German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urges the rapid deployment of an OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine, arguing that in two weeks it may be too late. What use could such a mission be?
German and US soldiers flew reconnaissance over Russian and Belarus territory earlier this week in the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Their mission was to observe troop movements to learn about possible deployment plans on the Ukrainian border.
On Tuesday, a 12-member OSCE group travelled to eastern Ukraine to investigate how Ukraine handles minorities and human rights in the region. On Thursday, OSCE inspectors launch preparations to monitor Ukraine's presidential elections, scheduled for May 25.
"Perhaps that's confusing for many people," says Thomas Rymer, spokesman at the OSCE Office for Democracy and Human Rights in Warsaw - neither of these has anything to do with the OSCE mission for which German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is calling.
The OSCE is currently underway on several missions in Ukraine, partly because the organization appears to be the only group in which all the parties involved in the Ukraine conflict are members and which is also capable of acting. Russia has dismissed NATO and the European Union as partisan and the UN is practically blocked by Russia's Security Council veto. In addition, the OSCE still has at its disposal a number of rules and instruments that date back to the Cold War era but can still prove useful.
Arms control and reciprocal confidence-building measures which were designed to balance the threat on both sides before the collapse of the Soviet Union are back in demand. Russia is obliged to allow those reconnaissance flights, and it's consistently backed mutual control, especially in the 1992 Open Skies Treaty.
The Russian government has always viewed the OSCE arms control accords as an important confirmation that Moscow continues to be regarded as a superpower. So Moscow has actively ensured that OSCE treaties have been kept up to date, most recently in the Vienna Document of 2011.
Since the start of the crisis in Ukraine, the OSCE has performed a number of smaller monitoring missions that the public barely noticed, says Wolfgang Richter, a security expert with the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and former OSCE inspector. "There've already been several inspections under the Vienna Document," Richter says, adding that Russia has so far agreed to all of the controls along its borders without protest.
But the number of arms control inspections the OSCE is allowed to conduct is limited. Should the West continue to demand inspections at the present rate, Richter warns, Russia's quota for 2014 will soon be exhausted.
So Steinmeier is urging a major OSCE monitoring mission in eastern and southern Ukraine - which is home to many Russians and ethnic Russians and where the basic mood seems to learn more toward Moscow than toward Kyiv.
Western observers meanwhile fear Russian President Putin may instigate a scenario similar to that in Crimea, which was made part of Russia after just a few weeks of Russian provocation, minor unrest and a surprising referendum. "Putin hasn't yet decided how far he is going to go," says European lawmaker Michael Gahler. "That will all depend on how clear our reaction is."
Gahler argues that the rapid deployment of a large OSCE mission in the Donets Basin industrial area could possibly contain what is already becoming a restive situation. Steinmeier is convinced that time is of the essence, arguing that a monitoring mission must be set in motion now because "in a week or two, it could be too late."
Swiss Ambassador Tim Guldiman, who currently chairs the OSCE council, has proposed sending about 100 civilian and military observers to eastern Ukraine for six months. "First of all, we have to determine the facts on the ground," Wolfgang Richter agrees. "That's important because there are quite a few rumors on both sides so it isn't clear what to base political action on." And that's not all. The presence of international monitors in itself can defuse the situation, Richter says. "If someone is preparing for an invasion, they don't want to do so in the presence of international monitors and thus in the limelight of the international community."
The problem is that an extended EU mission that is not explicitly covered by arms controls accords would need to be agreed to by all 57 OSCE member states - including Russia.
Speaking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin agreed to such a mission in general terms, but he gave no details on how many inspectors he would approve, nor for how long.
Russian inspections in Germany?
Should Russia veto the planned deployment of about 100 observers, the move would increase suspicions that Putin isn't satisfied with just Crimea, but that he has an eye on eastern Ukraine, too. In that case, the West could hardly avoid imposing stricter sanctions.
Should Putin agree to the OSCE mission in eastern Ukraine, he will at least try to save face by making demands of his own. Richter expects that in turn, Russia will demand OSCE inspections in Ukraine and several NATO member states: "It'll be interesting to see when the Russians start - and they will do so, just as they did in the Kosovo crisis, where they exhausted all the instruments at their disposal and had inspectors in Germany to see how what military preparations we were making for the crisis."