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Lyudmyla Pavlyuk

Guards for Ukraine’s Frontier:
Who Can Help Ukraine Close Its Front Door?

The “door” is too widely open, by around 450 kilometers. That is the length of the unprotected part of Ukraine’s border with Russia that is not controlled by the Ukrainian authorities. It has been opened, even smashed, in brutal ways, most memorably in July 2014, when Ukrainian soldiers were forced to abandon sections of the borderline due to heavy shelling with Grad missiles from Russian territory. Russian promoters of the conflict do not agree to the closure of  this free illegal entrance because maintaining the current chaos is the easiest way to conduct the war, and at the same time to tell the world that they are not involved.

How can the functionality of Ukraine’s eastern border be restored, and simply – how can it be returned to Ukraine? This is the key to ending the war in the east and preventing it from sprawling over the rest of the country. One response to this challenge, in addition to the national protective measures, could be international solutions, such as calling for peacekeepers in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Frontier and Ukraine as a Frontier

Transparency of international borders in the contemporary world varies greatly, from barely seen pathways between territories, to massive complex fortifications. Thickness of boundaries often reflects the existing reality or probability of war between neighboring nations. Until February 2014, the prospect of a military encounter between Ukraine and Russia was excluded from the public mind, so the absence of a real, well-protected border between the two countries might have looked justifiable. Yet this state of absolute transparency was neither innocent nor self-occurring. Those interested in maintaining the illusion of “common space,” made conscious efforts to keep the border in the most non-tangible form.

Ukrainians remember decade-long talks about the need for demarcation, to which Russia responded with disinterest or “concern,” and remained inactive, even after signing a treaty with Ukraine on the matter in 2010. In fall 2014, in accord with spur-of-the-moment demands of security, Prime Minister of Ukraine Arsenii Yatseniuk announced that the demarcation would be carried out in a one-side manner, since Russia opposed it. Alexei Pushkov, head of the committee on foreign affairs in Russian State Duma, commented on this in terms of an ultimatum: “If you want to receive later a whole lot of problems after the one-sided demarcation, then this is a correct way to proceed.” It is difficult to imagine a more cynical response, given that at that time Crimea already had Russian administration, and tanks from Russia were rolling across Donbas.

In addition to the external resistance to anything that would distance Ukraine from a former “chief” Soviet republic, there were also domestic conditions preventing Ukraine from having an efficient, well-guarded boundary. Corruption contributed to the destruction of the Ukrainian border just as it killed the country from the inside in many other aspects. EU officials have disclosed that tens of millions dollars allocated for Ukrainian border guards and strengthening security were used “inefficiently” prior to 2014. It was a common practice that the legal crossing check posts were surrounded by net of pathways that made a business of local smugglers profitable and easy.

The purpose for the deliberate neglect of the border became entirely clear when Russia annexed and occupied Ukrainian territories. The free entrance is now used for smuggling weapons as it had been used for the illegal moving of goods for many previous years. Almost every day in April 2014, Ukrainian media reported on the arrival of new portions of military force from Russia: “…Ten tanks, five Grads, and five Urals crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border. Two and a half hundred Russian soldiers followed this column moving to the city of Sverdlovs’k”; “Militants of the DPR have received thirteen wagons with arms and equipment from Russia since the beginning of April,” etc. Of course, these processes of concentration and relocation of weapons and troops have been happening in violation of the Mins’k-2 agreement.

Amidst an unstable ceasefire and fears of a worsening of the fighting, the project of building a line of defense fortifications, called “The European Wall,” has come under special public scrutiny. The first persons of the state frequently and symbolically attend the construction site. Although it is always better to have free roads rather than build walls, keeping a border open is possible only for peaceful times and non-disagreeing countries. By starting the “wall,” Ukraine has joined a club of nations that exist in the reality of permanent confrontation with its neighbors. This was not Ukraine’s choice, but the only way to reconcile itself with the destiny of “living next to Russia,” whose elites generate far too ominous an environment to co-exist with. According to the government programs, the construction works are planned for four years and will cost about nine billion hryvnia.

While the “wall” is being built, the current unsafe and vulnerable status of the border makes it possible to clarify many theoretical views about this war. If someone strongly believes that this is exclusively a civil conflict in one part of Ukraine – then come and try to close the border-door and thus exclude Russia form the scenario. If convoys were stopped, as well as everyday movement of troops and equipment, the situation would change dramatically. Does anybody see only “hybrid” war? With this giant hole, the line that is not controlled by Ukraine, it is much less hybrid than anyone wants to believe. Yesterday the number of Russians among the separatist fighters might be 25-30 percent, today it is 35-40 percent, but tomorrow it could spike to any number.

Over the past year, the open border has made it possible for Russian commanders to order infusions of troops depending on their tactical needs. The Russian ingredient in the army of the “people’s republics” is like a flexible gum balloon – it could pop and sag at one moment, but then expand to ensure the strategic advantage of the Russian-terrorist troops. The events in Ilovais’k and Debal’tseve have demonstrated the most disastrous consequences of the opportunity to regulate the intensity of invasion through a transparent boundary. Besides, the open border ensures easy escape as well as it ensures arrival, which makes it easy to remain anonymous, hide evidence, and avoid responsibility for the masterminds of the conflict.

While peacekeepers are needed, peace-killers hurry to “help”

Ukraine should care about its borders, yet the threats exceed the domestic capacities of self-defense. Looking at the map of Russia and map of Ukraine, the comparison of their sizes is eloquent by itself. If  we add serious military mobilization in Russia and its imperial ambitions to the immanent persuasiveness of the country’s size, we receive a clear answer to the question of why solutions for Ukraine should be found internationally. The looming territory behind Ukraine’s eastern border conceals too many threats not only to Ukrainians, but also to the present fragile security balance in the world.


The most serious problem with Russian contribution into the war in eastern Ukraine is that it provides huge amount of high-tech weapons able to turn the battlefield into a meat-chopper. “We came through hell,” said survivors of the iron hail attacks describing their service in the borderline zone. In 2014-2015, Ukrainians have been learning the alphabet of destruction: Buk missile complexes, one of which supposedly downed Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 in July 2014; Grad artillery systems, which have been moving to Ukraine from Russian territory since June 2014; Iskanders with a range of up to 500 kilometers, which arrived at the Ukrainian eastern border, as well as in Kaliningrad region, in spring 2015; as well as Tor, Osa, and other missile systems. Finally, we now read about Russia deploying Bastion and Bal shore missile systems in Crimea. Moreover, there has always been a realization that the scale of both numbers and destructive powers of equipment imported could be spiraling.


During the previous period of military actions, there were paradoxical situations when the Ukrainian military could not afford too strong a push against the terrorists in Donbas simply because of permanent precautions of the type “this may provoke Russia and cause the massive entrance of its troops.” Letting the aggressor satisfy their appetite was considered, both inside and outside Ukraine, a way of pacifying Putin. Does that mean that small countries should always suffer defeat? No, it means that they need help from international institutions… In the Ukrainian situation, this help at present should be more effective than documenting defeats in Mins’k-1, Mins’k-2, etc. agreements.  


The idea to invite peacekeepers to Ukraine is one of the more promising steps in this direction, and was announced seemingly unexpectedly in February this year. It is not that nobody remembered about such an option before. On the contrary, the words “conflict” and “peacekeepers” had been inseparable in public perception for more than two decades when Ukraine praised itself as a uniquely peaceful country and citizens believed that “blue helmet” missions are possible only abroad. Even in the initial phase of war, prior to February 2015, foreign intermediaries on Ukraine’s soil seemed to be a selective option – they may come (causing a discomfort for the domestic elite) or may not. The events in Debal’tseve have shown that Putin is too ready to sacrifice enormous numbers of his own soldiers, let alone Ukrainians, to each set of his “strategic objectives.” The winter campaign made it clear that the real choice is not between the advantages and disadvantages of the third force’s presence, but between inviting international law-enforcing groups or tolerating the combative horde that is already on the Ukrainian territory and ready to move further.


The only problem with the peacekeeper initiative as a counterbalance to anticipated “strategies” of Russian leadership is that Russia is not ready at all to give away a tiniest slice of its capacity to impose threats, which is in line with its wrongly (too wrongly – from Ukraine’s perspective) understood idea of its world power and significance. It was easy to assume, since the first statements about a peacekeeping option for Ukraine, that in all cases where Russia’s agreement is necessary, it would say “no.” This non-complicated guess was first proven during the negotiations in the “Norman format” in mid April this year. While it was loudly announced that the peacekeeper issue would be “the main theme” of the meeting, Ukrainian negotiators returned from Berlin with no news about this matter.


Right before the “Norman” meeting, the Zirinovskyi (LDPR) faction deputy in Russian Duma Roman Khudiakov spoke openly about such most toxic “peacekeeping” solution for Ukraine as sending Russian troops to the war zone. This preventive information campaign was an apparent deja vu of the situation in summer last year when Russian equipments with “peacekeeping” signs were located near the border with Ukraine. At that time, Samantha Power called the words “Russian peacekeepers” an “oxymoron,” a self-contradictory formula. When the new call to use actual peace-killers as peacekeepers was spread this year, Kyiv reacted with a warning that Ukraine would consider such an operation as a direct aggression and act correspondingly. 


Russian politicians still announce ultimatums even regarding such innocent intentions as Ukraine’s attempt to sign an association agreement with the EU. No wonder that they stick to the toughest negative position regarding international comptrollers on the border. Then suddenly – o bright dissonance  an unexpected easy progress is made. The media informed at the end of April that Putin agrees to the peacekeepers, that he does not object to the mission. What is this? The ruler’s lie as usual? Or fake… Or a non-obligatory acquiescence today, when the situation is not shaped yet, in order to say “no” later, if the perspective comes close to the culmination. A few days later, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov makes things pretty consistent again: his boss “knows nothing” about the peacekeepers for Ukraine.


So, everything remains at their places. Russia either directly blocks the initiative or manipulates the topic. In such a situation, “yes, but no” informational games and leaking controversial hints to the press just give Putin (or the “collective Putin”) additional time to pressure and interfere. Besides, the yes-no mixed signals are not meaningful at all, as many European leaders have already said their actual “no” to the peacekeeping mission. Some twists in info-maneuvers for the public were absolutely remarkable. For example, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov explains that Russia would agree to the mission if France approves this approach… and then, in a while, François Olland, talking at the press-conference about the peacekeepers in Donbas, expresses an extremely cautious position: “we are not sure that this is necessary.” France might have a lot of reasons to be that restrained for now. E-e-e… The only question is how Lavrov knew that Olland would say “no”? O these outstanding strategic visions, o this exquisite rhetorical logic of diplomacy.


A struggle for proper use of time?

If there is still some time…


When Ukrainian politicians started discussing the practical scenario of an international peacekeeping mission in Ukraine, they had in mind two prospective teams of participants: the EU and the UN. To be precise, there were talks about the need of Ukraine for the “regular” UN peacekeepers and the “police mission” from EU. Yet it was clear from the beginning that the invitation of Europeans for the “tender” might have mainly symbolical significance. And really, the European officials quickly made it clear that they do not see the opportunity to join forces of military control in the conflict area. Donald Tusk was absolutely explicit about this: “We in Europe do not discuss this variant.” The EU has only opted for presence of the OSCE observers and an “assessment mission” to Ukraine. Frankly, nobody in Ukraine is surprised that EU cannot afford more active involvement. It cannot take responsibility simply because Russia is bigger and madder, and still a trading partner and supplier of resources.


The suppression of talks about European support for peacekeepers looked more than expectable within the “pragmatic” context of repeating  calls, on part of some EU countries, to lift sanctions against Russia. This idea is voiced in a situation of a lasting military and economic catastrophe in Ukraine; it is persistently reiterated while Russia continues to concentrate its troops at Ukrainian border and sends new portions of military equipment to Donbas even during the ceasefire. Ukraine can ask for help but cannot demand. Can humbly remind about its right to survive, but also needs to respect Europe’s right to live in its usual ways. Besides, everyone understands that a country that is not especially efficient in its own policies, cannot expect the immediate full service of outside assistance.


While the EU is waiting for stronger arguments to consider offering sufficient help in more active forms, the UN remains a real option for implementing the peacekeeping project. It is indeed a real option, although not an easy one. Technically the problem is difficult because making the decision about curbing an aggressor depends on the aggressor. Russia’s status as  UN Security Council member creates an easy formal entrapment for the idea of the mission. Russia might try to use its veto to block the issue of peacekeepers in Donbas if it is voted on at the Council. Since formally this perspective exists, it is important to raise non-formal questions concerning this.


Let us think: if someone has stolen a part of a neighbor country, abused one more part of it, and does not want to support a decision aimed at legitimate international control over the situation, shouldn’t this actor be disqualified as a decision-maker? Is the UN ready to ban Russia from participation in votes on a conflict in Ukraine on the grounds that it is itself involved in it? Is the UN ready to exclude Russia from the UN Security Council in case this country uses its veto power for improper goals? Both steps require a recognition of Russia’s status as an aggressor and participant of the armed conflict. If yes, it seems to be logical, because “there should be consequences…” If no – because of what…why? Why there are so many people and organizations in the world that agree with the reproduction of the vicious circle of the “Ukrainian crisis”? Putin has violated major UN laws which are proscribed in its statute. Much of what he did fits well into the category of crimes against humanity. Yes, it is a fact that Russia IS a member of the respected body. But how it can REMAIN there after the numerous violations?     


The peacekeepers at the Russian-Ukrainian border seem to be in Russia’s interest too. If you are accused of robbery, close the door between your home and your alleged victim’s home – and you’ll cut off the channel of accusation. Yet this robber, sure that he will never be punished, is never interested in tightly closed doors to his neighbor’s home. Russia “successfully” fulfilled its function of the “guarantor” of Ukraine’s post-nuclear security by becoming the occupant of Ukrainian territories . And now it seems to seize the role of the “peacekeeper” in order to finally legitimize its own aggression. Letting Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lavrov talk about peace and call Ukraine for peace while he does not want any serious talks about closing the border – it is a tremendous defeat of the world system of the international law. And the triumph of Russian politicians’ hypocrisy on the global political scene.


The OSCE observers in Ukraine would function in a much more effective way if they came to the country alongside peacekeeping forces. In the current situation of lone observers working in Ukraine, it looks like if somebody is taking pictures of a dying patient with a knife in the chest instead of providing the person with necessary medical treatment. The present format of the observers’ functioning has contributed to legitimizing of two Russia-backed terrorist organizations. The OSCE and other monitors view Ukraine and the “people’s republics” as plenipotent “equals,” “sides,” which is absolutely unacceptable, because the existence of the “DPR” and “LPR” is 1) result of the Russian aggression; 2) a bridge to new missteps and losses for Ukraine. The Mins’k agreements have already cemented this faulty logic. Only the mesmerizing shadow of Russia’s “interest” over the heads of the “peaceful talks” participants could make them fix in the documents such a priori false assumption that “free and democratic” elections are possible on territories that are taken by rude force and controlled by people who kill and torture pro-Ukrainian civilians and force out whole ethnic, cultural, and religious groups from the “republics.”


The “dialogue” with Russia in the info-space, polluted with cognitive distortions and practical threats, is very tough, but some measures, including economic ones, can work efficiently if applied at the full scale. As Berlin-based Russian-speaking writer Arkadii Weller put it, if Putin was pressed strongly with sanctions, he would return Crimea together with Taimyr peninsula as a supplement. Instead, some international media spread maps that show changed borders of countries neighboring Russia and thus help Russia to make its dreams a reality. Instead, some European leaders suggest cancellation of sanctions. The serious politicians are sending a well-meaning parental message to Russian president: behave well, dear kid, and we will give you a candy. Only Putin is not going to be a good boy; his team has chosen a much darker option of following the archetypes of destruction, embodied in the symbols of the Russian tank, submarine, and nuclear bomb. Putin is not sorry, he is proud of his Crimean “operation” and laughs at the “parental” disciplinary measures.


The former Soviet political leaders look doves compared to present Russian key political figures and propaganda personalities that unceremoniously refer to military force, spread the virtual particles of “nuclear ash” and stimulate the public to cheer mottos type of “do not make my Iskanders laugh.” The current situation for Ukraine is a battle for the most efficient use of time, in which any “windows” should be used for developing as many security measures as possible. Any forms of foreign assistance are appreciated, and all even the seemingly small “domestic” steps are valuable. While there has been much skepticism concerning “The Wall” project, work on it could protect Ukraine more than doing nothing. Looking for mechanisms to implement the peacekeeper project is also part of the struggle for efficient use of time …In a situation when there is almost no time at all.