-term media access for all campaigns over the course of many months, absence of threats and safe environment for voting.
  7. After the vote, the mission of the UN administration would change to facilitation of the handover of the administration and authority, which should be complete after a period of 5 years.
  8. The UN interim administration would issue travel documents for those citizens in the area that have no access to or do not want to use a Ukrainian or Russian passport (as was done by UNMIK in Kosovo). These travel documents should enable citizens of the area to travel  to Ukraine and to Russia as well as overseas. The EU should open a diplomatic mission in Donetsk where Schengen and other EU visas would be issued if required.

The UNIAD constitutes a viable alternative to the “frozen conflict” many international observers of the situation seem to expect in the Donbas in the years to come. Of course, this proposal could be made obsolete by developments on the ground, but in the current situation, it is one of the best options for the Donbas and its people. Both Ukraine and Russia could benefit immensely from UNIAD, regardless of the result of the voting in the UN Security Council.

The Russian veto or is it worth trying?

While having a viable plan to end the war and regulate the conflict within the next 10-15 years in itself would a great asset to Western policymaking, it could easily be blocked by Russia in the UN Security Council. However, that should not be a reason not to seriously prepare, communicate and put forward such a proposal.

For one, if the resolution were stopped solely by a Russian veto in the UN Security Council, this might be taken as an occasion to declare the UN Security Council blocked and let the UN General Assembly make the decision (as in the “Uniting for Peace” resolution of 1950). Such a move would usher in a new era in international relations and potentially render the UN much more relevant than it is today.

Even if the entire initiative is stopped at the level of the UN Security Council, the major benefits for Europe and other proponents of such as plan would be the following:

  • The initiative would be in the focus of the media for months. It would mean that Europe can take the initiative as opposed to reacting to moves from Moscow. Moscow would have to react to an unexpected move.
  • It would show people in the Donbas and in Ukraine that Europe and the international community have empathy for them and are willing to dedicate serious resources over a long-term period to bring peace and stability back to the region.
  • Russia has been arguing that the Russian-speaking people in the area need to be protected from the Ukrainian government, which supposedly plans a genocide or mass killings of Russian-speakers. While there is no evidence to support such claims, the idea has nevertheless made it into the minds of millions of people worldwide. UNIAD would offer protection of the Donbas population without the need for further bloodshed and within the framework of international legal norms at zero cost to Russia. If Russia were to refuse such an offer, it would become quite clear to everybody in doubt that Russia’s aggressive meddling in Ukraine is not about protecting the Donbas population.
  • The price tag for the implementation of the proposal would drop from at least a double-digit figure of billions of Euros for UNIAD to zero.

Of course, a simpler and cheaper solution to the war in the Donbas would be if Russia were to simply stop its military aggression and destabilisation efforts towards Ukraine, in which case the violent rebellion against the government in Kyiv would dissipate quickly. However, this would lead to a major loss of face for the Kremlin and expose a lot of the Russian propaganda as groundless to the population of both Russia and the Donbas. This, in turn, would endanger the grip on power of the Russian kleptocratorship itself and is therefore unlikely unless the international community succeeds in further driving up the cost of destabilisation in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and elsewhere in Europe for the Kremlin.