Interview: OSCE Says Russian Move Undermines Ukraine Peace Efforts

MUNICH, Germany -- Russia's decision to recognize identification documents issued by separatists in eastern Ukraine will hurt the chances for a cease-fire to take hold, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) told RFE/RL on February 19.

The abrupt Russian move is also a setback for efforts to end the war that has killed more than 9,750 people since April 2014, a goal that already seems “a long way” off, OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier said in an interview on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

Meeting in Munich on February 18, the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, and mediators Germany and France agreed to a new push to implement a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, to begin on February 20.

At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an order authorizing the recognition of documents issued by the separatist-led, self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.

“The steps taken last night by Russia to recognize these documents are making implementation more difficult,” Zannier said of the agreement known as Minsk II, a much-violated February 2015 accord that imposed a cease-fire and set out a plan for resolving the conflict.

The Russian move “implies…recognition of those who issue the documents, of course,” Zannier said.

“This makes us think of Abkhazia-like situations,” he said, referring to one of two breakaway Georgian regions that Russia recognized as independent countries after fighting a brief war against Georgia in 2008.

Russia has not formally recognized the self-proclaimed separatist entities in Ukraine as independent, and Moscow’s stated position is that they should be part of Ukraine. Analysts say Russia hopes to continue to use them as long as it can to destabilize Ukraine and maintain pressure on its pro-Western government.

Strained Ties With West

Speaking to reporters in Munich after meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on February 18, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Putin’s order was "more evidence of the Russian occupation and Russia's violation of international law."

In a post on Twitter on February 19, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv said the Russian decision was “alarming and incompatible with the agreed-on goals of the Minsk peace process.”

After a Moscow-friendly Ukrainian president was pushed from power by protests in February 2014, Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Kyiv’s control and fomented separatism in the country’s east and south, where many people speak Russian.

Russia denies involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine, despite what Kyiv and Western nations say is overwhelming evidence that it has sent substantial numbers of troops and weapons across the border to support separatist forces.

Russia’s interference in Ukraine has badly strained its ties with the West, prompting the United States, the European Union, and other nations to impose sanctions.

Speaking at the Munich conference on February 18, hours before Putin’s order was announced, Pence said that the United States would “hold Russia accountable” for its actions even as the administration of President Donald Trump seeks “common ground” with Moscow.

Like Western leaders who spoke at the three-day conference, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Zannier said there is no alternative to the Minsk agreements -- the 2015 pact and an initial agreement reached in September 2014 -- for ending the war.

“I remain convinced that the Minsk agreements are the best -- and the only, in fact -- path to get out of this.”

Minsk II was supposed to be implemented in full by the end of 2015. But Zannier said that more than a year later, even elections in the separatist-held areas -- which are just one step in the plan -- seem like a distant prospect.

“The concept is not agreed, and the conditions for holding them are not there,” he said. “So it’s really a long way away.”