Counting the Dead in Europe’s Forgotten War

The deputy head of the OSCE’s observer mission in Ukraine describes the challenges and frustrations of monitoring the war.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Deputy Chief Monitor of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, Alexander Hug (2nd L), reacts as fellow OSCE members (R) look on during a meeting with separatists in Donetsk on July 30, 2014. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)
Deputy Chief Monitor of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, Alexander Hug (2nd L), reacts as fellow OSCE members (R) look on during a meeting with separatists in Donetsk on July 30, 2014. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

Since the conflict began between Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels more than four years ago, Alexander Hug has had a front seat to Europe’s forgotten war. In a conflict steeped in fake news and propaganda, Hug has helped lead the only independent international monitoring mission of the war as the principal deputy chief monitor of the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The civilian monitoring mission has some 700 observers on the ground in Ukraine. Each week, the observers document thousands of violations of the Minsk cease-fire agreements that were brokered in a bid to end the war.

During a recent trip to New York City, Hug sat down with Foreign Policy. He described the challenges of his job in Ukraine and the frustrations of witnessing a conflict that could be resolved quickly if only the two sides were willing.

Foreign Policy: You say you have been a monitor and not a judge in the conflict. How challenging has that been for you?

Alexander Hug: It’s more of an emotional difficulty. There is an expectation on us on the ground, especially from the noninvolved civilian Ukrainians on both sides of the contact line [front line]. There is no other international organization there. They see our monitors coming into town with their notebooks or cameras or glasses to take note of the explosion, note the damage, count the dead, take record of the misery they see, and then they leave and it all continues.

And, of course, they want to know who is guilty. This is a normal human question.

The absence of accountability is a major problem. In other conflicts, you have a military commission or joint military commission where everyone involved is trying to then investigate and inquire into a violation of the peace accord. That doesn’t exist here. This year alone, we have triangulated evidence of probably 190 civilian casualties and over 200,000 cease-fire violations.

FP: What’s the OSCE’s official stance on Russia’s involvement in Eastern Ukraine?

AH: If the question is what we have seen on the ground … we have seen convoys leaving and entering Ukraine on dirt roads in the middle of the night, in areas where there is no official crossing. In one border area, we’ve also made this public, including some footage we have put out. We have seen specific types of weapons that we have described in detail, including electronic warfare equipment. We have spoken to prisoners taken by the Ukrainian forces who claim to be members of the Russian armed forces fighting on rotation in Ukraine. We have seen men with the insignia of the Russian Federation, but you can buy this jacket anywhere. We have also seen the insignia of Germany, Spain, and others—but also of the Russians.

FP: Are mines being laid by both sides?

AH: Yes, even new ones. It’s not just that this is old stuff that we’re seeing here. You see it in our reports. We even describe very clearly that they’re new and not seen before, so it’s clearly trackable where these new developments are.

FP: How easy will they be to remove? Are people on both sides keeping good records of where these mines are? Or are we going to have a situation years down the line when, even after the conflict has finished, there is still going to be live mine fields?

AH: Laying mines in the situational conflict is not like building a road, so they’ve likely been ad hoc. That’s one thing that makes it very difficult to track despite the fact that they have obligations to keep maps. But the reality is if you have to do this under fire, very rapidly, it’s likely there are cases where no records or very bad records were kept. And the weather. Even if there are maps, the melting water moves mines quite a bit.

FP: What has been your biggest frustration?

AH: A major frustration is that we know, I know, and our readers know that this conflict can end, the military technical part of it can end within one hour when decision-makers both take that political decision. And we have demonstrated it. In the Minsk agreements, the parties agreed to a cease-fire on the first day of the school year, which in this part of the world is Sept. 1. What happened just overnight was cease-fire violations dropped to just a few dozen. And it was low for quite a few days only to go back up again and now we’re in the thousands. But this shows clearly that when they take a decision—

FP: That they can when they want to.

AH: It’s no problem. And it’s not just a small area—it’s a 500-kilometer-long front line. That shows that there is absolute 100 percent control on both sides of this contact line, of every little position. And that it doesn’t stop irreversibly is very frustrating. Because we know it’s possible.

I have seen other conflicts where you have an undercurrent group dynamic, ethnic, religious. You don’t have this here. You don’t need to think about reconciliation from village to village. It’s pure political decisions that are required. Up to 40,000 Ukrainians cross this contact line every day. You have to go far and wide to see another conflict where you have civilians crossing what is in essence the front line so frequently.

FP: So you think it’s very solvable in terms of the animosities between people?

AH: Well, four and a half years of violence will require compromises. It will require that justice has been done for those who have lost their loved ones and had their property destroyed and taken. But I don’t think it’s yet at the stage where you have one group against the other group. That may well change if this goes far too long.

Look at a kid who lives in Donetsk or Avdiivka across the line. If the kid was, say, 5 or so in 2014, the kid is now 10. He will not recall anything else but conflict of his short life. And his head is full of propaganda. He doesn’t know what the situation was before the conflict here. Add another five years of the same, if this goes on longer, and that kid will be 15, and you will have a formed adult more or less who will have no recollection of what is was like before. And then you will have a generational problem. That should be prevented.

FP: What has been the lowest point for you?

AH: Every civilian who gets killed or injured. And in particular kids. It is very difficult to take because I know this is unnecessary and could stop. They’re not the ones who take up arms and have developed hate against the other side. Civilians always tell me, on either side of the line, “This is not our conflict. We don’t understand why it is continuing.” And all they want is that it ends. That clearly shows me that it’s not their war or their conflict.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Correction, October 25, 2018: Alexander Hug is the deputy head of the OSCE’s observer mission in Ukraine. An earlier version described him as the head. Clarification, October 25, 2018: In an earlier version, Hug stated that OSCE had not seen direct evidence of Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine. We have removed this remark, as it did not convey his intended view. He goes on to cite facts and observations that his monitors have recorded.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack