Interview: Alexander Hug of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine discusses the current situation in the war-torn nation, focusing on the need to avert a large-scale humanitarian disaster in the war zone.

SMM Principal Deputy Chief Monitor Alexander Hug urged both sides to repair the bridge and create a safe environment for people crossing. Photo: OSCE / Evgeniy Maloletka

The last weeks of 2016 have seen a major upsurge of violence in some areas of Eastern Ukraine, including a recent separatist offensive near Svitlodarsk and Debaltseve. Russia Direct interviewed the principal deputy chief monitor of the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Ukraine, Alexander Hug, about the development of the situation in the region over the past year.

According to Hug, both sides now have enough control of their troops on the ground to be able to implement a ceasefire, but the problem is a lack of political will to do so. Looking into the next year, Hug suggests putting the plight of civilians as the absolute priority for negotiators, ahead of any political interests.

Russia Direct: There are alarming media reports from the Debaltseve area and elsewhere along the Luhansk contact line. What is going on there?

Alexander Hug: Yes, indeed, the OSCE has long been recording exchanges of fire and ceasefire violations in the wider area between Svitlodarsk and Debaltseve. We have teams permanently present in Debaltseve and in Svitlodarsk, and that area has been one of the main hotspots along the contact line that we have been concerned about [Debaltseve is vital to the control of both Donetsk and Luhansk, and has seen some of the heaviest fighting during the conflict, including the infamous “Debaltseve Boiler” — Editor’s note].

During the week of Dec. 12-18, the number of ceasefire violations recorded by the SMM increased by 75 percent compared to the previous week. We have seen there in the past the use of heavy weapons on both sides and again now. The use of heavy weapons proscribed by the Minsk agreements has tripled. The monitors recorded at least 985 mortar, tank, artillery and multiple rocket launch systems fire explosions compared to 244 the week before. The vast majority of them (843 explosions) occurred south and southeast of the government-controlled Svitlodarsk.

We are dealing with a considerable upsurge in violence. Teams on the ground have been in touch with the Joint Center for Control and Coordination, which has the task to ensure the comprehensive ceasefire, and on a number of occasions it worked and the ceasefire started to hold again. But it is unstable in that area.

Our monitors were turned back on a number of occasions and we are often unable to determine what actually happened. If you want clarity from the SMM, and you are one of the sides, you better give access to the SMM, because only then it would be possible to document what has been happening.

RD: What about getting access to the war-torn territories? Is it easier for the SMM now than a year ago or worse?

A.H.: It should be noted that access for the SMM is granted by its mandate of 57 participating states, and is further reconfirmed in the Minsk Agreements. And that means that Russia, Ukraine as well as Alexander Zakharchenko [the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic — Editor’s note] and Igor Plotnitsky [the head of the Luhansk People’s Republic — Editor’s note] have also signed up to this very important attribute of the mission. The freedom of movement for the SMM is unconditional. Any restriction of any kind is a violation of the SMM mandate and of the Minsk Agreements.

Having said that, it is true that we still encounter numerous restrictions in our movement. Overall and looking back in the year — while both sides restrict SMM’s freedom of movement — the majority of those do occur in the areas not controlled by the government. If looking at the disengagement areas, we have encountered there a significant amount of restrictions, including those that relate to the presence of dangers on the ground — mines and other hazards that are there. And the sides are required to remove them but have not removed them.

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The restrictions are of different nature – there are delays at checkpoints, there are complete denials of movement, when our monitors are required to go back and not allowed to go forward. Often, this happens in areas not controlled by the government, and we see civilian cars passing, but we are not allowed often under the pretext of security risks, which are not specified precisely. But those security hazards should have been removed by the two sides. The SMM is also subject to violence and aggression – there has been fire upon our patrols, they have been threatened at gunpoint and every now and then, in areas not controlled by the government, they encounter organized crowds of people that prevent them from moving forward.

If we look back a year ago, we had similar challenges. There is now an increased problem — and that’s the nature of any conflict — risks on the ground, posed by unexploded ordnance and mines that are increased now and there. The longer the conflict lasts, the more of these risks there are. Keep in mind that Russia, Ukraine representatives of certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk have already agreed back in 2014 that mines need to be removed and no new mines should be put on the ground. Unfortunately, that is still not the case and it is up to them to remove those hazards.

RD: How did the general situation evolve over the year regarding the cessation or resumption of hostilities?

A.H.: Let us take 2015 as the first reflection point. There were large-scale battles like Donetsk airport, Debaltseve and other theaters, including the attack on Mariupol. We saw the large-scale use of heavy weapons including tanks on both sides. The conflict line was shifting in many places.

This year, the violence started to concentrate around clearly defined hotspots along the contact line, such as the triangle comprising Donetsk Airport-Yasynuvata-Avdiivka. There is an area discussed before – between Svitlodarsk and Debaltseve in the western part of Luhansk region in the south of Donetsk region, to the east and northeast of Mariupol.

Comparing this year to last year, there are less heavy weapons used, but still they are in use. There is still an unacceptable level of violence – throughout the year we have recorded almost 300,000 ceasefire violations. We have spotted 3,000 pieces of weapons proscribed the by the Minsk agreements within the withdrawal lines.

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We have entered the third winter, when the civilian population on the both sides of the contact line continues to face humanitarian hardship as a result of the violence they are exposed to. Civilian infrastructure — water, gas — is being damaged and destroyed by the violence. As the contact line has become stable, the civilian infrastructure that leads across this line is subject to attacks and destruction. Gas, electricity and water pipelines become increasingly interrupted by the ongoing fighting, and their repair becomes increasingly difficult, because the areas of effective control are not entirely clear, are very risky and also polluted with mines and it becomes very difficult to interact there.

There is also, towards the end of this year, clearly a lack of will to continue to implement the Minsk agreements in full. We have seen that the sides have at their hands the instruments to control the fighting. The last time we have seen this was on the first of September, when they decided to recommit to the ceasefire, then overnight they stopped the fighting.

These days it is less of a problem of command and control, but more of a problem of lack of political will on both sides to stop fighting. And I would like to emphasize that the civilians suffer most in this. They have difficulties in getting across the contact line, they have difficulties in getting access to basic services. With utilities interrupted, their places of work cannot be reached any longer, kids cannot go to school, they cannot visit their friends.

The situation of civilians left and right to the contact line becomes increasingly unbearable and, certainly, unacceptable. Ukrainians on both sides who have nothing to do with this conflict should come to the fore of the agenda and should dominate the decision-making criteria to have solutions that will ease their life.

RD: Why is it the case that there is no political will today to implement the Minsk agreements?

A.H.: Ending the fighting is not impossible. We know, and the civilians know, and those who have signed the Minsk Agreements know, that the sides can stop this within hours — we have seen it multiple times. To discuss why they are not doing this would be speculation. These decisions are difficult to take, of course. The situation is very complex. But the decisions need to be taken.

Otherwise the civilians will continue to suffer unnecessarily. And any political agenda should come after the interests of the civilians on the both sides of the contact line — people who have nothing to do with the ongoing fight.

RD: Would you say then that there is a regression in the Minsk process?

A.H.: No, the discussions are ongoing in Minsk, and the Trilateral Contact Group and the working groups are meeting regularly. Regression is probably not the right word. I can say that towards the end of the year we see signs of stagnation. Clearly, no forward movement has been made in the past weeks.

Alexander Hug, Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. Photo: OSCE / Micky Kroell

But what is important is that Minsk is the way to go ahead, Minsk is the platform where everyone sits down and discusses, and Minsk provides the solutions. So, in no way would I suggest that Minsk is dead. And if the sides decide to not move onwards, it is not the process itself that brought it to a standstill.

And if you read our reports, the results of non-compliance with the Minsk Agreements are there every day: lack of withdrawal of heavy weapons, the non-adherence to the ceasefire, the placing of mines, the restrictions of the freedom of movement of the SMM, etc. are omnipresent, and this is the direct result of non-adherence of the signatories to these measures in Minsk.

RD: What are the major obstacles to disengagement?

A.H.: First of all, I would like to be very clear about what disengagement means. Disengagement is a process that prevents skirmishes along the contact line. It prevents accidental starting of fighting where the sides are very close. It is not about giving up gained areas; it is not about retreating armed forces or formations. It is about creating space that would lead to a reasonable and sustainable ceasefire.

And the simple fact is that in all of those hot spots the sides sit on top of each other. Creating a space between them would create conditions for the situation to calm down. But it can only make sense if all the measures agreed in Minsk — in particular the withdrawal of heavy weapons - can be implemented at the same time.

The lack of political will here also clearly is one of the reasons why disengagement does not move ahead. At the same time, you have to acknowledge that in those areas where it did happen — in two of the three areas — in the Zolote disengagement area in Luhansk region and in Petrivske in the southern part of Donetsk region – the results are visible. We register very few, if any ceasefire violations in these two areas.

It is also important that we have access to these areas to verify the withdrawal. Obviously, when new disengagement areas are created, it will lead to a more stable ceasefire.

RD: What do you see as the biggest achievements and the biggest losses of 2016?

A.H.: Overall one can see that the conflict has been contained. There were days and months, when we had to register a great number of ceasefire violations. But everyone involved, including the Joint Center for Control and Coordination, has invested much to prevent the large-scale deterioration and instability as we have seen in the previous years.

Probably what is most needed now, and what was absent in the latter half of the year is the political will to give the Minsk agreements new momentum.

RD: What are the current numbers of the SMM and is the mission going to grow further?

A.H.: At the moment we have roughly 700 monitors in Ukraine, 600 of those in the east of the country. On top of that, we have another 100 people international staff and about 330 Ukrainian colleagues working alongside us.

RD: What is happening to the number of civilian casualties? Is it decreasing or growing?

A.H.: Due to the lesser use of heavy weapons, we have been registering fewer casualties overall than in earlier days. But the numbers are still high. From January to November, for instance, the OSCE SMM has corroborated and confirmed 83 civilian deaths and 305 cases of civilian injuries.

RD: In your opinion, can Minsk-2 be really fully implemented? Looking from the ground, is there a need for a Minsk-3?

A.H.: Look, any ceasefire in the world is messy. Solutions and results on the ground will not come overnight. This is a very complex affair and it drags now into the third winter. This will take time. But the way to achieve results has been clearly designed and agreed already. It is the Trilateral Contact Group and the decisions that it took in Minsk that has highlighted the way that the sides wanted to go to bring a settlement in the sense that the violence ends and the future decisions are based on that.

We believe, without being naive, that the measures foreseen in Minsk are the measures that are required to bring about a stable situation in the eastern part of the country. No agreement is perfect and it always depends on the will of the sides to make the best out of it. It is the intention of the 57 OSCE participating States with its field operation — the SMM — to contribute to the implementation of Minsk.

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But, once again, much depends on the political will of the sides to implement those agreements. And it is not only required to have discussions in Minsk, but it is also required to take actions on the ground, and we will continue to document if such actions have been taken and whether or not they lead to tangible results.

RD: Several months ago there was a lot of talk about creating an “armed OSCE mission” in the eastern part of Ukraine. Where do we stand on this now?

A.H.: The OSCE is an organization that makes its decisions on a consensus basis. The SMM is a field operation deployed by consensus decision of the 57 participating states, so any changes to this mission, which is a civilian monitoring mission, and the establishment of a new field operation, would require the consensus of all 57 states.

So, it will require a clear vote and political will by all 57 states, not by one, two or four of them. This debate belongs to the Permanent Council in Vienna, where it should be held. The SMM had its mandate extended until March next year and we will continue to exercise our mandate until it expires, and should it be extended, we will continue to do so. It is up to the Permanent Council to make a consensus-based decision.

RD: What are your expectations for 2017 - if not for the whole year, then at least for the first several months?

A.H.: What I would like to see also applies to the last days of 2016: I would like to see an immediate cessation of hostilities, that the weapons are silent. We know that the sides can stop this. There is need for the withdrawal of weapons behind the lines, and they need to provide us with inventories, so that we can do the verification of this measure. We need to see more crossings for civilians, and they need to be safe.

There needs to be disengagement, including in these areas, so that civilians could cross from one side of the line to the other without being put in harm’s way. There needs to be in this regard an immediate action in the Luhansk region, where civilians can to this day cross only on foot through the damaged bridge over the contact line. That has to change.

There is a clear solution at hand, and there are existing crossing points. They just need to be opened again – will is needed. It is purely a matter of the sides agreeing and doing what they need to do, which is to help civilians get back to a normal life. Three years of this conflict is enough. It is time now for the sides to do what they agreed to do.