by David Carment & Milana Nikolko
October 25, 2017
During his recent visit to Ottawa, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko called on the Canadian government to support a UN mission in Eastern Ukraine. While expressing a wish to buy Canadian arms, Poroshenko argued that the only peace plan that could help Ukraine is a UN Security Council-sanctioned peacekeeping mission that would police the region right up to the Russian border.
In support of this proposition, Kyiv’s lawmakers passed two controversial laws focused on self-government within a fully integrated Ukraine in an effort to minimize separatist influence in the so-called occupied territories — while simultaneously identifying Russia as an aggressor state engaged in illegal actions in support of terrorists.
With their ostensible focus on limiting Russian influence in the region, it’s clear that Poroshenko’s proposals complement the larger geopolitical strategies that motivate the U.S. and Canada, including arming Ukraine and scattering NATO forces among the Baltic states.
It’s also clear that deployment along the Russia-Ukraine border is not the solution to resolving the conflict, now or in the foreseeable future.
Indeed, if Poroshenko’s idea is supported, its proponents will be ignoring several uncomfortable realities. For starters, the peace process needs to be sequenced out, with a clear and mutually supported political objective foremost in the minds of its implementers.
Poroshenko’s plan would return to his government complete control of the disputed territories, including the right to impose martial law. If this is problematic, it’s because Ukraine’s army has been shelling its own citizens for the better part of three years. Introducing martial law would be a decisive step backward. Under the circumstances, arming Ukraine is hardly a wise strategy.
More pressing is the humanitarian disaster that needs immediate attention, with more than 10,000 dead — 2,000 of them civilians. Over 7,000 civilians have been seriously injured. Fighting is ongoing and must be stopped before UN peacekeepers are deployed. Canada has learned through bitter experience in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Somalia that peace is elusive when third parties confront warring factions who refuse to disarm and demobilize.
Meanwhile, the conditions for the peaceful reintegration of Eastern Ukraine’s Russian-speaking people into Ukraine are very weak. For example, a UN report expressed the concern that Kyiv has not been paying social benefits to residents of Luhansk and Donetsk. Such policies have deepened distrust of Kyiv even further.
Finally, Ukraine needs to get its own house in order before taking on the task of governing a hostile breakaway region. Consider that Ukraine’s closest neighbours — including Hungary, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany — have become increasingly skeptical of Kyiv’s economic and political progress despite massive amounts of Western aid.
Corruption scandals, the growing prominence of the ultra-right movement and controversial laws all suggest Ukraine is not transitioning towards open, transparent and accountable government. Hungary recently announced it would block efforts to give Ukraine entry to the EU given Kyiv’s passage of discriminatory language rights and its poor treatment of minorities.
And a UN mission along the border with Russia would be a significant shift away from the OSCE Minsk protocols, with observers monitoring a de facto line of separation between Ukraine and the breakaway eastern provinces. The UN should build on that success. Some observers have criticised the Minsk agreements for failing to stop the conflict. However, the accompanying political process through the Trilateral contact group — consisting of Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE — has achieved a reduction in violence and is wholly endorsed by the EU, despite the fact that the Ukrainian government continues to avoid negotiations with separatist leaders.
How can the UN support the OSCE peace process? Peacekeepers cannot create the conditions for stability in Ukraine — that’s a fact. The first task in any peacekeeping mission is to look beyond the cessation of violence towards political compromise, by placing the burden of implementation on the parties themselves. While Poroshenko and those who support his position demand that the separatists and Russia make concessions, they fail to mention what Kyiv is willing to give up in return. A UN-supported peace process would need to consider Eastern Ukraine’s long term political prospects as an autonomous entity, free to choose its own political path through free and fair elections.
Such an endgame, as unpalatable as it might be to Ottawa and Washington, would go far in addressing the concerns Ukraine’s neighbours and its minorities have regarding the country’s failure to decentralize power.
In the spring of 2014, Kyiv demonstrated only a limited capacity to control violence throughout the country, losing Crimea in the process. Even after that debacle and despite clear warnings, Kyiv continued to show a keen disinterest in negotiating autonomy for Eastern Ukraine.
But history shows that there are ways for ethnic groups to reach a negotiated solution through political and territorial compromise. History also shows that these solutions often only present themselves after years — sometimes decades — of war.