Each day and night, monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) keep watch on Russia’s side of the country’s border with Ukraine. The monitors—nineteen in total (yes, nineteen)—have a mandate to observe what happens at the Russian checkpoints of Donetsk (not to be confused with the Ukrainian city of Donetsk) and Gukovo.
That mandate began in July 2014 and should have had more importance. Indeed, it should even have been strengthened after the Minsk II ceasefire accord reached in February 2015 by French, German, Russian, and Ukrainian leaders. But it wasn’t.
The aim of the ceasefire deal was to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian rebels and Ukraine’s armed forces. While the fighting has certainly subsided, facts on the ground have been firmly established in parts of eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian forces hold sway.
The OSCE monitors have no illusions about the difficulties in implementing the ceasefire. Indeed, the monitors are so hindered in almost everything they do that they have no idea what and who crosses over from Russia to Ukraine each day.
What they do know is that weapons and soldiers from Russia can and do easily cross into Ukraine, where they can then supply the rebel-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. That is the assessment of OSCE diplomats who are familiar with the Russian crossing points and who spoke to Carnegie Europe on condition of anonymity.
The nineteen monitors, who take it in turns to observe in pairs over a twenty-four-hour stretch, keep watch over a mere 20 meters (66 feet) of land that divides the entry and exit points of the Russian frontier crossings at Donetsk and Gukovo.
In theory, that should give the monitors plenty of opportunity to see exactly what is taking place. In practice, they can see. But that is all. What they see does not always reflect the reality. “We don’t have any law enforcement capabilities,” an OSCE diplomat said. “We cannot inspect.”
According to another OSCE diplomat, since the end of February 2015, almost every day about 100 men, and some women, dressed in camouflage have entered Ukraine through these border crossings. “Some have told us they are volunteer fighters,” the diplomat said. “They all carry rucksacks. And they carry weapons, but nonlethal ones.” How many volunteers cross the other border points is anyone’s guess.
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Then there are the many civilians who cross too. The OSCE has no idea if any of them are volunteers. What the organization does know is that from July 2014 until the end of February 2015, some 2 million civilians have gone back and forth, many seeking refuge in Russia but returning to Ukraine once it was safe to do so.
Just as the OSCE is powerless in stopping fighters from entering Ukraine, so too they are powerless in inspecting the so-called humanitarian aid lorries. “We simply don’t have full freedom to check them,” the diplomat explained.
That’s an understatement. On any given day, if a truck crosses, the monitors can “check” it. “The trucks are visually checked by opening their back doors. You look at what you see. You can’t climb into the truck. This is not an inspection. It takes less than a minute,” he added.
There are special X-ray systems in which a truck drives through an open-ended container that can scan the vehicle’s contents. “The Russians don’t allow that,” the diplomat said. “So we have no idea what’s in any of the trucks.”
Things aren’t much better for the team of OSCE monitors who are supposed to observe the ceasefire on the Ukrainian side of the border. They are not allowed to approach those parts of the frontier held by the rebels.
And even if they want to observe what is happening along the ceasefire lines, they have to ask permission or are escorted by the rebels. There is no scope for spontaneity. Besides, it is still dangerous. The daily report issued on April 27 by the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine makes for grim reading. It described how the area around Ukraine’s Donetsk airport had “seriously deteriorated.”
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Some 550 explosions were heard near Donetsk. “Approximately 90% of all the explosions were caused by 120mm mortar and heavy artillery rounds. The number of violations in this area has increased sharply compared to the violations recorded in the previous days,” according to the report. And the village of Sakhanka, just 24 kilometers (15 miles) east of Mariupol, a strategic city still under Ukrainian control, was shelled on April 25.
This upsurge of fighting may be a prelude to the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War Two, which will be celebrated with a huge military parade in Moscow on May 9. Whatever the outcome, the OSCE monitors know what they cannot do. And even if they called for a more robust mandate, they would never obtain it. It would be vetoed by one of the organization’s 57 members—Russia.