Ukraine, Russia agree to deploy armed OSCE mission in Donbas

By bne IntelliNews October 20, 2016

The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France agreed to deploy an armed police mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the war–torn Donbas region to secure preparations for local elections, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on October 20 after talks in Berlin that also set the need for a new road map for implementing the peace process.

The meeting, in which participation of all four leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin was not assured until shortly beforehand, reaffirmed the sides’ commitment to fulfil the Minsk accords on ending the conflict in East Ukraine that killed some 10,000 people since it began in mid-2014.

“To facilitate preparations for local elections in future, when security conditions let us hold those elections, we’ll now make an attempt to deploy an armed – or as we call it – police mission of the OSCE, which will ensure security amid both the voting process and the transition period,” Interfax quoted Poroshenko as saying after more than four hours of talks with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.

Meanwhile, the new road map will consist of political, security and humanitarian measures, Poroshenko said. “Only a year-and-a-half ago, no one even wanted to hear about a road map,” he said, referring to the Russian side. Now it will be developed by the end of November and signed by the four leaders, he added.

The need for security improvements before holding elections has been a main sticking point for the Donbas peace process over the past year. Citing the Minsk accords reached by the sides in the Belarusian capital in 2015, Ukrainian authorities also demand control over the border with Russia in the east to prevent supplies of Russian weapons and personnel before there can be elections in rebel-held areas. The Kremlin rejects any security preconditions and wants the polls to go ahead in the Donbas at the earliest date.

In turn, Merkel said Ukraine should regain full control of the occupied border “only at the end of the process”. Arming the OSCE police mission will be discussed only after the election law and process is prepared, she said.

At the same time, Poroshenko insisted that “all foreign troops” must be unconditionally pulled out from rebel-held areas before local elections, in a reference to Russian army forces, despite Moscow’s insistence that it has no troops in Ukraine.

Other specific measures sought include a ceasefire, observance of the disengagement regime, the release of prisoners, unrestricted access for OSCE mission staff to all areas.

However, observers predict that the only way an OSCE police mission can be introduced to Donbas to the deep extent as it was described by the Ukrainian president is if a sizable contingent of nationals of Russia and Russia-sphere countries is included in the mission.

“Of course, this is a recipe for disaster and Ukraine will reject such a proposal,” commented analyst Zenon Zawada of the Concorde Capital brokerage in Kyiv. “It remains unclear whether the Europeans will accept such a proposal, particularly if it’s couched in the language of ‘fairness’ and ‘democracy’. Other agreements reached were almost comical, such as the plan to withdraw soldiers from Debaltseve, as we are confident the Russians will never surrender this trophy.”

Nevertheless, it was a main accomplishment of the Berlin meeting that the four leaders got together at one table amid rising global tensions also over Syria, with Russia increasingly accused of war crimes in its military intervention in the civil war there.

Russia was not expecting “any breakthroughs” at the meeting, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said shortly before the summit’s start. “Ideally, the best outcome would be a Ukrainian obligation to implement the Minsk agreements the way it is written in the document signed by the relevant heads of state,” Interfax quoted Peskov as saying.

Merkel also said earlier that “one musn’t expect any wonders” from the summit but that “it is worth every endeavour on this issue to take efforts forward”.

In the event, the meeting concluded with less of the visible tensions that followed other talks on East Ukraine.

“All participants of today’s meeting have confirmed that the basis of a settlement on the south-east of Ukraine should be based on the Minsk agreement, all reaffirmed their commitment to these agreements,” Putin told journalists after the talks, according to TASS news agency.

The Russian president also confirmed that it was agreed that OSCE monitors will “broaden their mission” in the conflict zone.

“No plan B to Minsk”

Speaking before the start of the summit, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said there was no alternative to continuing to work on the Minsk agreement. “I told the Ukrainians there was no plan B to the Minsk accords. Some think there is a plan B, which is confronting Russia, which we don’t want,” he said, according to Reuters.

On October 11, Hollande said that holding elections in Donbas is the key condition to resolving the conflict, also saying Ukrainian government control over the border with Russia could be restored after the vote.

This statement triggered strong criticism by Ukrainian government officials, the country’s  political experts and far-right nationalist groups. “I’m telling you, Mr Hollande, don't you dare us to abandon Ukrainian territories and millions of lives of our citizens to Putin’s regime just because you find this convenient,” Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in an official statement.

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