The Cable

Top European Mediator: Ukrainian Military Push Could Escalate Tensions

A Ukrainian military push into the country's restive east after the brutal murder of a local politician would complicate efforts to reduce tensions between Kiev and Moscow and prevent further violence in the country, the head of the international organization charged with helping resolve the crisis said in an interview.

Last week, major powers meeting in Geneva tasked the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) with helping end the violence in the country. The Geneva agreement did not specifically prohibit security operations by Ukraine, but it called on all sides to refrain from violence. Under the terms of the deal, the pro-Russian militants occupying government buildings throughout eastern Ukraine were supposed to leave the facilities under the watchful eye of the OSCE. The deal has in many ways fallen apart, with pro-Russian fighters solidifying their control over several cities and showing no signs of disarming or leaving the occupied buildings.

Lamberto Zannier, the secretary general of the OSCE, said a new Ukrainian effort to oust the militants had the potential to setback international efforts to reduce tensions. "The whole spirit of Geneva was promoting de-escalation," he told Foreign Policy. "It's certainly tough at this moment."

On Tuesday acting President Oleksandr Turchynov ordered his forces back to eastern Ukraine after the murder of local politician Vladimir Rybak, a member of the president's own Fatherland party. The move immediately raised fears of open conflict between Ukrainian security personnel and heavily-armed, well-entrenched, pro-Russian militiamen. That type of confrontation would be particularly dangerous because top Russian officials have openly threatened an armed intervention into eastern Ukraine to protect fellow Russian speakers there.

"Russia is increasingly called upon to save southeastern Ukraine from chaos," read a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday.

Zannier acknowledged the risks of further escalation in the wake of Rybak's death. In a statement earlier Tuesday, Turchynov said his compatriot's corpse was found near the separatist-controlled city of Slaviansk. He said Rybak had been tortured to death and said "the terrorists who effectively took the whole Donetsk region hostage have now gone too far." The Ukrainian leader said he was ordering his security forces to resume operations in the east -- a situation that could pose problems for Zannier's organization. "This will require us to redouble our efforts ... and invite everyone to engage in a peaceful manner," Zannier said in an interview.

That might be easier said than done. In recent days, OSCE monitors have been blocked from entering various occupied buildings in the east, and stopped at checkpoints leading into separatist-controlled areas. That's obstructed monitors from fulfilling their primary task: overseeing the disarming of illegal groups and the evacuation of government facilities.

Currently, pro-Russians mobs continue to occupy buildings throughout eastern Ukraine, including at least nine towns. While Kiev is calling for the pro-Russian mobs to disarm and vacate the government buildings, separatists have called for more autonomy or in some cases independence from Ukraine. The job of the OSCE is to bring both sides closer together, but Zannier conceded that there's been little success on this front -- and said that the Russians have been less than helpful.

"I would welcome stronger messages from Russia inviting [separatists] to abandon buildings and engage in dialogue," he said. "On Russian television, we hear the same arguments" concerning the "illegality of the government in Kiev" and "extremist right-wing groups."

Russian officials say they agree that the pro-Russian separatists should disarm, but insist that right-wing nationalists in western Ukraine do so as well. While Zannier acknowledged that such nationalist groups exist, he downplayed their role in the conflict. "Everyone should disarm, but at this point, we see many more weapons in the hands of these pro-Russian radicals in eastern Ukraine ... than in the arms of right-wing extremists."

The growing tensions in Ukraine have brought the American-Russian relationship to its lowest point in decades and brought new prominence to the OSCE, whose roots date back to the cold war, where it provided a venue for dialogue between east and west. It became a permanent institution in 1994 with the goal of helping fledgling European democracies mature and develop. While Russia has been historically mistrustful of its aims, it did sign onto its conflict-resolution role in the current Ukrainian crisis. Still, hardened differences between east and west aren't Zannier's only problem. 

He says the OSCE needs more personnel and resources from OSCE member nations to properly do its job. "Ukraine is a large country and the area we have troubles in is pretty large," he said.

Zannier made the same plea at a special session of the OSCE's permanent council earlier on Tuesday. At present, he said the OSCE had 150 personnel on the ground, a figure he wanted to increase to at least 500. He said member nations support his requests in principle, but acquiring the resources has taken time.

A larger footprint in the country is critical to fulfilling the OSCE's monitoring role, he said, given its responsibility to provide credible information about events on the ground. "There is a propaganda war with different versions of the story," he said, referring to glut of conspiratorial claims by various actors in the conflict. "So having an international presence helps."


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The Cable

Russia Builds Case for Military Intervention in Ukraine

For several weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top diplomats have provided the world with repeated assurances that they have no intention of sending Russian troops into eastern Ukraine. On Monday, April 21, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brushed aside those pledges, providing the strongest signal yet that Moscow may be laying the political groundwork for a military incursion into its jittery neighbor.

Speaking at a Moscow news conference, Lavrov said Russia is committed to "stop[ping]" what he claimed were provocations by armed Ukrainian extremists "willfully seeking to unleash civil war" in Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine. The Russian government, he said, is coming under mounting pressure from its allies in eastern Ukraine to protect them. "Russia is increasingly called upon to save southeastern Ukraine from chaos," Lavrov said, according to remarks carried on the Russian Foreign Ministry's Twitter account. The comments were striking because the foreign minister has been at the center of Moscow's efforts to negotiate a diplomatic settlement to the crisis.

Lavrov went even further during the Monday news conference. "Those who are deliberately pursuing a civil war … are pursuing a criminal policy," he told reporters there. "And we will not only condemn this policy but will also stop it."

The rising tensions came as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in an effort to show support for the beleaguered transitional government on the eve of planned May 25 presidential and mayoral elections. Biden was expected to pledge a so-called "technical support package" aimed at boosting Ukraine's moribund and cash-poor economy.

U.S. and European efforts to negotiate a political settlement to the crisis between Russia and Ukraine, meanwhile, came sputtering to a halt as officials from Kiev and Moscow accused one another of violating the terms of an April 17 agreement aimed at preventing further armed confrontations between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian security personnel.

Lavrov's latest comments came just one day after three pro-Russian militants manning a checkpoint near the city of Slovyansk were killed by what Moscow alleged were extremists from Ukraine's ultranationalist Right Sector, which has links to the Euromaidan protest movement that toppled Ukraine's former pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February. A spokesman for the Right Sector, Artyom Skoropatskiy, denied that his group was involved in the attack. The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, claimed that the attack -- the deadliest since Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine in March -- was staged to help Moscow justify any military intervention into eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian officials fear that such a strike could come as early as this week. U.S. and European officials have made clear that Russia will face additional sanctions if it invades or tries to annex more sections of Ukraine.

Putin has already annexed the Ukrainian autonomous republic of Crimea, a Russian-speaking peninsula that has long hosted Russia's Black Sea naval fleet, and he has asserted Russia's right to intervene to protect Russian-speaking communities beyond Russia's own borders. Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have appealed to Moscow to send peacekeepers into the region to protect them from purported attacks by Ukrainian militiamen or security personnel. NATO says that Moscow has deployed 40,000 troops, backed by warplanes, helicopters, and armored vehicles, to its border with Ukraine. Last week, the military alliance released satellite photos showing what appeared to be large concentrations of Russian troops and equipment there.

On Monday, Moscow began carefully constructing its case for action. Lavrov accused the government in Kiev of "flagrantly" violating the terms of a four-day-old agreement brokered in Geneva by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Lavrov. "By all accounts, Kiev is unable or maybe unwilling to control the extremists who are still calling the shots," Lavrov said. "This is primarily about restoring basic order. Preventing any kind of violence is now the major concern."

The Geneva accords require armed elements throughout Ukraine to lay down their arms and cede control of government buildings. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have been sent to Ukraine to negotiate the surrender of government buildings. But so far pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have refused to abide by the terms of the accord. If anything, according to reports from the ground, the purported insurgents have tried to solidify their control over several eastern Ukrainian cities.

Speaking to reporters Monday in Kiev, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia claimed that pro-Russian militants -- armed and instructed by the Russian secret services -- were responsible for the Easter Sunday attack in Slovyansk. He said that Ukraine's special security services have "information indicating that next week Russia will perform an act of military aggression against Ukraine."

"Russia-controlled and -inspired militants, instructed and sponsored by [Russian intelligence personnel], continue to destabilize the situation in the eastern Ukraine in order to create a new stage of Moscow's aggression," Deshchytsia said. "The Russian Foreign Ministry and Kremlin-controlled Russian mass media launched a new phase of Soviet-style propaganda aimed to falsify a real state of danger in some eastern regions of our country, particularly in Lugansk and Slovyansk.… All these illegal actions have only one purpose: to motivate Russia to continue its policy for further escalation of tension in Ukraine by supporting artificially created separatism moods in eastern communities."

Ukraine's political turmoil began last November, when then-President Yanukovych, citing pressure from Moscow, delayed plans to sign a so-called association agreement with the European Union, a move that would have strengthened Kiev's trade relations with Europe and eased travel restrictions. The decision triggered massive demonstrations -- dubbed Euromaidan -- that ultimately forced Yanukovych from power and set the stage for Russia's annexation of Crimea. The crisis has deepened in recent weeks as pro-Russian militants seized control of government buildings in several cities in eastern Ukraine.

Yanukovych -- who has since taken refuge in Russia -- issued a statement Monday urging Ukrainian troops not to follow the "criminal orders" from Kiev's transitional leaders and advised Ukrainians to back Putin's call for reconstituting the country as a federation. He called for the holding of regional referendums on federation before the country's May 25 elections. "This is the only way to preserve the integrity of Ukraine," he said. "If this is not done, our country will be threatened with fragmentation.… A civil war would be more likely."

Photo: Genya Savilov/ AFP/Getty Images