The Cable

Monitoring Group Looks to Publish Photographs of Cease-Fire Violations in Ukraine

In a conflict replete with propaganda from competing sides, a picture can say a thousand words. And finally, those pictures may become available to the general public.

A Ukrainian serviceman (R) and OSCE observers wait on a road near Donetsk on September 20, 2014 before an exchange of captives, which are being freed under the terms of a ceasefire deal between Kiev and the separatist forces. The Ukrainian side handed over 38 insurgents in exchange for 34 captives. NATO's top military commander expressed cautious optimism on September 20 that a tenuous Ukrainian ceasefire whose details were thrashed out in marathon overnight negotiations would help end a bloody pro-Kremlin uprising that has inflamed East-West ties. AFP PHOTO/ANATOLII STEPANOV        (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A Ukrainian serviceman (R) and OSCE observers wait on a road near Donetsk on September 20, 2014 before an exchange of captives, which are being freed under the terms of a ceasefire deal between Kiev and the separatist forces. The Ukrainian side handed over 38 insurgents in exchange for 34 captives. NATO's top military commander expressed cautious optimism on September 20 that a tenuous Ukrainian ceasefire whose details were thrashed out in marathon overnight negotiations would help end a bloody pro-Kremlin uprising that has inflamed East-West ties. AFP PHOTO/ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)

In a conflict replete with propaganda from competing sides, a picture can say a thousand words. And finally, those pictures may become available to the general public.

On Tuesday, the head of the international organization monitoring the war in Ukraine said he hopes to publish photographs of cease-fire violations using sophisticated imagery technology — a change that could help clear up the fog of war that fighters on both sides have exploited to their advantage.

“My feeling is that we need to go into the direction of providing imagery that is as neutral as possible,” Lamberto Zannier, the secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said at a Wilson Center event on Tuesday.

Zannier said the monitoring mission is looking into taking imagery from commercial satellites and cameras fixed to aerostatic balloons to include in the monitoring mission’s widely read reports. The organization already uses aerial drones to assist the movements of monitors in the country, but has not made imagery a mainstay in its regular reports due to internal disagreements about whether the group is authorized to use photography.

Those disagreements, however, were resolved in the Minsk agreement brokered by Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia on Feb. 12, said Zannier, paving the way for the publication of images. “Some delegations more than others were telling us you need a specific mandate [for publishing photos],” said Zannier, without mentioning which countries objected to the use of images. But the new Minsk agreement empowered the OSCE to use “all technical equipment necessary” to ensure effective monitoring of the cease-fire agreement.

The impact of imagery published by the OSCE could be considerable given the organization’s neutral reputation. Although the group’s monitors have been harassed, shot at, and even held hostage, the group remains the only major organization allowed to monitor the crisis by the key players involved: Russia, the United States, Ukraine, Germany, and France.

The organization’s work has grown increasingly important as the pace of combat between the two sides — and the propaganda fight each side is waging to claim the moral high ground — has intensified in recent weeks. Private and public media organizations, including Russian government-sponsored newspapers and TV stations, routinely cite the group’s findings.

A year into the conflict, the fighting between pro-Russian separatists and forces loyal to Kiev has resulted in the deaths of at least 6,000 people and the displacement of 1 million people, according to the U.N. human rights office.

At the moment, the only obstacle to adding imagery to its report is funding. “The problem of course is the cost,” Zannier said in response to a question by Foreign Policy. Although the price of commercial satellite imagery and cameras fixed to balloons would seem somewhat negligible, Zannier said, “Finding money for the OSCE is a struggle.”

The mission currently has 470 civilians on the ground in Ukraine and is looking to expand the number of drones and radar systems at its disposal, which don’t come cheap.

Zannier said imagery is crucial so it “can be circulated and give a sense of what we see and where we see problems.”

Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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