Monday, 28 April 2014

What place for the OSCE in Ukraine?

And thus international organisations once more fall foul of Russia and of the pro-Russian militias in Ukraine. First, a UN observer was chased out of Crimea when Russian troops and their allied were busy securing Russian control of the peninsula. Then OSCE observers were kept away from Crimea with armed road blocks and warning shots to help ensure a minimum of international scrutiny of the referendum preceding Crimean accession to Russia. Russia was sanctioned by the Council of Europe, while the UN produced a report stating in clear terms that Crimea and eastern Ukraine have not witnessed any systematic attacks on Russians. And now OSCE observers have been captured by militias in Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine; the fate of all but one of them precarious.

We have repeatedly heard how unpopular NATO is in Russia (and with many people in Ukraine, too). The EU, as well, has received widespread censure in Russia for the public support shown to the Maidan rebellion and to the acting government in Kiev. Yet this is nothing new. In Moscow, NATO has been seen as the enemy ever since 1949. The EU has come under increasing criticism during the last decade following disputes over energy and trade policies, human rights, and the (somewhat haphazard) competition between Russia and the EU for influence in Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, and the Caucasus. So far, so predictable. However, the UN and the OSCE have repeatedly been mentioned by the Russian regime as the two international organisations within which Russia and the West could do business; around which a new European security structure could be built. Well so much for that pipedream, it would seem.

The OSCE did have its main mission to Ukraine approved by Russia. The observers now prisoners in Slavyansk were part of a secondary mission by the OSCE, which did not require Russian approval. Still, it might have been expected that Russia would seek to protect OSCE staff in Ukraine, to highlight that this organisation (in which Russia would hold a veto and a commanding voice) should be the future institutional solution (or cul-de-sac) within which to manage Ukraine. Instead, after the observers were captured by militias accusing them of spying for the West the Russian regime has mostly kept quiet. Russian ambassador to the OSCE, Andrey Kelin, has assured the world that Russia is taking "some steps" to help secure the release of the observers. ( It remains to be seen, however, what if anything Russia is actually doing to defuse the situation. Kelin also pointed out that the OSCE were highly irresponsible to send in the monitors in the first place. ( The OSCE observers have been mentioned as prisoners of war and as spies by the pro-Russian militias in Slavyansk and, indeed, it is possible that these militias captured the observers by mistake in an increasingly tense situation. Yet if Russia did not want OSCE observers present, and since Russia has previously ruled out UN peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine, it appears that Russia does not want any international observers, at all, in the region. Ukrainians must be left to decide their own fate; just a rickety regime in Kiev, well-armed and seemingly violent militias in eastern Ukraine, and thousands of Russian troops waiting at the border...

While Russia continues to insist that it has nothing to do with the militias holding numerous towns in eastern Ukraine, the USA is not convinced. Maybe because the behaviour and look of the pro-Russian militias appears strikingly similar to that of Crimean militias, who eventually turned out to contain many members of the Russian armed forces. From the OSCE, Gary Robbins as US Deputy Head of Mission has deplored Russian unwillingness to condemn the capture of the observers, ( a capture including mistreatment of the observers and of Ukrainian prisoners in eastern Ukraine, according to the US State Department. (

From the EU such direct accusations take longer in appearing. Yet what is remarkable now is the willingness with which Germany not only appears as the semi-official interlocutor for the EU with Russia, but also as a vocal critic of Russian unwillingness (and inability) to implement the recent Geneva peace deal. On the OSCE observers, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has been in contact with the OSCE as well as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Without much success so far, apart from the release of one observer on medical grounds, Mr Steinmeier's diplomacy has not shown much result. And he is clear that Germany holds Russia fully responsible for the release of the observers, and for ensuring that it is up to Russia to prevent humiliating treatment of the observers by the militias. ( The office of Chancellor Angela Merkel is similarly putting the onus on Russia to solve the situation. (

Now, it is possible that the OSCE observers were captured without the knowledge of Moscow. Further, it is possible that the Russian regime is working clandestinely to pressurise the militias in Slavyansk into releasing the remaining observes. Apparently, the militias were not prepared to let an observers risk serious health problems, and thus let him go. Similarly, the leader of the captive observers has stated that they are being well treated by their captors, even though they have received no indication of release. Yet watching this leader mechanically read through this statement, it is clear that the observers have, at least, been subjected to substantial psychological pressure by their captors ( and, as mentioned above, their mistreatment is repeatedly mentioned by Western governments. Possibly, this is all against the wishes of Russian President Vladimir Putin; or, at least, against the wishes of some of his aides. Nevertheless, no one from the Russian regime seems keen now to point to the positive role the OSCE might have in defusing the Ukrainian crisis. And, until the opposite is demonstrated, Russia appears not to be prepared to help protect the staff of the OSCE in Ukraine. Thus, the Russian state appears, once and for all, to have abandoned the pretence that international organisations are the way forward to ensure Ukrainian, and European, security. What may ensure such security remains to be seen.

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