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. 

Neutrality during conflicts almost always benefits those who have already managed to alter the status quo, usually the separatists who must be included in any peace process. This has been the pattern for most post-Soviet and post-Yugoslav separatist conflicts, where monitoring missions have ended up shielding separatists from culpability, while legitimating (if not endorsing) their claims and those of their patrons. In Georgia, a Russian-dominated peacekeeping force was a partner for a monitoring mission but also acted to facilitate Russian efforts to solidify control. The UN and NATO missions in Kosovo openly helped Kosovars set up independent governing structures, even though the United Nations still recognized the territory as part of Yugoslavia. Likewise, any monitoring mission in Ukraine would probably include as partners the very Russian forces that are a party to the conflict and would therefore be to their advantage.

This is part of the reason why strong states do not permit outsiders to intervene in internal disputes in the first place. The massive nuclear arsenals -- and UN Security Council veto powers -- wielded by China and Russia mostly prevent outsiders from ever even proposing intervention in support of separatists in those countries. Such missions are only attractive to weak states that have experienced so much upheaval that they have given up on the goal of restoring territorial integrity on their own. That was the dilemma Georgia faced in 1993, when civil war and economic collapse brought the country to its knees. They may even be so fearful of losing more territory that they prefer to freeze conflicts where they are, even if it means retaining control of some territory only on paper. 

Once they agree to host an international monitoring mission, states beset by separatist conflicts are left with two bad choices: either endure the new status quo, or use force to alter it -- and thus risk condemnation as an aggressor that endangers civilian monitors and breaks cease-fire agreements. Most states opt for the first. The sole example of the second in post–Cold War Europe was when Croatia’s massive 1995 Operation Storm against separatist Serbs swept aside UN peacekeepers and entailed what a UN tribunal termed “murder . . . inhumane acts . . . [and] forced displacement.” Croatia won because it was willing to use overwhelming force, because it acted relatively soon after the secession, and because the West stayed quiet, as it needed Zagreb’s military assistance in the ongoing war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

For separatists, by contrast, frozen conflicts work well. They give separatist leaders a way to avoid further armed conflict and get some breathing room to consolidate control over their territory. To the extent that they agree to participate in any peace process, their position gains international political legitimacy. And over the long term, the recognized state’s authority in the breakaway region inexorably erodes. At that point, the separatist region has legitimate grounds for claiming that it is impossible for the recognized state to ever hold the territory again.

The Crimea crisis differs somewhat from other recent separatist conflicts in that Crimean separatists prefer to join Russia than seek independence. But if a monitoring mission is sent to Ukraine, the underlying dynamics are likely to follow the traditional pattern. Indeed, Russian forces are sure to insist on remaining in Crimean territory, thus gaining legitimacy by UN or OSCE mandate. If Russia ends up allowing monitors into Crimea, the price will be legitimizing a substantial practical role in maintaining order there. And if OSCE monitors in eastern Ukraine encounter security problems (perhaps provoked from Moscow), Russia is likely to leap forward to “protect” the international civilians and underscore Kiev’s incapacity.

Pleas from Kiev for something more than lip service to “territorial integrity” will be unavailing. An international mission will have neither the mandate nor the means to pressure Crimea -- or eastern Ukraine, should it break away -- to return to Kiev’s control.  Monitors will serve mainly as tripwires restraining Ukrainian authorities from using force to regain sovereignty. They will be helpful for Western states only if they are desperate to point to a diplomatic achievement. 

Kiev and its supporters in the West may have to accept that Crimea, and perhaps other parts of Ukraine, will slip from Kiev’s control. Monitors can have a calming effect, defuse local issues, and provide useful observations. In a situation with few good choices, accepting a frozen conflict may be the least bad.

But the West should be under no illusions. Pursuing “territorial integrity” by means of an international monitoring mission is a fool’s errand. Monitors are far likelier to participate in a tacit partition than a peaceful reunification of Ukraine. 

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  • ELISABETH BROCKING spent 22 years in the United States Foreign Service, focusing on interethnic conflicts in the Balkans and post-Soviet states. Views expressed are entirely her own.
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