The many questions facing a Ukraine peacekeeping force

By David Bosco

The notion of an international peacekeeping force for eastern Ukraine is gaining some traction. In the wake of a humiliating withdrawal from Debaltseve, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko explicitly called for such a force this week. Via the BBC:

President Petro Poroshenko has called for UN peacekeepers to be deployed to eastern Ukraine to enforce a ceasefire.

At an emergency security meeting, he said such a force would help guarantee security “in a situation where the promise of peace is not being kept”….

“The issue was discussed and a decision has been taken to appeal to the UN and the EU concerning the setting up in Ukraine of a peacekeeping and security operation,” council secretary Olexander Turchynov told reporters.

Russian officials have themselves floated the idea of peacekeepers in the past, but their reaction to Poroshenko’s plea was harsh:

Moscow criticized Kiev’s plan to invite an EU police force under the EU’s aegis for a peacekeeping mission in war-torn eastern Ukraine, saying the move would undermine the Minsk ceasefire agreement.

Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council said it will call on the UN and EU to deploy a peacekeeping mission as requested by President Petro Poroshenko. Moscow believes Kiev is trying to sideline the OSCE mission, which was tasked with monitoring the implementation of the Minsk ceasefire agreement.

“I think it’s a little bit disturbing, because they just signed the Minsk agreements on February 12. And the Minsk agreements provide for the role of the OSCE, There is nothing about the UN or European Union,” Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, told RT.

“So for them to start talking immediately about something else… I think instead of coming up with new ideas they should really work harder on implementing what they agreed on,” Churkin told RT.

As with any peacekeeping mission, the critical question is whether the parties to the conflict support the mission’s work and see its involvement as in their strategic interests (even if the force might be tactically inconvenient at times). At the moment, no such consensus exists. The evidence suggests that Russia would prefer to keep the situation in eastern Ukraine fluid, likely with an eye to gaining more territory and destabilizing and debilitating the Kiev government. Even if those calculations change, the complications surrounding any such deployment would be considerable. Key questions would include:

Would a peacekeeping force have a United Nations mandate? Ukraine would be within its legal rights to invite monitors or peacekeepers to serve on its territory without any UN authorization. (Any state can invite foreign forces onto its own territory). But a peacekeeping deployment that did not have Moscow’s blessing would run the risk of being perceived as a mere adjunct to Ukraine’s forces. For that reason, a Security Council mandate (which of course requires Russian consent) may be viewed as politically essential.

Would a force be a traditional UN peacekeeping force run by the UN bureaucracy or would it be an ad hoc force with a UN blessing? There is some precedent for UN observers on former Soviet territory. From 1993 through 2009 a small UN mission sought to monitor successive ceasefire agreements between Georgia and the breakaway Abkhazia region. In 2001, a UN helicopter was shot down over Abkhazia. In all, twelve UN personnel died during the mission’s tenure. In 2009, Russia chose not to support the mission’s reauthorization. If it is decided that working through UN processes is too cumbersome or otherwise inadvisable, the alternative would be an ad hoc force, perhaps under the leadership of an acceptable regional organization. The OSCE–which includes Russia as a member and whose current chairperson is from Serbia–has managed a civilian monitoring mission in Ukraine since mid-2014 but has never led a military mission.

What forces would be acceptable to the parties and willing to participate in what could be  a dangerous mission? In either scenario, the provenance of the peacekeepers would be a critical question. The Georgia mission included small numbers of military observers and police from more than two dozen countries, including Albania, the Czech Republic, Germany, India, Indonesia, Russia itself, Sweden, and the United States. A meaningful peacekeeping force in eastern Ukraine would likely need to be several times the size of the Georgia mission, and identifying suitable and willing national contingents would be more complicated.

What mandate would a peacekeeping force have? For several decades, debate has raged about how much coercive power peacekeepers should have. That debate is playing out now in the UN’s mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which includes an intervention brigade tasked with confronting and defeating certain rebel forces. In the Ukraine context, any kind of coercive mandate or capability is highly unlikely. Peacekeepers in Ukraine would almost certainly hew closely to the UN’s more traditional posture of strict impartiality and would use force only in immediate self defense.

About David Bosco

Assistant Professor at American University's School of International Service. Contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics and Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World
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