Last week, at a press conference in Xiamen, China, Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to offer his Western bêtes noires first an olive branch, then a veiled threat. Putin indicated that he would support deploying United Nations peacekeepers along the line of contact in Ukraine—that is, the line separating Ukrainian forces from Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east. He said a UN peacekeeping mission could serve to protect international observers already on the ground in Ukraine, but then immediately warned the United States against providing Ukraine with lethal weapons, a measure that Kiev has long requested and that has been gaining traction in some corners of the Trump administration. The observers already present in Ukraine are from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a regional security organization that has operated a civilian monitoring mission in Ukraine since 2014.
Some have taken Putin’s endorsement of a UN peacekeeping mission as a genuine opening in a conflict that has now dragged on for three and a half years, killed in excess of 10,000 soldiers and civilians and displaced millions from their homes. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned against gambling away the opportunity created by Russia’s apparent shift in policy. After all, this “frozen conflict” continues to grind on, inflicting casualties with grim regularity, while front lines have remained largely unchanged since the summer of 2014. Why not act on signals that Russia might be ready to take steps to end active fighting?
The Kremlin’s proposal may be more Trojan Horse than olive branch, experts say. Rather than sincerely playing peacemaker, Putin may be making a canny move to boost Russia’s position in a deadlocked conflict.
“It’s a clever move by Putin because he wins any way this goes,” said Paul D’Anieri, a fellow at Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute and professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside. “If his offer is accepted—which is very different from the proposal that Ukraine has made for UN peacekeepers—the peacekeepers would go between Ukraine and the Russian-backed forces there. So essentially, it would further divide that territory from Ukraine.”
“If his proposal goes nowhere or is rejected, it looks like he’s held out the olive branch,” D’Anieri said.
Russia’s proposal would allow for UN peacekeepers to deploy only along the line of contact between Ukrainian and separatist forces, rather than throughout the breakaway territories and along the Russian-Ukrainian border, as Kiev has long requested. By confining the UN presence to the existing line of contact, Russia would strengthen the de-facto boundary between Ukraine and the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. For this reason alone, Kiev is not likely to consider the Russian proposal. Indeed, Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs subsequently released a statement insisting that any UN peacekeeping mission must deploy throughout the Donbas and not include Russian personnel.
Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former US Ambassador to Ukraine, said that Putin’s current proposal is a non-starter. “Unless there’s a mandate that allows that peacekeeping force to operate . . . throughout the Donbas and also on the Ukraine-Russian border, my guess is the Ukrainians wouldn’t agree to it and most other countries would say this isn’t going to work,” Pifer said.
Putin need not advance a more viable proposal because, for now, Moscow is content with the status quo, Pifer said. By propping up militant forces in eastern Ukraine, Russia keeps the conflict simmering and applies pressure to Kiev. Public statements like Putin’s maintain the fiction that Russia is a mediator in the conflict, rather than the aggressor.
James Sherr, an associate fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Programme of Chatham House, explained that Putin’s call for peacekeepers may be an attempt to sow discord between the United States and its allies in Western Europe, who are wary of the Trump administration’s more hawkish approach to the Ukrainian conflict. That Germany was so quick to signal its interest in a Russian peacekeeping plan indicates that Putin’s gambit might succeed.
Sherr went on, “Sigmar Gabriel, the German foreign minister, already said, ‘this is an important change in policy, and we should not gamble it away.’ When he talks about gambling it away, who is he speaking to? He’s speaking to Washington. ’Don’t throw this away by sending weapons to Ukraine’.”
“It’s not serious for Putin,” Sherr said, “but it’s very good at putting a spanner in the works.”
Both Germany and France have resisted sending lethal aid to Ukraine, preferring to rely on sanctions as the sole coercive deterrent for Russia. Sherr explained that this policy emerges from an aversion, particularly in Berlin, to exacerbating a European land war, which Moscow has exploited. Putin does seem to be targeting Germany with his proposal: in a later phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he raised the possibility of deploying peacekeepers throughout Donbas, not just along the line of contact.
“Anything military is anathema,” Sherr said. “The fear that exists still inside German political culture of war in Europe and armies fighting in Europe has been well appreciated in Moscow.”
Taras Kuzio, a senior research associate at the University of Alberta specializing in Ukrainian politics and security, said Putin’s call for peacekeepers might also indicate that Moscow has grown nervous about the Trump administration’s more bellicose and unpredictable Ukraine policy, compared to Obama’s. At first, Moscow hoped that a Trump presidency would lead to a grand bargain in which Russia and the United States would carve up Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, like 19th-century potentates. Instead, as Trump has sought to distance himself from Russia, his administration has become more hawkish on the Ukraine conflict than Obama’s ever was, with senior officials exploring whether to provide Ukraine with lethal military hardware.
Even more, as sanctions bleed the Russian economy, Moscow’s support for the Donbas further drains state resources. With Ukraine’s military growing more formidable by the day, Putin may be seeking to shake up what he sees as a deteriorating position.
Kuzio sees Putin in a bind. “The longer this goes on, this is very costly for Russia. It’s costly for Russia in terms of propping up these proxy enclaves financially, economically, militarily, and also because of Western sanctions, which are crippling the Russian economy. I think Putin is genuinely afraid of where this is all going,” he said.
Putin’s jousting with the West is unlikely to play out in this year’s UN General Assembly, which began this week in New York City. Instead, the Security Council will decide whether and how a peacekeeping mission might deploy to Ukraine.
Photo: The sheared trunk of a tree destroyed by shelling on the outskirts of Schastia, a small town a few kilometers from the front line in Ukraine. Schastia was under the control of the self-proclaimed Lukhansk People’s Republic (LNR) for about three months in the spring and summer of 2014, before Ukrainian forces resumed control. Courtesy of Ben Dalton.