Monitoring Moscow's Victory

Why International Monitors in Ukraine Benefit Russia, Not the West

An observer from an European Union Monitoring Mission in South Ossetia. (Courtesy Reuters)

In an apparently grudging concession to Western demands, Russia agreed on March 21 to a deployment of international monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to Ukraine (not including Crimea). The United States and Europe have long advocated such a mission. Just three days earlier, on March 18, U.S. President Barack Obama agreed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s assessment that such monitors were “vital.”

Contrary to appearances, however, Moscow has likely won this latest round of the crisis. The West has drastically misread the likely effect that international monitors will have in Ukraine. The last two decades have shown that monitoring missions -- whether in Abkhazia, Kosovo, or Transnistria -- tend to produce “frozen conflicts” that advantage separatists and their foreign patrons. A UN or OSCE mission in Ukraine would almost certainly strengthen Moscow’s hand at the expense of Kiev’s.

International monitors often seem like the most attractive way to manage tense political conflicts. Trained to observe and report objectively on human rights issues and military movements, monitors can credibly verify or challenge the claims of persecution or aggression made by either party in a dispute. Russia has rested its intervention in Ukraine on the purported need to protect Russian speakers. Neutral monitors could evaluate -- and probably debunk -- this assertion.

But monitors’ reports are often less important than the terms under which the monitors are permitted to observe in the first place. Any UN or OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine would require a mandate from the UN Security Council or the OSCE’s permanent council -- in other words, it would require the assent of Russia, which has a permanent seat on both of those bodies. As a result, the mandate would be studiously neutral, refusing to condemn the separatism that provoked the conflict in the first place. It might endorse Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but it would surely also urge Kiev and the separatists in Crimea to engage in dialogue, compromise, and nonviolence. In all likelihood, that would mean that Russia would keep the territory, and those in Ukraine would have to accept it peacefully. 

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