August 14, 2015

Shyrokyne ‘Demilitarized Zone’: Russia’s New Idea of Conflict-Management in Ukraine’s East

AFP/Scanpix
Soldiers of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) speak to a resident in the frontline town of Shyrokyne, some 10 kms east of Mariupol, on March 20, 2015.
Soldiers of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) speak to a resident in the frontline town of Shyrokyne, some 10 kms east of Mariupol, on March 20, 2015.

Russia proposes to turn the Ukrainian stronghold Shyrokyne, key to defending the strategic Azov sea port city of Mariupol (Mariupil), into a “demilitarized zone” under joint or shared control by Ukraine, Russia and the “Donetsk people’s republic” (“DPR”), under the indispensable aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) (see accompanying article).

The Contact Group on Ukraine—a. k. a. the Minsk Group: Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE, and the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (“DPR, LPR”)—has recently been debating a proposal to turn Shyrokyne, key to defending the Ukrainian-held city of Mariupol, into a “demilitarized zone.”

Once Ukrainian troops would evacuate Shyrokyne, they and the “DPR” forces would take up positions 2.5 kilometers westward and eastward, respectively, of the demilitarized zone. The zone would be handed over to a mixed observation group comprised of Russian, Ukrainian and “DPR” officers, under the auspices of the Joint Center for Control and Coordination (JCCC, a group of Russian and Ukrainian senior military officers overseeing the ceasefire in the field, unrelated to the Minsk Group). Reconstruction of war-ruined villages could begin, and internally displaced persons could return. Personnel of Ukraine’s Ministry of Interior and of the “DPR’s interior ministry” would jointly police the zone, armed only with handguns (submachine guns would be banned). As a sine qua non, the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM, an unarmed civilian mission) would establish a fixed presence round the clock in the zone. The SMM considered installing two posts in a demilitarized Shyrokyne. This Mission also offered to facilitate joint mine-clearing work by Ukrainian and “DPR” troops in Shyrokyne, preparatory to its demilitarization (Ukraiynska Pravda, July 28; Tsenzor.net, UNIAN, July 29; Donetskoye Agentstvo Novostey, July 31, August 4).

Eager to see Shyrokyne “demilitarized,” the “DPR” recently pulled back its troops eastward of the locality, and declared it a demilitarized zone unilaterally (Donetskoye Agentstvo Novostey, July 3, 31). This move seemed designed to increase external pressure on Ukraine to concede. In the latest Normandy Four leaders’ telephone conference, French President François Hollande gave Ukrainian President Poroshenko until August 3 to comply (Elysee.fr, July 24).

Ukraine’s representative in the Minsk working group on security affairs, Yevhen Marchuk (see EDM, August 13), has introduced a number of technical-military objections and pre-conditions to a “demilitarized zone” in Shyrokyne, forestalling this project for now. Ukraine managed to block the proposal in the Minsk Group’s August 4 meeting. The working group’s proceedings are secret, but the counter-arguments seem plain.

For Ukraine to withdraw its troops from this key stronghold and turn it over to some vaguely defined joint authority would presuppose a high level of confidence in the Minsk armistice system. But this is not the case, and clearly not warranted.

Demilitarization is a euphemism for Ukrainian evacuation of a key defensive position. The ceasefire never took effect after the Minsk One and Minsk Two armistices. Russian/”DPR” forces attempted to capture Shyrokyne after each armistice had been signed, in violation of both. As the Ukrainian defense held, the demilitarization idea came up. No agency can guarantee, let alone enforce the ceasefire. The OSCE is restricted even from monitoring it. With Shyrokyne constantly under Russian/”DPR” sniper and mortar attacks, which recently injured an SMM observer, the Mission has announced that it has suspended its plan to establish a stationary presence in Shyrokyne (Osce.org, July 28).

Ukrainian commentators recall how the top German and French leaders guaranteed (in the Normandy group) that Debaltseve, the pivotal logistics center, would be safe after the Minsk Two armistice. Nevertheless, Russian forces promptly captured Debaltseve while Berlin and Paris kept silent. Similarly, an evacuated Shyrokyne can easily fall to Russian/”DPR” forces and open their way to Mariupol.
As the military analyst Dmytro Tymchuk has observed, Debaltseve should be the prime candidate for demilitarization, not Shyrokyne. Russian forces seized Debaltseve in breach of the armistice, whereas Ukrainian forces hold Shyrokyne in accordance with the armistice (Sprotyv.info, accessed August 13).

Legally and politically, the idea that Ukraine’s interior ministry and “DPR’s interior ministry” should jointly police a demilitarized zone is by definition unacceptable to Ukraine. It implies, first, a cession of sovereignty over a portion of Ukrainian territory—with, moreover, the appearance of Ukrainian consent under some multilateral agreement.

Second, it implies recognition of the “DPR” through shared jurisdiction with it over the “zone.” This could create the dangerous precedent of turning Ukrainian-held areas into “demilitarized” areas under shared Ukrainian-“DPR/LPR” control. The reverse can hardly occur, as long as Russian and proxy forces hold the initiative with tactical offensive actions and superior firepower. They have relentlessly bitten off small portions of Ukrainian territory after each armistice. The current demarcation lines run significantly more deeply inside Ukrainian territory, compared with the ceasefire lines. No international authority seems to have taken a stand on this issue. Creating “demilitarized zones” at the expense of Ukrainian territory would further that process—preferably, from Russia’s standpoint, with Ukrainian consent.

Third, the proposal would create a new type of oversight arrangement with multiple layers: bilateral Ukrainian-“DPR,” trilateral Ukrainian-Russian-“DPR” through the JCCC (see above), and ostensibly an international layer via the OSCE. The proposed arrangement is novel in its complexity, but otherwise fully in line with Russia’s classical methodology of conflict-management in its “sphere of privileged interests.” The targeted country is isolated and entrapped into Russian-controlled arrangements, with no outside recourse.

Thus, any Ukrainian-“DPR” joint policing could only function if the “DPR” cooperates, at its discretion. The JCC, currently Russian-Ukrainian and operating by Russia’s grace only, would become trilateral by adding the “DPR,” under this proposal. The OSCE’s SMM is paralyzed through Russian and “DPR-LPR” obstructions. The OSCE’s Minsk Group gives Russia multiple representation (Moscow, Donetsk, Luhansk, as well as Russia’s veto in the OSCE itself), isolating Ukraine in that body (exactly as Georgia had been isolated vis-à-vis Russia, South Ossetia and North Ossetia within the OSCE-sponsored format).

The Western powers are nowhere in sight to relieve Ukraine’s isolation in all those formats. Western powers seem indifferent to Russia’s creative misuse of the OSCE in conflict after conflict. They, along with the OSCE itself, are accommodating to Russia in the theater. In recent weeks, the OSCE’s SMM has prefaced and concluded its daily reports with disclaimers. They suggest that Russian/”DPR-LPR” forces restrict or interdict SMM’s access, and intimidate its members from performing their verification and inspection duties.

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