More Than Counting Shots: Working Towards a More Effective OSCE in Ukraine

23 September 2020   ·   Johanna Suhonen

The implementation of the mandate of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine is centred on ceasefire monitoring at the expense of economic, environmental, or human rights concerns. Germany should advocate for a more balanced focus within the mission, suggest longer reporting cycles, and request a comprehensive conflict analysis to refocus efforts.

Over six years into the conflict in eastern Ukraine, a low-intensity war is fought in silence at the gates of Europe. Despite reduced media coverage, developments in Ukraine are of significant importance to European security; the Ukraine conflict has a clear international dimension and is, in essence, about geopolitics and clashing views on international norms.  

The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) acts as the international community’s eyes and ears throughout the country. The OSCE is the only international organization with wide – yet limited – access to separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine. The SMM’s mandate is to gather information, establish facts and report on the security situation and specific incidents, and to monitor and support respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The mission engages with authorities at all levels, as well as civil society, ethnic and religious groups, and local communities. The ultimate goal of the SMM is to reduce tensions and facilitate dialogue between all sides.  

The Mission Lacks a Comprehensive Approach to Security  

Without the SMM’s presence, the security situation in eastern Ukraine would undoubtedly be worse. However, the OSCE has failed to implement its comprehensive approach to security in Ukraine. This approach encompasses three dimensions: the politico-military (cooperation and confidence-building measures), the economic and environmental (good governance and environmental awareness), and the human dimension (the promotion of rule of law and human rights).    

The SMM's activities are heavily focused on the politico-military dimension, yet the economic and environmental, as well as the human dimension are marginalized: despite having invested in technical means of monitoring, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, cameras, and acoustic sensors, a great majority of the SMM’s human resources is used on ceasefire monitoring and reporting. The SMM’s politicized nature and focus on “hard” security is visible in the SMM daily reports, which almost solely contain information on ceasefire violations, disengagement areas, and freedom of movement restrictions encountered by the SMM. The extreme scrutiny of daily reports by the 57 participating States of the OSCE, as well as interventions such as démarche, through which participating States can question the validity of reported facts, limit critical analysis.  

In contrast, other aspects of the SMM mandate – and two of the OSCE’s three dimensions – are given little weight. For example, SMM Infrastructure Liaison Officers who facilitate critical infrastructure repair works were originally tasked with conducting regional infrastructure assessments in eastern Ukraine. However, because the SMM’s Human Dimension Units (HDUs) remain under-resourced, they have not been able to start this work for the last five years.  

Structural Problems and a Lack of Coordination Impede a Strategic Approach  

The SMM also lacks a strategic approach. No comprehensive conflict analysis has been carried out during its existence, which means the mission still tends to be reactive instead of seizing opportunities to implement its mandate in a proactive manner. A strategic, integrated approach in operational planning is also hindered by the SMM’s structural problems: Its organizational culture is based on siloed units with little coordination between them. Even the leadership operates in silos as the mission has two Deputy Chief Monitors: one focusing on the politico-military aspects of the conflict, the other on human dimension, economic and environmental related matters.  

In the same vein, synergies between the OSCE’s own instruments are lost. In addition to the SMM, the OSCE has another mission in the country, the Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine (PCU), which supports long-term societal development. On the Russian side of Ukraine’s eastern border, the OSCE has the Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk (OM). PCU’s activities cover the economic and environmental and human dimensions better than the activities of the SMM. Yet, cooperation and coordination between the two missions is not institutionalized but depends on the activeness and contacts of individual staff members.  

For example, the PCU has funded a Mine Action database for Ukrainian deminers. The SMM would have benefited from access to it; this would have saved human resources and reduced security risks. Despite requesting it, the SMM’s access was denied and the mission had to develop its own database. Also, there is no cooperation with the OM, apart from the information the OM shares regarding crossing trains. Yet the significance of this information is questionable, as the OM is only able to observe wheeled transport in a marginal area. It cannot see the trains or their cargo – it only hears them.  

Longer Reporting Cycles Could Help to Avoid Unintentionally Increasing Tensions

Furthermore, through some of its activities the SMM occasionally contributes to increasing tensions instead of reducing them. The mission publishes public daily reports. This reporting cycle requires a significant amount of human resources and time. Daily reports are produced under constant time pressure, which is conducive to errors. The conflict parties read the reports meticulously and use this material and possible errors for their propaganda and criticism against the SMM and the adversary. Disinformation and propaganda negatively affect the public image of the mission, which ultimately increases the security risks that SMM personnel face. Over six years into the conflict, public daily reports provide no added value. The SMM and participating States could benefit from a more analytical weekly and monthly reporting cycle.  

To improve the efficiency of the SMM and wider peacebuilding efforts in Ukraine, OSCE member states like Germany can advocate for the following three changes:  

1. Push for a More Balanced Focus in the Implementation of the SMM Mandate

The 2014-2015 Minsk Agreements made ceasefire monitoring the SMM’s main task. Over the years, the mission has increasingly focused on producing this quantitative data at the expense of matters pertaining to economic and environmental and human dimensions. Germany, as well as other participating States, should instigate a shift in focus towards the other dimensions, since a more balanced focus would better address the root causes of the conflict. The SMM mandate does not necessarily need to be amended as it implicitly covers all three OSCE dimensions. The issue is one of mandate interpretation and setting priorities.  

German policymakers should highlight the need for better allocation of human resources. For example, they could request the SMM to produce infrastructure assessment reports covering issues beyond the critical humanitarian infrastructure, e.g. factories, roads, transportation, and communication. These are common interests to all parties of the conflict and could lend an opportunity for dialogue and cooperation across the contact line between Ukrainian armed forces and Russian-backed separatists. Indeed, whilst it remains to be seen whether the Minsk peace process – seen as leading to an unjust peace by a significant number of Ukrainians – is one that will lead to conflict resolution, it is crucial to seek to improve the lives of those who directly and indirectly suffer from the war. The SMM is well positioned to feed into these efforts.    

2. Address Structural Problems Within the Mission to Foster Closer Cooperation Between Different Entities

The mentioned shift in focus could highlight one structural problem: there is no counterpart to HDUs in the OSCE Secretariat in the same way as there is, for example, a Gender Section to support those who work in the field of gender. Other OSCE entities that work on human dimension matters, such as the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, have no role in supporting human dimension experts working for the SMM. This renders their work difficult, because without top-down guidance there is little moral will in the SMM to engage on complex issues.  

German policymakers should raise the above-mentioned structural and institutional problems, including lack of synergies and obstacles to a comprehensive approach, in relevant fora in order to initiate structural development or to find ways to work around the issues. For example, with regard to synergies, suitable areas for cooperation between the SMM and PCU could be dialogue facilitation, reintegration of Ukrainian ex-combatants, and mine awareness – just to mention a few.  

3.  Request a Comprehensive Conflict Analysis to Refocus Efforts Effectively  

Germany should press for the SMM to carry out a comprehensive conflict analysis. This would help to design new interventions and to make activities more conflict-sensitive; and to measure how the SMM’s activities and conflict dynamics in Donbas interact.  

This would tie into the need to measure change. The SMM has produced thematic reports, but their preparation could be more systematic and structured. More methodologically coherent qualitative and quantitative reports that cover the whole of Ukraine are needed to establish baselines and produce proper data sets. This is the only way to measure change and the SMM’s impact over a long period of time. A conflict analysis would, naturally, also feed into conflict resolution efforts at the political (Normandy Four) level.

Zivil-militärische Zusammenarbeit Friedensförderung Ukraine

Johanna Suhonen

Johanna Suhonen has held research and expert positions within Finnish Defence Forces International Centre, Finnish Defence Research Agency, and Crisis Management Centre Finland projects. She has served twice in KFOR, Kosovo, and recently as Reporting and Political Analysis Team Manager within the OSCE SMM in eastern Ukraine.