The OSCE Police Mission in Ukraine – Not Mission Impossible

Apr 20, 2018 | Yevgen Zagudaev

In early 2016, Ukraine requested the deployment of an OSCE armed-police mission to its eastern regions to provide security in the run-up to the elections stipulated by the Minsk armistice. Two years later, discussions between Germany, Russia, France, and Ukraine (the so-called Normandy format) and talks between the EU and OSCE leadership have failed to produce agreement on the mission’s mandate or scope. Why has it been an “impossible mission” to establish and mobilize an OSCE armed mission? And what lessons can Ukraine’s experience offer regarding the OSCE’s aims to foster peace in the country? 

Two critical challenges contributed to the ongoing failure of the OSCE to mobilize a stabilizing armed force. The first was the lack of dynamic political support among OSCE members and OSCE leadership. In March 2016, Germany’s Foreign Affairs Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that Germany supported the development of an OSCE mission and encouraged input from the parties to the conflict—Ukraine and Russia. However, absent OSCE leadership, the proposal went nowhere. 

An earlier OSCE mission, the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM), was successfully deployed as a result of calculated public pressure from EU leadership to facilitate the implementation of the September 2014 Minsk Protocol. The SMM’s deployment was further supported by OSCE member states, which provided observers to document violations and created a transparent forum to keep the issue in the public domain. 

The second critical challenge was the perception that the OSCE police presence could not enhance security in the region. Studies show that peacekeeping helps to end conflict when it is backed by a credible threat of force and within the context of a negotiated and mutually accepted framework for peace, which is not the case in eastern Ukraine. The deployment of an armed police mission would have had a negative effect on the separatists’ sense of security, thus likely exacerbating tensions.  

The OSCE’s best chance to impact the conflict in Ukraine could be as part of a larger peacekeeping effort. Ukraine’s recent international and domestic efforts demonstrate its readiness for a reasonable compromise. Likewise, Russia’s proposal for the deployment of UN forces along the contact line, while perceived with suspicion in the West, has also revived discussions on ways to resolve the conflict. Perhaps most importantly, there is renewed political will to end the conflict: Germany announced that it is ready to contribute troops to the mission, and US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, Kurt Volker, met with officials in Russia to discuss options for UN force deployments.  

The OSCE has several critical advantages as it contemplates enhancing its efforts in Ukraine and strengthening its role as a major security actor in Eastern Europe. It is well connected in Ukraine through its field mission and possesses valuable knowledge of the situation on the ground through the SMM. It has also gained considerable experience dealing with local separatists that would benefit any peacekeeping effort under the UN. Additionally, its ability to rapidly mobilize and operationalize a complex mission in a hostile environment has been tested in Ukraine and proven successful. Finally, this presents an opportunity for the OSCE to further develop and test its operational frameworks for crisis response while cooperating with other international and internal security actors.