Top European Mediator: Ukrainian Military Push Could Escalate Tensions

Top European Mediator: Ukrainian Military Push Could Escalate Tensions

A Ukrainian military push into the country’s restive east after the brutal murder of a local politician would complicate efforts to reduce tensions between Kiev and Moscow and prevent further violence in the country, the head of the international organization charged with helping resolve the crisis said in an interview.

Last week, major powers meeting in Geneva tasked the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) with helping end the violence in the country. The Geneva agreement did not specifically prohibit security operations by Ukraine, but it called on all sides to refrain from violence. Under the terms of the deal, the pro-Russian militants occupying government buildings throughout eastern Ukraine were supposed to leave the facilities under the watchful eye of the OSCE. The deal has in many ways fallen apart, with pro-Russian fighters solidifying their control over several cities and showing no signs of disarming or leaving the occupied buildings.

Lamberto Zannier, the secretary general of the OSCE, said a new Ukrainian effort to oust the militants had the potential to setback international efforts to reduce tensions. "The whole spirit of Geneva was promoting de-escalation," he told Foreign Policy. "It’s certainly tough at this moment."

On Tuesday acting President Oleksandr Turchynov ordered his forces back to eastern Ukraine after the murder of local politician Vladimir Rybak, a member of the president’s own Fatherland party. The move immediately raised fears of open conflict between Ukrainian security personnel and heavily-armed, well-entrenched, pro-Russian militiamen. That type of confrontation would be particularly dangerous because top Russian officials have openly threatened an armed intervention into eastern Ukraine to protect fellow Russian speakers there.

"Russia is increasingly called upon to save southeastern Ukraine from chaos," read a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday.

Zannier acknowledged the risks of further escalation in the wake of Rybak’s death. In a statement earlier Tuesday, Turchynov said his compatriot’s corpse was found near the separatist-controlled city of Slaviansk. He said Rybak had been tortured to death and said "the terrorists who effectively took the whole Donetsk region hostage have now gone too far." The Ukrainian leader said he was ordering his security forces to resume operations in the east — a situation that could pose problems for Zannier’s organization. "This will require us to redouble our efforts … and invite everyone to engage in a peaceful manner," Zannier said in an interview.

That might be easier said than done. In recent days, OSCE monitors have been blocked from entering various occupied buildings in the east, and stopped at checkpoints leading into separatist-controlled areas. That’s obstructed monitors from fulfilling their primary task: overseeing the disarming of illegal groups and the evacuation of government facilities.

Currently, pro-Russians mobs continue to occupy buildings throughout eastern Ukraine, including at least nine towns. While Kiev is calling for the pro-Russian mobs to disarm and vacate the government buildings, separatists have called for more autonomy or in some cases independence from Ukraine. The job of the OSCE is to bring both sides closer together, but Zannier conceded that there’s been little success on this front — and said that the Russians have been less than helpful.

"I would welcome stronger messages from Russia inviting [separatists] to abandon buildings and engage in dialogue," he said. "On Russian television, we hear the same arguments" concerning the "illegality of the government in Kiev" and "extremist right-wing groups."

Russian officials say they agree that the pro-Russian separatists should disarm, but insist that right-wing nationalists in western Ukraine do so as well. While Zannier acknowledged that such nationalist groups exist, he downplayed their role in the conflict. "Everyone should disarm, but at this point, we see many more weapons in the hands of these pro-Russian radicals in eastern Ukraine … than in the arms of right-wing extremists."

The growing tensions in Ukraine have brought the American-Russian relationship to its lowest point in decades and brought new prominence to the OSCE, whose roots date back to the cold war, where it provided a venue for dialogue between east and west. It became a permanent institution in 1994 with the goal of helping fledgling European democracies mature and develop. While Russia has been historically mistrustful of its aims, it did sign onto its conflict-resolution role in the current Ukrainian crisis. Still, hardened differences between east and west aren’t Zannier’s only problem. 

He says the OSCE needs more personnel and resources from OSCE member nations to properly do its job. "Ukraine is a large country and the area we have troubles in is pretty large," he said.

Zannier made the same plea at a special session of the OSCE’s permanent council earlier on Tuesday. At present, he said the OSCE had 150 personnel on the ground, a figure he wanted to increase to at least 500. He said member nations support his requests in principle, but acquiring the resources has taken time.

A larger footprint in the country is critical to fulfilling the OSCE’s monitoring role, he said, given its responsibility to provide credible information about events on the ground. "There is a propaganda war with different versions of the story," he said, referring to glut of conspiratorial claims by various actors in the conflict. "So having an international presence helps."