Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has just performed a sharp about-face: after months of rejecting the idea, he is now calling for United Nations peacekeepers to separate the sides in eastern Ukraine. A UN force really could help secure the country’s dysfunctional truce. It’s a shame that Poroshenko’s proposal is probably only a diplomatic maneuver meant to provide the U.S. with a further argument for arming the Ukrainian military.
Back in July, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed over east Ukraine, apparently by pro-Russian rebels, I wrote that sending in a UN peacekeeping contingent was a good idea and that if Russian President Vladimir Putin resisted it in the UN Security Council, he would reveal himself a party to the conflict, as guilty as those who shot down the plane. But the Ukrainian leadership was dead set against the idea.
Ukraine’s ruling coalition was “categorically against any foreign troops entering Ukrainian territory,” Yury Lutsenko, who heads Poroshenko’s parliamentary faction, said in January. “We don’t need troops from NATO, troops from Russia, troops from China or troops from New Zealand to work out the matter of integrity and sovereignty in Ukrainian Donbass.” As recently as Feb. 7, Poroshenko himself told the Munich Security Conference: “Now, we don’t need a peacekeeping operation, but a truce and the pullout of foreign troops from our country.”
Since that speech, Ukraine and its adversaries have agreed on a truce. But Poroshenko seems to have changed his mind about peacekeepers when the Minsk cease-fire deal was quickly followed by a humiliating defeat of Ukrainian troops at the transport hub of Debaltseve. Last night, after thousands of his soldiers were forced to beat a retreat, he called for a UN mission at a meeting of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.
Poroshenko claims his motivation is maintaining peace. It is more likely, however, that Poroshenko is playing out the scenario I outlined in July, exposing Putin as a guilty party to the international community. Russia, which has a veto in the UN Security Council, the only body authorized to send in “blue helmets,” has already protested Poroshenko’s call. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, said it “raises suspicions that he wants to destroy the Minsk accords.” That makes a UN peacekeeping mandate for Ukraine highly unlikely.
Poroshenko undoubtedly knew how Russia would react. After all, the matter of bringing in peacekeepers was discussed in Minsk last week. So his call was probably aimed at provoking Russia’s public response – and a counter-response from the West. “If Russian blocks this decision, this will untie the West’s hands in supplying us with weapons,” Vadim Denisenko, editor-in-chief of Kiev’s Espreso.tv channel, wrote on Facebook.
But it’s not as if anybody’s hands had been tied until now. Only Putin’s propagandists have voiced any doubt that Moscow has been involved in the fighting since last August. Putin’s continued denials have become increasingly ridiculous, but they have also had a threatening undertone: Russia has not staged a full-scale invasion – yet.
That is to say, there’s no point in trying to make Putin look guilty, because even he knows he already does. Meanwhile, further proof of Russian involvement in Ukraine won’t help Poroshenko’s friends in the U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama’s administration make the case for supplying arms to Kiev. They still have many opponents in the U.S., few of whom will change their minds just because Poroshenko is unable to get help from the UN. If anything, they'll cite it as another reason to keep advanced weaponry out of the hands of a weak military crumbling under pressure from a much stronger foe.
It’s a shame Poroshenko’s move is so belated and meaningless. UN peacekeepers could actually help enforce the Minsk cease-fire which is now endangered by the accumulated bad blood on both sides. Currently, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is the only international force in the conflict zone, and all its observers can do is watch events unfold in those areas where the rebels aren’t keeping them out. The resulting reports are often painfully inadequate. Wednesday’s, for example, noted: “The SMM (Special Monitoring Mission), based on its monitoring – which was restricted due to security considerations – noted that there had been heavy fighting in and around the Debaltseve-Horlivka area. However in many other places, the ceasefire largely held.”
An armed force with a strong international mandate, positioned along the cease-fire proposed separation line, could certainly provide better guarantees that specific rebel or Ukrainian units won’t suddenly launch an attack. It might also deter Putin from seeking further military victories.
Of course, the record of UN peacekeepers is notoriously spotty. They failed to have an effect in Somalia in 1993 and in Rwanda in 1994, and they stood aside during the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in 1995. Yet in 2005, Rand Corporation compared the effectiveness of eight interventions by U.S.-led military coalitions with eight UN peacekeeping missions. It found the UN to be more adept at resolving local conflicts. The countries where the UN intervened were more likely to end up stable, with democratic governments and relatively lower financial assistance needs.
Ukraine, which has seen more than 1 million people flee during the conflict, could certainly benefit from such help. Western leaders should consider reaching out to Putin to discuss forming a UN peacekeeping contingent that he and his proxies in eastern Ukraine would find acceptable. Putin’s steadfast refusal to go all-in in Ukraine shows he is open to freezing the conflict; it would be a mistake to write off the possibility of working out a way to get the UN involved.
Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.