Giving Peace a Chance in Eastern Ukraine

OSCE monitor calls for withdrawal of heavy weapons, troops as ceasefire agreed

All sides in the conflict in eastern Ukraine must withdraw heavy weapons and troops and remove landmines if a new ceasefire, expected to go into effect on July 1, is to have any chance of success, according to Alexander Hug who oversees what has until now been a nonexistent peace process.

The “new recommitment to the ceasefire” must address the root causes of the conflict in order to have any lasting effect, said Hug, deputy chief monitor for the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). “That is, the withdrawal of heavy weapons, disengagement where the forces and formations stand too close and mine action” to mark or remove land mines and stop laying new ones, he explained.

“If these three basic military technical measures are not being implemented in full and in all earnest, then the violence is likely to resume after a short moment—and we have seen violence resuming after such recommitments before,” he added.

The OSCE mission’s main task is to observe and report on the situation in Ukraine and facilitate dialogue among all parties to the crisis, which erupted with Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 and its support for separatists ever since.

“We have seen in the past when they recommit to ceasefires the situation on the ground significantly improves,” Hug said, even if only for a few hours. “That clearly is an indicator that there is nothing else needed but political will to make sure that these promises are being implemented.”

Any relief is superficial, though, compared with his deep concern about the utter lack of respect for the Minsk accords—reached between Ukraine, Russia, and the separatists—by all sides.

Hug would be forgiven for being dismissive of this latest promise by the sides to quit killing each other and innocent civilians. He has spent the last four years overseeing the implementation of the Minsk peace agreements, which has yet to begin in earnest. The OSCE monitoring team instead counts violations, which average a shocking 1,000 per day.

Nevertheless, the Swiss lawyer who did a stint in the army and has worked in many conflict areas is a study in unwavering faith in the potential of political processes and faithfulness to the civilians on the conflict line currently being betrayed by those processes. Hug appreciates the latest effort, however limited it turns out to be, and he is careful in noting that this is merely another chance to do what has already been accepted.

“Any recommitment to already agreed measures in Minsk must be welcomed and any reduction of violence that results out of this recommitment must be welcomed,” he said. “I think it is positive overall, that it is likely to reduce violence even for a short time, and that will allow civilians on the ground to have some reprieve from the relentless violence they have been subjected to in the past four years.”

Flagrant flaunting of agreements fatal for truce attempts

After such a long stint facing daily danger and disappointment, both for himself and his team, Hug finds sustenance in the importance he attaches to the OSCE role. “Giving up is not an option,” he insisted. The daily reports from the mission document each violation, without placing blame, and he hopes they are being read. “I do believe that, by improving the way of information-channeling from the ground to the decision makers, better decisions can be made based on objective information that we put out there on a daily basis,” he said. “I don’t believe this is an issue that can be resolved overnight, but constant information channeling to decision makers is what is required.”

He expressed regret that a “thousand-plus ceasefire violations per day” unfortunately has come to sound like the “new normal” in eastern Ukraine.

‘Wake up’ to fact of ongoing hot war

Hug wants people both inside and outside the conflict to remember that behind each of those acts of military aggression is the potential for harm, especially to civilians. “The thousand ceasefire violations is a thousand times a chance that someone is getting injured or killed,” he reminded. “That alone should be reason enough to wake up.”

But humanitarian issues in Donbas are not likely to top, perhaps even make, the agenda at the next high-level meeting of world leaders, the July 11-12 NATO summit in Brussels. This, despite Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region being the single-most definitive event propelling the Alliance’s remarkable transformation since 2014. “It would be tragic if, at the platform where security is a big part of the standard agenda, the conflict in and around Ukraine is not being discussed,” Hug cautioned.

He went further. “I don’t want to appear as naive,” he said, “but I believe that the humanitarian prerogative should dominate this discussion and it should not be the political agendas of the sides—in multiple, plural—that dominate the debate as to how to implement the agreements. If the humanitarian concerns, the concerns for the civilians at the conflict line come first, I’m convinced that the right decisions will have to be taken.”

Forgiveness amid the fighting

Just a couple of days before the next attempt to calm the fighting launches, Hug expressed deep respect for those who suffer the failures, civilians along the line of contact who live months without electricity, guaranteed food or water supplies, schools and basic safety. “They’re very resilient; we see very little hate targeted toward the Ukrainians on the other side, regardless from which side they look at,” he said. “Their anger is targeting those who make the decisions on continued violence. Their anger is targeting those who keep their lives in balance for far too long. And that is promising because the people themselves don’t believe in this conflict.”

Whether this latest ceasefire is something they can believe in will unfold in coming days.

Teri Schultz is a freelance journalist based in Brussels. Follow her on Twitter @terischultz.

Image: The “new recommitment to the ceasefire” in eastern Ukraine must address the root causes of the conflict in order to have any lasting effect, said Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor for the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The ceasefire goes into effect on July 1. (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)