Author: Richard Gowan
The recent flare-up of tension in the Sea of Azov between Ukraine and Russia has briefly refocused international attention on the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. It was also a stark reminder that the simmering four-year conflict in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives, is still unresolved.
Can Germany use its upcoming term on the Security Council to change this, as Berlin has already played a pivotal role in managing the crisis? So far, the United Nations has only had a marginal role in the conflict. Russia can use its veto in the Security Council to block any proposals concerning Ukraine that it dislikes. The United States and European governments have tried to mediate the conflict through frameworks such as the Normandy Group (comprising Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and France) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) rather than the UN.
Nonetheless, there is recurrent talk of a larger UN role in Donbas (Crimea is off the table). The Ukrainian government called for a peacekeeping mission in the region in 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled an interest in the idea in September 2017. Berlin warmly supported this idea and deploying a peace operation is one goal in the current Grand Coalition agreement. There have been a series of scoping studies by Ukrainian, European, and U.S. experts on what such a mission would look like (including a report that I wrote for the Hudson Institute last February).
These studies, while differing on numerous points of detail, also include a lot of common conclusions about the composition and mandate of a potential force. These include:
· A political focus on fulfilling the Minsk Agreements: Most analysts accept that a peace operation would need to focus on implementing the 2015 "Minsk 2" Agreement, which offer the breakaway regions in the Donbas a special status within a reunified Ukraine. Steps to fulfilling these accords include (i) fresh local elections in Donbas; (ii) restoring Ukrainian control of its border with Russia; and (iii) repurposing some of the rebel security forces as police. Many of the details of the plan are unclear – and many Ukrainians feel Minsk offers the rebels too much – but it is the only current basis for compromise with Moscow.
· Robust military and police components to ensure public post-war order in Donbas: Analysts fear that there could be significant unrest in Donbas if Russia withdrew its support for the breakaway region. This could range from terrorist acts to public protests. Ukrainian experts argue that a peacekeeping operation would need 30,000 or more troops to ensure stability. Other analyses (including my own) point to a smaller force of 20,000 troops and 2,000 to 4,000 police. A recent study by the University for Peace suggests that a military component of around 5,000 troops might suffice, but only if it has good air support and intelligence.
· A strong civilian reconstruction effort in parallel with security operations: Most analysts assume that the UN or other international actors – most probably the OSCE – will need to play a significant role in civilian affairs in postwar Donbas. Some presume that this could even be a transitional administration similar to those deployed to Kosovo and Timor-Leste in 1999, although Ukrainian officials do not want this to grow into a permanent arrangement.
There are still a lot of holes in discussions about a peace operation. It is not clear, for example, whether the military element of the mission would be under direct UN command (a “blue helmet” deployment) or an independent multinational force with a Security Council mandate.
Nor is it clear where the peacekeepers would come from – some non-NATO nations including Finland and Sweden have said they might participate, but they are wary of the risks inherent in a high-stakes mission on Russia’s border. Other technical issues, such as how the mission would be rolled out across the Donbas, are unresolved. There has also been less detailed thinking on the civilian components of a mission. Nonetheless, the basic outlines of a Donbas peace operation acceptable to Ukraine and the Western powers are now fairly clear. Can Germany build on this?
The art of the possible
Visiting Kyiv this October, I found that some Ukrainian analysts hope that Germany will table a fresh plan for a UN force when it holds the Security Council’s rotating presidency in April 2019.
This is unlikely for at least three reasons.
Firstly, U.S. and European talks with the Russians about what a peacekeeping force would look like have moved slowly this year. Moscow insists that it will only accept a very light blue helmet presence to protect existing OSCE monitors, rather than the far more expansive force outlined above.
Secondly, Russia now appears focused on stirring up more tensions with Kyiv – through maneuvers such as its recent seizure of Ukrainian ships and sailors in the Sea of Azov – in the run-up to Ukraine’s presidential election next spring.
Thirdly, Germany has other fish to fry in the Security Council. Berlin has an ambitious list of goals for its two-year term, including easing suffering in Syria, tackling violence in Mali, and increasing the Council’s focus on the security implications of climate change. To achieve any of these things, it needs Russia’s support, or at least acquiescence. If Germany picks diplomatic fights with Moscow over Ukraine with very little chance of progress, Russia may block its other initiatives.
Unless there is a sudden breakthrough with Russia over Ukraine in the next two years, therefore, Germany is likely to adopt a cautious approach to the issue at the UN. Nonetheless, it should not drop Ukraine entirely in New York. Doing so would send Moscow an unfortunate political signal that it can continue to interfere in Ukraine – and perhaps other neighbors – without paying a reputational price. One diplomat from a current member of the Council warns that Donbas risks becoming a “forgotten conflict” in the UN. Germany and its allies need to maintain some pressure on Russia over the issue in the Security Council and keep open options for a resolution.
It is also important to encourage Ukrainian politicians – who face hotly contested parliamentary as well as presidential polls next year – to keep discussing the prospect of peacekeeping. Ukrainian politics have an understandably nationalistic tone these days, and this will only intensify as the elections approach. There are many voices calling for a harder line towards Russia. This only feeds into Moscow’s political narrative that Ukraine is unstable and aggressive. As the current government has recognized, talking about a UN-mandated solution to the Donbas war is a good way to show the world that Ukraine is ready to compromise with Moscow on reasonable terms.
Practical steps in the Security Council
Even small steps to keep some focus on Ukraine in the Security Council may be problematic. Earlier this year Poland (a Security Council member in 2018-2019) floated the idea of appointing a UN envoy for Ukraine. While Russia was open to this proposition, France and the U.S. reportedly blocked it out of concern that Moscow would use its leverage at the UN to prevent the envoy from fulfilling his mission in an unbiased way.
So what can Germany do? Here are three initial steps to advance debate:
· Organize a Security Council visiting mission to Ukraine: As a straightforward awareness-raising exercise, Germany could lead a “visiting mission” to Kyiv and the frontline in the Donbas involving all fifteen Council members. This would require negotiations with Russia over the terms of reference (which have to be agreed by consensus) but would be a very public demonstration of the UN’s continued interest in finding an end to the Ukrainian war.
· Use Berlin’s convening power to improve the “peacekeeping offer” to Ukraine: Germany can informally leverage its role on the Council to promote further discussion of what a peacekeeping mission in Donbas would look like by – for example – asking the Center for International Peacekeeping (ZIF) to host a project on the under-studied civilian dimensions of the conflict.
· Stimulate Council discussions of peacekeeping options: While Germany is unlikely to persuade Russia to hold formal Council talks on a peace operation – unless Moscow’s views on the issue change fundamentally – it can still stir up diplomatic discussions of the issue in New York. One way to do so would be to call an “Arria Formula” meeting of the Council (an informal information-sharing format) for peacekeeping experts to brief the Council on operational options in Donbas. Russia might not attend this, but could not stop it, and Germany could aim to win over Moscow by inviting a Russian security analyst to be one of the briefers involved.
None of these steps will transform the Ukrainian situation, but they could help keep the Ukrainian peacekeeping discussion alive – and improve the quality of planning for any eventual mission.
There is no guarantee that peacekeepers will ever be deployed to the Donbas. But by sharing and testing ideas on the issue now, Germany and its partners can raise the odds that if peacekeeping does happen it will ultimately succeed.
Richard Gowan is a Senior Fellow at the UN University Centre for Policy Research in New York, and also a fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.