Russian President Vladimir Putin caught the international community by surprise by proposing a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Ukraine’s conflict-ridden Donbas region to protect the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors. It was surprising because Russia had repeatedly threatened to veto Ukraine’s own proposal for peacekeepers, first made in 2015. But the gambit may have opened a diplomatic window of opportunity that we should explore.
Closer inspection of the Russian proposal has rightly led the western world to believe that, as written, it is a trap, at best intended as a cynical PR move by Putin to give the appearance of seeking a peaceful solution to a conflict he began and sustains, and at worst a means of legitimizing his seizure of Ukrainian territory and “freezing” the conflict.
Putin acknowledges the need for U.N. peacekeeping troops, but only for the limited period of six months. Their only objective would be the security of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM), along the Line of Contact between the Ukrainian military and Russian-led separatist forces. In effect, this would move the international border into Ukrainian territory.
However, I have just returned from a visit to the Line of Contact. The situation there is precarious at best, with daily breaches of the ceasefire; towns are divided between free Ukraine and the occupied area, with water supplies in some cases coming from the opposite side of the line. The potential for environmental catastrophe is real; for example, in the combat area is a settling tank with poisonous waste that – if it breaches – will poison 80 percent of the drinking water in the Siversky Donets river basin on both sides of the Line of Contact. Repairs cannot be made because the Russian side will give no guarantees of the workers’ security.
Against this backdrop, the U.N. Security Council should not dismiss Russia’s proposal out of hand. Instead, Council members should call Putin’s bluff and work to draft a resolution with a mandate for a UN peacekeeping mission with the task of protecting people and infrastructure across the entirety of the occupied territory. The goal of the force would be to create the conditions for implementing a political solution to the conflict that restores Ukrainian sovereignty in accordance with the three-year-old Minsk agreements.
We could start by reading the UN peacekeeping proposal put forth by President Petro Poroshenko over two years ago. Poroshenko called for UN assistance overseeing pullout of all heavy weapons in the Donbas, supporting withdrawal of all foreign armed formations, and military equipment, as well as mercenaries, from the occupied areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, disarming all illegal groups, helping Ukraine reinstate full control of its border, ensuring the release and exchange of all hostages and unlawfully detained persons, supporting the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission, and overseeing free and fair elections in the Donbas. Each of these steps was accepted by all parties in the Minsk agreements.
From discussions with European diplomats, they are adopting a wait-and-see approach to developments at the U.N. That is why American leadership is needed to encourage agreement on a suitable mandate in the Security Council over the coming weeks. I believe that, in order to be more acceptable to both sides, deployment of peacekeepers could occur in three stages. In the first month, access would be provided within at least a five kilometer range of the Line of Contact, on both sides of the line (to ensure an end to the daily shelling and artillery attacks). After 30 days, access into territories not controlled by Kyiv (e.g., 35 kilometers) would be deepened and include Donetsk and Luhansk cities and other hotspots.This would curb longer-range artillery and rocket attacks and facilitate the withdrawal of Russian and proxy troops and equipment. After 60 days, full access to the entirety of the occupied territories would be established, including presence along the international border in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and control over all crossing points (including inspections of cross-border traffic), thereby ensuring an end to further rearmament of the illegal Russian-led militias. All three stages would need to be agreed up front as a package.
In order to work, the force would need to be significant – up to 20,000 troops. These troops could not be Russian, Ukrainian or Belarusian, but a compromise could be found with non-NATO nations such as Sweden and Kazakhstan.
While the U.N. Security Council considers how to move forward with such a mission, the US and Europe must continue to raise the costs to Russia for its aggression, maintaining sanctions and considering the supply of additional defensive equipment to Ukrainian forces. European nations would be making a dangerous miscalculation if they sought to ease sanctions before Ukraine restores control of her eastern border.
However, until Russia implements its commitments under the Minsk agreements, this conflict will continue with increasingly devastating effects for the population on both sides of the line. We need a peacekeeping force with a robust mandate that can implement Minsk, and the US needs to be leading efforts to deliver it sooner rather than later.
Alexander Vershbow, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, is a former deputy secretary general of NATO, assistant secretary of defense, and U.S. ambassador to NATO and Russia.