At a summit in Minsk on February 11–12, the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia agreed to a series of measures to end the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and government forces. The deal, known as Minsk II, was prompted by the collapse of the previous ceasefire, set out in the September 2014 Minsk Protocol.

Carnegie Europe spoke to Lamberto Zannier, secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the body responsible for monitoring the truce. Zannier explained the difficulties his organization is encountering and discussed the future of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which sought to improve relations between the Communist bloc and the West and paved the way for the OSCE’s creation.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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Carnegie Europe: Is the OSCE able to monitor the ceasefire set out in the Minsk II agreement, which entails verifying the withdrawal of heavy weapons from a proposed buffer zone?

Lamberto Zannier: We have access on the Ukrainian side, with some limitations. On the separatists’ side, we have a degree of access, but not as much as we would like. We need access to the points where the heavy weapons are collected and located, so that we can verify them.

We have to work on gaining that access. We are working with the Ukrainian-Russian Joint Center for Control and Coordination, where we are observers. They have links with everybody, including the separatists. There is a Russian general there. We try to use the Russian and Ukrainian channels to have more access on both sides. If we get stuck, we go to the Normandy format of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine to seek help.

CE: Can you access the Ukrainian-Russian border, parts of which are not controlled by the Ukrainians?

LZ: Every now and then, we reach the border. But reaching the border in a sporadic manner is not good enough for us to have a firm sense of whether or not anything is passing through that border. And we are escorted by the separatists, which means we always have the sense of being guided and controlled. The monitors can’t go by themselves as it’s too dangerous—there are lots of minefields. We need to know where exactly we are going.

CE: Are facts being established on the ground?

LZ: Inevitably. There is a conflict and combatants’ lines. There are facts on the ground.

But there is also an ambiguity in Minsk II. The ceasefire lines don’t always coincide with those in the Minsk Protocol. There is a debate about that. Minsk II gives us a large corridor within which we can move and see what is going on.

CE: Does that corridor give the OSCE monitors more safety?

LZ: Up to a point. It should not be forgotten that the withdrawal of heavy weapons only applies to arms with a caliber of more than 100 millimeters. There are still a lot of small weapons, mortars, and heavy machine guns. The fighting is sporadic, although much less widespread than it was. The ceasefire is largely holding.

CE: Do you have enough monitors?

LZ: The initial assessment is that we don’t need more monitors. We plan to have 350 monitors in eastern Ukraine. In terms of numbers, we feel this is sufficient. What we do need is more technology: satellite imagery and additional drones. Through the improvement of these technical means and with our monitors on the ground, we will have a better sense of what is happening.

CE: What about the use of drones?

LZ: The biggest obstacle now is the weather. In the last few weeks, there has been no significant jamming of the drones by the separatists. One of the drones came down—we suspect it was shot down. We still have three drones in operation, and we want to invest more in technology.

CE: Is the government in Kiev helpful?

LZ: The government is very supportive, although it can be bureaucratic. We still don’t have radios because we haven’t been assigned frequencies. That is understandable from a security perspective, but I have concerns about the security of my personnel. They are still using cell phones or satellite phones, and the reception is often not good.

CE: How is the OSCE’s financing situation?

LZ: Complex negotiations are taking place. We receive obligatory funds, and then another amount that is calculated on an extrabudgetary basis, or voluntary contributions from the OSCE’s member countries. From March 2014 to March 2015, we had a budget of about €70 million ($77 million).

CE: How is the atmosphere inside the organization?

LZ: There are no doubts from either Eastern or Western member countries about renewing the OSCE’s monitoring mandate. I feel that everybody supports the organization’s role. But the atmosphere in Vienna—the OSCE’s headquarters—remains complicated. It’s heavy and tense.

CE: One of the main principles of the Helsinki Final Act was territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders. Isn’t that now in tatters after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine?

LZ: Well, that debate is ongoing inside the OSCE. We have seen violations of the Helsinki accord. Our priority is to bring the conflict in eastern Ukraine to an end. Once the situation has stabilized, we will return to other issues, such as Crimea. Our organization is based on principles such as the freedom of countries to choose their alliances, to decide where they want to belong. Some OSCE countries want to object to those principles.

Those principles were developed in 1975, when the priority was to preserve the status quo. The Russians say that maybe it is time to look at the fundamentals of the organization. They say they fully subscribe to the OSCE’s basic principles, but that the context of implementation needs to be discussed. So there is even a debate over whether we should talk about our fundamental operations or whether such a discussion would carry risks for the basic principles of the organization.

CE: What is the biggest weakness of the Helsinki Final Act?

LZ: The weakness is the accord’s nonimplementation. We need to go back to the full implementation of the principles of the inviolability of borders and sovereignty.

My point goes beyond the Helsinki agreement. We need stability in international relations. We need to make sure that the rules are respected. If the rules start being twisted or interpreted on the basis of political considerations, then we lose stability in international relations. That’s a major risk for security in the future.

We need a framework in which we can have more open discussions about the conditions of implementation of these principles. That was what the Helsinki accord was for. Because of the Ukraine crisis, that debate has now become more difficult. Polarized. Ideological. That said, the Helsinki Final Act is still the best set of rules that we have in Europe.

CE: In 2007, Russia pulled out of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which aimed at establishing a military balance between the NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Had the treaty still been intact, would Russia have annexed Crimea?

LZ: Who knows? The CFE treaty could have been a tool to prevent the annexation. It could have provided assurances. But the Russians wanted to change the CFE treaty anyway. They did not want limits imposed inside Russia.

CE: What is next for the European security architecture?

LZ: The problem with talking about the functioning of European security is that some countries don’t want that debate because they fear it might erode some of the positive achievements that have been made since the end of the Cold War phase. These include the promotion of human rights and election monitoring. We need to change our approach to security.