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Explainer: Does Putin’s peacekeeper proposal for Ukraine have any merit?

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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and other senior officials in Kyiv have long called for a U.N. peacekeeping force to be deployed in eastern Ukraine. In September 2015, Mr. Poroshenko said such a force would help guarantee security “in a situation where the promise of peace is not being kept.”

The conflict in eastern Ukraine erupted in April 2014, shortly after Moscow occupied and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Since then, more than 10,000 people have been killed as a result of the fighting, according to U.N. data. Kyiv and the West accuse Moscow of backing the separatists with arms, including heavy weapons, and funds – charges the Kremlin denies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far voiced lukewarm support in vague terms for the idea of peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine. But his new proposal, announced on September 5, appears to be more concrete, more detailed. Reports say Russia has already circulated a draft proposal based on Mr. Putin’s statement at the U.N. Security Council, suggesting the Kremlin is serious. Moreover, Germany has officially welcomed Mr. Putin’s plan, giving it even more gravitas.

But is the Kremlin leader serious or just bluffing?

What exactly is Putin proposing?

Mr. Putin’s call for a peacekeeping force in eastern Ukraine comes with a series of caveats and preconditions. First, Moscow wants to deploy the force only along the “demarcation line” separating Ukrainian forces from the separatists in the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Second, the peacekeepers wouldn’t be peacekeepers per se. Their task would be limited only to assuring the security of the unarmed monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Third, the separatists would have to take part in any talks on the force.

And finally, the U.N. force could be sent in, according to Mr. Putin’s proposal, only after heavy weapons have been withdrawn from the conflict zone.

Timothy Ash, a London-based economist who regularly comments on Ukraine, says Mr. Putin’s latest proposal is, in fact, nothing new.

“The offer of peacekeepers is an old one from Putin – and will be unacceptable to the Ukrainian side,” Mr. Ash wrote in the Kyiv Post on September 5.

Why did Putin pitch this now? 

Mr. Putin made his peacekeeping proposal after warning against the United States sending lethal weapons to Ukraine. According to Mr. Putin, such U.S. assistance could lead to more instability in the region. Perhaps more ominously, Mr. Putin warned that the separatists “might deploy weapons to other areas of the conflict” – seemingly a thinly veiled threat by the Russian leader to escalate the conflict if Washington provides Ukraine with arms.

Mr. Ash argues that the Russian president is aware that international attention is largely focused on defusing the crisis around North Korea.

“[I]mposition of peacekeepers in Donbas along the current line of conflict would likely significantly reduce the costs to Moscow now of sustaining the [separatists] militarily, while Moscow would still keep its optionality of intervening elsewhere in eastern Ukraine as noted from his comments over a reaction to the U.S. arming Ukraine,” Mr. Ash said.

How has Kyiv reacted?

Kyiv wants a robust peacekeeping force, and Mr. Putin’s offer seemingly falls far short of that. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry said Kyiv was “prepared to work on this issue.”

Elsewhere, Ukrainian leaders were far from enthusiastic. Iryna Gerashchenko, first deputy speaker of Ukraine’s Parliament, objected to putting the peacekeepers along the frontline of combat rather than at the Russian-Ukrainian border. Kyiv fears deploying peacekeepers along the demarcation line would cement separatists’ control over the territory they hold, leaving Russia unencumbered to keep sending troops and arms across the international border.

Oleksiy Melnyk, a military expert at Kyiv’s Razumkov Center, says Mr. Putin’s proposal puts Mr. Poroshenko in a difficult position.

“President Poroshenko has been speaking about peacekeepers for two years, and now Ukraine has an opportunity to get them,” Mr. Melnyk tells RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, adding Russia’s motivations are dubious. “Russia is guided by the logic of war and the logic of achieving victory and is not interested in resolving the conflict.”

But if Mr. Putin’s proposal gains traction among European nations – as it appears to have done with Germany – Mr. Melnyk warns that Mr. Poroshenko’s government will need to quickly counter Russian proposals on shaping the planned force. And with veto power as a permanent U.N. Security Council member, Russia will be able to wield considerable influence, Mr. Melnyk says.

Why did Berlin welcome
Putin’s proposal?

At least initially, Germany was alone in the West in publicly welcoming Mr. Putin’s proposal, with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel saying it heralded “a change in [Russia’s] politics that we should not gamble away.”

Berlin has also come to Moscow’s defense over a U.S. Senate proposal to impose sanctions on Russia over alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on June 16 that the proposed sanctions were “peculiar” and, more tellingly, could hurt European companies. It may be these business ties, especially in the energy sector, that are motivating Berlin. Two Germany companies – Uniper and BASF subsidiary Wintershall – have a stake in the planned $10 billion Russian natural-gas pipeline Nord Stream 2.

Gerhard Schroeder, the former German chancellor, is chairman of the Nord Stream consortium. His ties with the Russian energy sector don’t end there. He recently took a job on the board of Russian state-controlled oil company Rosneft. Ms. Merkel criticized that move, saying, “I don’t think what Schroeder is doing is OK.”

Could U.N. peacekeepers
be Ukraine’s savior?

Even if Kyiv gets what it has wished for – a legitimate U.N. peacekeeping force in the conflict zone and along the border with Russia – it may not have the effect of ending or even lessening tensions in the region. And that has to do with the mandate of all active U.N. peacekeeping missions.

Under Chapter V of the United Nations Charter, U.N. peacekeepers’ actions are tightly circumscribed, says Pavel Felgenhauer, a top Russian military journalist.

“Peacekeepers under Chapter V drive around in white jeeps, write reports and observe,” Mr. Felgenhauer tells RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “They carry a firearm, but can only formally use them for self-defense, although in truth they never use them. If gunfire erupts, they first hide, and then give themselves up.”

Ukraine should harbor no illusions as to what any possible U.N. peacekeeping mission could bring to resolve the conflict, Mr. Felgenhauer cautions.

“Under the best scenario, some 200 will come, maybe up to a thousand from Bangladesh, Senegal, and elsewhere in the Third World, and they will be there, working next to the OSCE monitors. They won’t be trying to determine [who is to blame for] anything but merely monitoring. Ukraine will gain nothing from it.”

Copyright 2017, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036; www.rferl.org (see https://www.rferl.org/a/explainer-putin-ukraine-peacekeepers-donbas-poroshenko/28720342.html).

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