Interview: Ukraine conflict on the brink | News | DW | 12.12.2016

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Interview: Ukraine conflict on the brink

DW sat down with Alexander Hug, Deputy Chief of the OSCE's monitoring mission to Ukraine, to discuss the situation on the ground. He warned of a conflict on the brink of deteriorating.

The OSCE's Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine has about 600 monitors from member states. They are tasked with monitoring and reporting ceasefire violations and the withdrawal of heavy weapons along the 500 kilometer (310 mile) conflict line in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government, Russia and rebels in the east of the country have signed the Minsk agreements to bring an end to the conflict and find a political solution.

DW: Is the fighting in eastern Ukraine heading towards a frozen conflict?

Alexander Hug: The conflict in the east is far from frozen, it's the opposite. Weapons are moving, troops are moving and there are ceasefire violations. We can only see a fraction of what is happening, we see the tip of a large, dangerous iceberg. The situation is static but unpredictable, very volatile and very kinetic. These are not the characteristics of what a frozen conflict would be like.

Ukraine Zaitsevo Alexander Hug Chefredakteur der OSCE vor beschädigtem Schulgebäude

Alexander Hug (L) near a school damaged in shelling on the village of Zaitsevo.

There is sometimes criticism of the Minsk talks as dialogue just to talk for the sake of talk itself without yielding concrete results.

What is important, and one cannot undervalue it, is the importance of dialogue itself. One has to imagine a situation where there is no dialogue in this conflict, where at the big platform the East and West do not talk, and where on the small platform across the conflict line there is no direct or indirect dialogue. The situation would be much worse. Right now there are open channels at all levels that can be used to find ways to address a situation that is often at the brink of deteriorating.

Results are not immediately visible as far as the disappearance to kinetic activities or end of senseless death of civilians. This is a complex situation, ceasefires in general are messy, it is not a straightforward affair. It requires that the stakeholders and everyone involved sit at the table and continue discussing. If that breaks down it will be very difficult to find ways out of that very difficult and complex situation.

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Maybe not immediately, but there are instances where the situation has gotten worse and the Minsk talks have led to a lessening of hostilities before boiling up again.

We know that when the sides that have signed up to Minsk agree in Minsk and recommit to a ceasefire, it will stop and it's possible that it stops within hours. So this isn't a question of whether or not there is command and control. It is a question of will. Because it is a question of will they cannot only stop it but they can also continue it.  

At the same time, I would like to be clear that one should never accept the current reality of a thousand ceasefire violations a day on average, almost 500 explosions a week originating from weapons that are proscribed by Minsk as the new normal.

What are the main obstacles you face in fulfilling your mission?

The major obstacle is security. If there is active fighting in certain areas, it prevents us from coming close. It is also the [conflicting] sides that restrict us in our movements. They stop us at checkpoints, they make us wait at checkpoints, they threaten us at gunpoint, tell us to go back.

Most of these restrictions and impediments to our mandate occur in areas not controlled by the government. They occur not just on the contact line but also on the way to the border area not controlled by the government.

Much of what we see there is limited and highly controlled. Our technology is also interfered with electronically through jamming of our UAVs. Our cameras that we have installed are often subject to interference.

All this only proves one thing. Those that hamper us in our work do not want us to see what's going on the ground.

Which side commits the most violations?

The freedom of movement restrictions occur mainly in the areas not controlled by the government. Ceasefire and withdrawal violations… there we cannot make a quantitative assessment. What we know is that both sides violate the terms of the Minsk agreements with regards to ceasefire violations and weapons withdrawals.  

The cost of violating Minsk is very minimal and the international community seems to be getting used to this constant high number of violations as normal. There has to be a reaction to this, the cost of violating Minsk has to increase. An important first step in that direction would be to find a way to follow up on violations both to hold those to account who violated, but also as an indirect preventative measure to prevent more of the same.

It starts at the ground level - you have some disciplinary measures in any military formation. There it starts and goes up the chain of command. Anybody who pulls a trigger has either done it on order or in violation of an order.

The SMM also has a sort of humanitarian side that doesn't get much attention. Can you discuss that role?

The SMM is not a humanitarian aid organization - we don't deliver food or medicine. But we provide information. Our monitors, for example, go into a village and they tell us there is no water because electricity has been cut or a pipeline shelled. That goes into our report the next day. Our staff are in close contact with the UN, International Committee of the Red Cross and others that can deliver aid. Then they know what the problem is and we facilitate access through enabling localized ceasefires and negotiate access for aid. I think this is again where the OSCE plays a very important role to help civilians indirectly.

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