The Ukrainian Stand-Off | Inaction Enforced at the Point of a Gun

Vienna based OSCE is charged with monitoring the ongoing conflict between government troops and Russian-backed separatist militias in the Eastern Ukraine: Coronavirus does not make the task easier.

Compared with the previous 24 hours, the SMM – Security Monitoring Mission recorded fewer ceasefire violations in Donetsk region and a similar number of ceasefire violations in Luhansk region.”  Not exactly dramatic news in a time of escalating pandemic horror and bloody fighting across middle-eastern hotspots.  More in keeping with the legendary (but apocryphal) London Times headline: “Small earthquake in Chile, not many dead.” Journalistic yawn.

But this is still armed conflict (if low level) on European soil, shoot to kill on the Continent that twice – in 1918 and 1945 – swore no more war.  Ever since the Russian annexation of Crimea (2014) and expansion into the Ukrainian mainland, there has been an uneasy de facto border, more or less at the point where the ethnic Ukrainian majority morphs into an ethnic Russian majority. This is naturally not clearly defined, and neither side is ready to concede.  The result: a stand-off between ill equipped Ukrainian government troops and semi-anonymous militia forces, well supplied with standard Russian military hardware.  Neither side is inclined to risk serious military action. But as the OSCE’s daily reports document, there is sporadic sniping and mortar fire. The victims, as ever, are principally civilians.

No power of sanction

The OSCE teams do not have an easy task. The Minsk Protocol signed off on by Ukraine, Russia and the two insurgent groups in 2014 gives the OSCE the mandate to observe and mediate, effectively to enforce the supposed ceasefire. Sounds simple enough. But the reality on the ground is something else. The observers are unarmed and have no power of sanction. Often they are forced to monitor from a distance – their camera drones are often brought down, presumably by bored militia gunmen with a taste for sport – counting people and vehicles crossing the checkpoints, a blur of civilians and irregular troops and unmarked military trucks. The report continues:

On 7 and 8 April, members of the armed formations again denied attempts of the SMM to cross into non-government-controlled areas of Donetsk region, as well as an attempt to cross into government-controlled areas in Luhansk region, all along official crossing routes.”

Room for irony

Behind the carefully dry language of the published bulletin, it is not hard to visualize the scene: Young college educated OSCE volunteers in their clean white helmets, facing off against battle-hardened soldiers in combat fatigues, casually cradling loaded assault rifles.

Back to our pandemic. Now there are – in addition – health and safety reasons for denying the OSCE access: “On the morning of 8 April, at a checkpoint on road H-15 near Oleksandrivka (non-government-controlled, 20km south-west of Donetsk), three armed members of the armed formations denied an SMM patrol, travelling from government-controlled areas, passage into non-government-controlled areas, citing “orders from their commanders related to COVID-19”. 

Even in times of the plague, there is room for irony.  As a previous OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier once remarked: “If we get it right no one notices. If we don’t, we get blamed.”

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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