The majority of Ukrainians consider the UN peacekeeping mission to be the most preferable way to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine. However, proposals for said UN peacekeeping intervention, like any other peacekeeping mission, have never been a subject of serious negotiations, either between Kyiv and Russia-backed rebels or between Kyiv and Moscow in the Normandy format.
A low intensity conflict
Ukraine has become the top topic of world media due to the mass protests in Kyiv between November 2013 and February 2014 (the Euromaidan revolution) and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. This attention came despite several, more violent conflicts around the world which also required the UN’s involvement. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, the death toll in the conflict in Ukraine was 4,441 in 2014 and 1,315 in 2015 (making 2014 and2015 the high-intensity stage of the conflict). Meanwhile, the 2014 civil wars in Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan caused at least 50,000 casualties, respectively.
From 2016 to nowadays, the Ukrainian conflict has transitioned to a low intensity phase, and the number of battle-related deaths does not exceed 400-450 people annually. Even though the Minsk agreements-2 were not implemented, in the summer of 2015, the intensity of hostilities dropped, and the conflict entered a stage of low intensity. From that time to the present, a status quo has been maintained in the armed conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. On the one hand, there is no progress in resolving the conflict between Kyiv and Russia-backed rebels. On the other, the risk of a major war between Russia and Ukraine is assessed as very low.
Competing peacekeeping proposals
Between 2017 and2018, foreign state and non-state actors proposed competing projects for peacekeeping interventions in the eastern Ukrainian conflict. In September 2017, Russia issued a draft UN Security Council Resolution proposing the deployment of UN forces along the frontline separating the government-controlled territories from the territories controlled by the self-declared DPR / LPR. In response to this proposal in February 2018, former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, whose political consultancy group runs a strategic campaign called the Ukraine Initiative, floated a comprehensive proposal for a peacekeeping force in eastern Ukraine. The proposal of the Ukraine Initiative emphasized that the OSCE mission is also to some extent a peacekeeping mission, but the OSCE mission lacks a clear political goal in its activities, while the draft of the peacekeeping mission of the Ukrainian Initiative had one - the implementation of the Minsk agreements. The peacekeeping proposal of the Ukraine Initiative tried to accommodate the interests of all actors in the conflict (first, Russia, Russia-backed rebels, and Kyiv), but also major great powers to reduce obstacles to its adoption and implementation. However, neither Moscow's proposal nor the Ukrainian Initiative were accepted or implemented.
Among the obvious reasons is mutual distrust between Moscow and Kyiv and Moscow and Washington. However, there are deeper reasons as well. According to the ‘ripeness’ theory, “parties resolve their conflict only when they are ready to do so - when alternative, usually unilateral means of achieving a satisfactory result are blocked and the parties feel that they are in an uncomfortable and costly predicament. At that ripe moment, they seek or are amenable to proposals that offer a way out”. Applying the ripeness theory to the Ukrainian crisis, it is safe to say that both proposals for the introduction of peacekeepers were raised at the wrong time. Between 2017 and2018, the conflict in eastern Ukraine had already gone through the high intensity stage, that is, when a peacekeeping mission could stop the aggression and save human lives. The conflict had already entered a stage of low intensity (the current status quo), and the parties to the conflict found a way to benefit from the current situation and minimize their own losses. Both Moscow and Kyiv expected the conditions to emerge in the future that would allow to achieve victory without having to reach a compromise with their opponent. As Lawrence Freedman put it, ‘With no strategy for bringing their war to a conclusion, Ukraine and Russia are now seeking each other’s exhaustion’.
Both Moscow and Kyiv, supported by the West, considered the possible peacekeeping intervention as a factor that would allow improving their position in the conflict vis-a-vis their opponent, that is, not to settle the conflict through a possible compromise, but to win it. The most illustrative example is the disagreement between Ukraine and Russia around where peacekeepers should be deployed. Moscow offered to deploy peacekeepers at the place of demarcation between the self-proclaimed DPR / LPR and Ukraine-controlled territories, which, of course, would freeze the status quo, make Kyiv's military revenge impossible, and allow Moscow to support the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. On the contrary, Kyiv's position on the peacekeepers contained clear "red lines": peacekeepers should be deployed on the state border between Ukraine and Russia, which, of course, would cut off the separatists from Moscow's support and create conditions for the success of Kyiv's military operation to return the DPR / LPR under Ukrainian control (the so-called "Croatian scenario" similar to the military operation implemented in Serbian Krajina). According to expert estimates, in the absence of military support from Russia, the armies of the self-proclaimed DPR / LPR would have held out no more than 3-5 days against the Ukrainian army. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba claimed the conflict could be resolved in a week if Russia stopped its engagement. Undoubtedly, if peacekeepers were deployed on the border between Ukraine and Russia, it would mean the defeat of Russia in the proxy war in the Donbas part of Ukraine, and, therefore, it would be unacceptable for the Kremlin.
A thorny issue for Ukraine’s civil society
Kyiv's tough diplomatic position, which implies the de facto need for military victory over the self-declared Republics and the restoration of Ukrainian statehood there without any conditions, is a cover for other motives. The Minsk agreements themselves, including autonomy for the DPR / LPR within Ukraine and an amnesty for Russia-backed fighters, are unpopular among Ukrainian political elites and civil society. The Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council openly declared that the Minsk agreements are unfavorable for Ukraine and the Deputy Minister of the Temporarily Occupied Territories considers Donbas as a cancerous tumor that can infect all of Ukraine. There are reasonable risks from the reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk: the Ukrainian state’s weak institutions would not be able to accommodate the separatists territories; while reintegration would slow down or even render Ukraine’s course towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration impossible. Moreover, right-wing radical sentiments would likely grow in Ukraine, potentially leading to clashes between right-wing radicals against the DPR/LPR’s residents and significant expenses for the restoration of destroyed infrastructure in Donbas; while there would be a likely drop in the confidence of residents (and the electorate) of Western Ukraine towards President Zelenskiy. More importantly, Kyiv fears that with the reintegration Russia would acquire powerful leverages of influence on Ukrainian foreign and domestic policy. In a recent interview with the Ukrainian TV channel Dom, which broadcasts on the DPR / LPR, Volodymyr Zelenskiy outlined the priorities of Ukraine’s policy towards Donetsk and Luhansk: reintegration will not come soon (comparison with the Berlin Wall); Donbas will be a depressing territory; and the pro-Russian population needs to leave for Russia.
As such, the failure of the proposals for peacekeeping missions in Ukraine is caused, firstly, by the mutual distrust of the parties and the wrong timing of the proposals for the introduction of peacekeepers. Secondly, it is due to Kyiv's reluctance to implement the Minsk agreements (the declared result of the peacekeeping mission). Ultimately, a peacekeeping mission is doomed to fail when its outcome is less attractive than the status quo.