On Sunday 17 October, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) suspended its Special Monitoring Mission in eastern Ukraine in response to protests by pro-Russian separatists outside its headquarters in Donetsk. Reuters reports that roughly 200 protesters blocked the entrance to the hotel which houses some of the monitors, demanding the release of a rebel officer who has been held captive by the Ukrainian military since last week. The self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) – whose officer was seized by Ukrainian troops – said earlier on Sunday that deputy chief of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, Mark Etherington, had promised to investigate after discussions with Vladislav Deinego, the LPR’s Foreign Minister and Chief Negotiator. The protestors claim that Andrei Kosyak, the LPR officer in question, was captured on 13 October in the disengagement zone near the settlement of Zolotoye. Ukraine’s Security Service alleged he had been carrying out reconnaissance while using mine clearance as cover. Leonid Pasechnik, leader of LPR, has said that further dialogue with Kyiv under the Minsk Protocol is senseless until the officer is released.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine, which began in 2014 with protests by Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region triggered by the annexation of Crimea, has escalated and entrenched over the following years. The OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine is an international civilian observer mission with a mandate to help reduce tensions and foster peace. It was established at the outbreak of open conflict in March 2014 and works to gather and report information on the situation; establish contact with local, regional, and national authorities and representatives; and facilitate dialogue on the ground. Thus, the suspension of the Monitoring Mission will have implications for the conduct of the ongoing conflict. The OSCE’s monitoring report issued on 15 October reported 239 ceasefire violations, including 177 explosions, in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The Chief Monitor of the mission, Yaşar Halit Çevik, told Reuters that “because of our safety concerns and because of our safety rules and considerations we suspended our operations,” though he qualified that so far, the monitors had not felt threatened by the protesters. One of the protesters’ banners reads “OSCE, fulfill your mandate.” According to RBC, a Ukrainian news outlet, observers indicated the protest “obstructed any movement of patrols on 15 and 16 October” and notes that when an OSCE mission was similarly blocked on the Russian border earlier this week, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba branded it a devastating blow to the Minsk agreements.
The obstruction of OSCE activities is certainly a cause for concern, as is the disruption to dialogue under the Minsk Protocol. However, it is also possible to see an opportunity in these developments. While explosions and gunshots continue to echo around the region and show no sign of abating, it is notable that the separatist protestors, with presumed links to the militia in which Kosyak serves, have resorted to such peaceful resistance. If dialogue is the chosen route to resolve this particular dispute, Kyiv, LPR, and the OSCE will have to coordinate and trust one another. There is evidently faith amongst the separatists in the influence and impartiality of the OSCE. A prompt resolution may bring more benefits than the resumption of the Monitoring Mission; it would punctuate the monotony of interactions defined by violence in which all three actors currently live.
The work of the OSCE’s Monitoring Mission is of the utmost importance for recording the conduct of the ongoing violence and its disruption should be condemned. However, it is also important to note that the OSCE mission is mandated not just to report on the conflict but to transform it. In the opportunity to mediate this situation – at the invitation of the LPR and embodied in the protestors – the OSCE has an opportunity to address another of its objectives: the facilitation of dialogue which with time may reduce tensions and foster peace.
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