Exclusive: Russian-Backed Fighters Are Still Getting Stronger, OSCE Observers Say

September 15, 2015
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko addresses the Yalta European Strategy Conference (YES) in Kiev on September 11, 2015

On Friday, September 11, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko took to the stage at the Yalta European Strategy (YES) Conference, which is now held in Kiev since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Poroshenko proudly pronounced that in the previous 24 hour period, and for the first time in a year and a half, there was not a single ceasefire violation across the entire country. Whereas no one, if they were being honest, thought that either Minsk agreement could bring an immediate ceasefire, in Kiev, at the moment, for the first time in a long time, peace seems within reach.

But that peace is fragile, and may already be fraying. Just a few hours after Poroshenko left the stage, new reports of fighting were reported. The “ceasefire” which took place on September 1 may have cooled most of the fighting, but Ukrainian soldiers are once again dying on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine. Furthermore, the official international body in charge of monitoring the ceasefire sees no evidence that the Russian-backed fighters are drawing down — in fact they are getting stronger.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe (OSCE) is an international body of 57 countries, of which Russia is a member, which has been mandated to observe the state of crisis in eastern Ukraine. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) has deployed 536 monitors to the areas near the front lines of battle, and the people who are in charge of monitoring the conflict have a lot to say about the realities of “peace” in the embattled territories of the Donbass.

OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier told me that his mission is seeking to take advantage of this relative lull in fighting to ramp up its efforts to establish a more permanent peace. “We have to make the most of it while it lasts,” Zannier said. The OSCE SMM is working to repair crucial infrastructure, restoring water and electricity to millions of people both in territory controlled by Russian-backed fighters and those lucky enough to still be living on the Ukrainian side of the demarcation line. These civilians have been cut off from the most basic essentials, but the OSCE has struggled to work on these projects, taking advantage of short, local ceasefires that had to be negotiated with both sides. Now, with the conflict cooled, the OSCE is quickly wrapping up most of these efforts.

But the OSCE is also working to secure diplomatic victories which could ensure a long-term peace. They are preparing to monitor the withdrawal of heavy weapons from within a certain distance from the line of contact, just one issue being hashed out at ongoing trilateral meetings in Minsk, Belarus, between representatives of the Ukrainian government, the Russian-backed fighters, the Russian government, France, and Germany. Once this clause is agreed upon, the OSCE SMM will have to report on the progress on the ground on both sides of the conflict. In the past, this means that the OSCE SMM has published a daily record of violations of international agreements. The hope is that this time things are different.

“We are working on both scenarios,” Zannier told me, referring to the hope of peace and the fear of ongoing war. “We tend to favor the more benign scenario. We want to reposition resources to respond to different possibilities.”

But Zannier is also working to prepare to monitor local elections which will be held across Ukraine on October 25. The OSCE has monitored elections in Ukraine for several years, but since the outbreak of war their efforts have become complicated. A key part of both the Minsk Protocol signed in September 2014 (one year ago last week, in fact) and “Minsk II” signed in February, is that local elections will be held, according to Ukrainian law, across separatist-controlled territory in Donetsk and Lugansk. But the OSCE can only monitor polling stations by request of the Ukrainian government, and the government in Kiev cannot open polling stations in separatist areas without cooperation of local leadership. So far, while the OSCE has begun advanced preparations in all areas of Ukraine controlled by the government, Russian-backed fighters have blocked those efforts in the Donbass. “For the time being we have nothing in place to observe those local elections,” Zannier lamented. No one, then, is expecting that the separatist territories will comply with this essential part of the agreements which they have signed.

“If we use the ceasefire to start the political process we can maybe get others to see the benefits of this,” he said, optimistically.

OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier

OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier

An OSCE Drone May Have Been Shot Down In Self-Declared “Donetsk People’s Republic”

Yet both OSCE Secretary General Zannier and Michael Bociurkiw, spokesperson for the OSCE SMM, told me that there are other reasons of concern in eastern Ukraine. For starters, the jamming of OSCE drones (UAVs) which are observing separatist-controlled areas has only gotten worse. The OSCE has lost control of several UAVs near the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic” in recent months, and new jamming technology spotted by the OSCE is a likely culprit. Separatist leaders recently admitted that they have sophisticated drone-jamming equipment, and pictures taken by men in a unit associated with Russian soldiers, the Vostok Battalion, prove that the R-330ZH “Zhitel” jamming system, the same system spotted by OSCE drones, is present on the front lines between Donetsk and Mariupol.

“We have mounted [the UAVs] with anti-jamming technology, but the jamming is military grade high spec jamming, the anti-jamming device does not always protect [the UAV],” Zannier said. Where else would separatists get such sophisticated equipment, making its appearance on the battlefields of Ukraine recently, than from the Russian military?

Furthermore, jamming is not the only way the drones are being downed. Zannier said that in a recent incident the OSCE lost track of a drone. When they deployed to the area to find it they were blocked by separatist fighters, observers did see, however, scorch marks on the ground consistent with the launching of ground-to-air missiles. “We are pretty sure it was shot down.”

Zannier will not come out and say it, but it is pretty clear to him that “someone” is aiding the separatists, and it is pretty clear to anyone following this story that “someone” is Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the YES conference, Zannier told the crowd that the “militants” have huge amounts of ammunition, and are still strengthening. When asked in private whether he saw any evidence of a draw down, he said no. “We only have two observer stations on the border with Russia,” both of which are in Russia – the OSCE has very rare and very limited access to the Ukraine side of the border in this area. “We can basically see two kilometers.” While the OSCE has never witnessed Russian armor crossing into Ukraine, the OSCE says that 475 kilometers of the border are under separatist control, and military hardware is still showing up on the battlefield. The OSCE has found tracks, however, of vehicles which have crossed from Russia into Ukraine.

Zannier and Bociurkiw both admitted that their teams have witnessed Russian drones, which are careful to never cross the border while visible to OSCE teams, observing their positions. Clearly equipment and soldiers are crossing the border away from OSCE’s eyes. Furthermore, since last September the OSCE stations have officially witnessed more than 20,000 fighters in camouflage cross the border, not soldiers but “men who like to fight,” from their two limited checkpoints on the Russian side of the border. When they have raised this concern with the Russian government, whose obligation it is to prevent armed militants from crossing into a neighbor’s territory, Zannier says that the Russians get defensive. “’We check to make sure they don’t carry weapons.’” Zannier added, “obviously they find weapons on the other side of the border.” In fact, OSCE observers regularly hear the familiar sounds of training exercises just kilometers across the border in Ukrainian territory. When they raise this issue with Russia, Zannier says they are told that the OSCE mission is to “see, not hear.”

Zannier postulated that there are plenty of other border crossings across the roughly 473 kilometers of border which the Russian-backed militants control and the OSCE cannot observe. There are also several operational rail lines from Russia into this territory, and since the fall of Debaltsevo in February it is possible for trains to travel from Russia all the way to Donetsk.

Even in areas where there is now a ceasefire, signs of Russian military involvement are everywhere. Zannier accompanied the OSCE SMM to areas near Shirokino, an infamous battle zone east of the coastal city of Mariupol. While he witnessed no fighting, he was impressed with the professional nature of the “separatist” defenses. “You have the feeling from what you hear that the Ukrainian army is facing a group of rebels. You look at their setup with minefields and trenches and you see this is a proper military complex. This is not a bunch of revolutionary guys. This is a proper armed conflict.”

There are other signs that the Russians are not following the Minsk plan. Russian-backed separatists are switching over to using the Russian ruble as their currency, a move which is driving massive inflation as the ruble devalues. In what Bociurkiw calls “creeping institutionalization,” the separatists are also requiring companies and NGOs to register. These moves will be hard to reverse if the reunification that Minsk calls for ever takes place. The humanitarian consequence is clearly visible. Residents of Donetsk and Lugansk who cross the border to access ATMs, banks, to visit relatives or to purchase much needed supplies like medicine have great difficulty returning home, often spending hours in line at Ukrainian checkpoints as soldiers check for spies or operatives. Locals express their growing frustration with OSCE observers, the only visible presence of the international community on the ground in this war zone.

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about Russia’s motivations. Russia has not cooperated on many issues for many months, yet they are suddenly eager to see “peace,” it seems. “You should really ask the Russians why they are suddenly becoming more cooperative with this. The Ukrainian motivations are clear, they are looking for a respite. The Ukrainian side is easier to understand. The Russian side is more difficult.” One thought is that Putin does not want to travel to the United States for the UN General assembly next month while the conflict in Ukraine is raging. “It is obvious,” Zannier said, “that Putin does not want to be in New York with the baggage of what’s going on in Ukraine. But after that it is a question mark – is this [ceasefire] going to last?”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko would like expanded OSCE observation powers, and while the OSCE mission is set to expand from 5 observation hubs to 13, from 500+ observers to nearly 1000, Zannier told me that there is discussion about the possibility of “militarizing” the mission, shifting from a civilian observation mission to a military peacekeeping mission. Such a move would protect observers from gunfire, allow for greater freedom of movement, empower the mission to conduct both observation and infrastructure repair missions closer to the front, and allow for the potential of a more permanent peacekeeping operation. However, such a move would likely require action from the UN Security Council and up to now some members, most notably Russia, don’t appear to want that. The OSCE is careful to be vague enough so as not to insult the Kremlin and jeopardize their already fragile mission, but our impression is that Russia is not interested in any change which could subject it to greater scrutiny.

Zannier and Bociurkiw both note that even if heavy weapons are withdrawn further away from the line of demarcation, separatist armor could return to the front lines in just hours, perhaps less. A frozen conflict, then, could be restarted by Putin at a moment’s notice, perhaps after the UN General Assembly, or after local elections in Ukraine at the end of October, or perhaps after the new Russian military deployment to Syria is more established.

Furthermore, there is concern that the world, and even the Ukrainian government, might accept a peace that is not really a peace. As the OSCE leaders warn that the Minsk agreements are still going unfulfilled, Ukrainian leaders and their allies are working hard to remind the European Union that even with a ceasefire in the Donbass there are Russian soldiers occupying both Donetsk and Lugansk but also illegally-annexed Crimea, a fact not easy to escape for anyone attending this conference named after Crimea’s most famous city.

But there are also concerns that the ceasefire is not what Ukraine says it is. Last week, as the ceasefire was taking hold, the OSCE reports indicated more fighting than reports from both the Ukrainian military and the separatist leadership indicated. Both Zannier and Bociurkiw accept that there is some truth to this, though Zannier clarified that some of the recent explosions heard by the OSCE were the result of the detonation of dangerous unexploded shells, ordnance, called “UXO” by arms experts. But a report from the Ukrainian government on September 12 reported that there was only limited fighting near Donetsk airport, where small arms and grenade fire had been exchanged. One Ukrainian soldier was wounded. The OSCE report which covers that same time frame, on the other hand, said that more than 80 explosions were overheard by OSCE observers, included 44 near Donetsk where a fight broke out 9-11 kilometers north of Donetsk. Explosions were also heard in Lugansk, though the SMM discovered that these were training exercises on both sides of the demarcation line. T-72 tanks, weapons almost certainly provided by the Russian military, were spotted between Donetsk and Mariupol, as were Strela-10 anti-aircraft missiles, sophisticated weapons that, as our upcoming report on Russian military involvement will attest are likely operated by Russian soldiers.

In his morning briefing on September 14, military spokesperson for the Ukrainian presidential administration, Colonel Andriy Lysenko, reported that two Ukrainian soldiers had been killed, another two wounded, and one had disappeared over the previous 24 hours, with fighting north of Donetsk and near Schastye, northwest of Lugansk. Again on September 15, another two Ukrainian soldiers were wounded near Gorlovka.

Is the declaration of “peace” coming too early? Perhaps the term needs to be redefined. This is not peace, but “Russian peace,” and it may be here to stay in Ukraine.

Either way, the Ukrainian people and its government are now realizing that their economic struggles have only just begun. Winter is coming, costs are rising, government subsidies have been cut, and the long-suffering of the Ukrainian people is beginning to show – all while winter is just around the corner. Those whose job it is to monitor this crisis agree that Putin may not be done with the Donbass, there is no evidence he is willing to give up land he has stolen, Crimea is still firmly in the possession of the Russian government, and with fighting decreasing there are concerns that Ukraine will soon be a fading priority for Western nations with other more pressing concerns.