Ukraine crisis: OSCE unarmed on the front line

OSCE monitors in Donetsk, Ukraine, 12 March Image copyright AP
Image caption Pro-Russian forces rebuffed previous OSCE attempts to monitor Crimea

The West has made no attempt to intervene militarily in Ukraine. But can sending unarmed observers make any difference on the ground?

International observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have begun their work in Ukraine.

Advance teams have been deployed to areas in southern and eastern Ukraine, where there has been violence between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian activists, to report on the security situation and to try to defuse tensions there.

After Crimea, this is where Ukraine fears it is most vulnerable to any new Russian intervention.

The observer mission has been welcomed internationally, as a step towards de-escalating the crisis in Ukraine. However it is unclear whether the monitors will be able to get into Crimea itself, amid what OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier admits is an "ambiguity in the mandate".

Getting agreement on the mission took several weeks of difficult negotiations.

Crimean divide

The OSCE, which includes Russia, Ukraine, the United States, EU countries and former Soviet Republics, is a consensus-based organisation.

All of its participating states, including Russia and Ukraine, had to give the green light to the observer mission.

Significantly its mandate does not mention Crimea.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The situation in Donetsk remains volatile

Splits in interpretation were immediately apparent.

Russia's ambassador to the OSCE, Andrey Kelin, told journalists observers would not be going to Crimea, because it is now part of the Russian Federation.

But the US ambassador to the OSCE, Daniel Baer, said "Crimea is Ukraine" and the monitors have the right to go there.

Lamberto Zannier suggests that one possible scenario would be for observers to head towards Crimea once they are based in Ukraine.

But Gerhard Mangott, professor of international relations at the University of Innsbruck, says such action would be a recipe for failure.

"If the OSCE is now trying at the very start of the mission to get into Crimea, then the mission will fail," he argues. "Pushing the Russians into a corner will crush the whole mission. What we need now is the good will of both sides."

He says the Russians have "an interest in making this mission successful because they want to de-escalate the crisis and stave away the threat of sanctions". He points out that the OSCE framework also gives Russia and Ukraine useful back channels of communication.

Modest scale

Christian Strohal, the Austrian ambassador to the OSCE, says the situation is "dynamic" when it comes to the geographical scope of the mission.

"We have to start somewhere and see how the situation evolves," he adds.

The mission is small. Initially there are plans for 100 monitors to be sent to nine towns around the country, including Odessa, Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk and Luhansk. The headquarters are in Kiev.

The mission could eventually be expanded to 500 people.

The observers are civilian and do not have a military capacity.

Mr Zannier says a big advantage is that all sides to the conflict, including Russia, have signed up to the mission. The team, he says, will include Russians, Europeans and Americans.

He says the aim of the mission is to observe and try to foster peace, stability and security: "We are there and we are seeing what happens and reporting back."

Mr Zannier insists there "will be no veto on reporting" by the observers.

Walter Kemp, director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Peace Institute, says the very presence of observers on the ground can act as a deterrent to violence, as a sign that the "international community is watching".

'Best tool'

The observers are expected to report on the situation of minorities in Ukraine, in particular that of the ethnic Russians, as well as mediating in divided communities, where Ukrainians have expressed fears that they will be targeted by Moscow.

In the past, the OSCE has played a significant role in helping to stabilise volatile regions, notably in the countries that emerged from the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The OSCE mission to Georgia had to close after the war with Russia in 2008

"The OSCE intervention during the crisis in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 2000 and 2001 helped to prevent a major escalation in the situation and eventually led to a peace process which endures to today," says former OSCE official Declan Greenway.

However the OSCE's work in recent years has been hampered by renewed tension between the West and Russia.

Several months after the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, the OSCE mission to Georgia had to close, because there was no consensus to keep it going. Western diplomats say the move was largely due to Russian opposition.

"Russia has been very sceptical about the OSCE," says Gerhard Mangott.

"They've said the OSCE is no longer impartial and is used as an instrument of the West to expand its influence in Russian politics. But at the same time the Russians understand that… the best tool they have to defuse the Ukraine crisis is the OSCE. One could not imagine the EU doing what the OSCE mission is about to do."

Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, says the consensus nature of the OSCE is both a strength and a weakness: "Anything that requires a decision by the OSCE's permanent council is vulnerable to a veto by a single state… but if you can reach consensus, then that gives a decision extra strength."

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