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OSCE/Evgeniy Maloletka

OSCE Ukraine Mission Extended in Last-Minute Breakthrough

Stephanie Liechtenstein
News 31 March 2021

Just 14 hours before it was set to expire, OSCE participating States today extended the mandate of the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) for another year. The decision also included the approval of an approximately 100 million-euro budget for the OSCE’s flagship 730-monitor operation. The SMM will now enter its eighth year of operation.

Armenia had pushed negotiations to the brink by blocking consensus for several weeks — apparently to express its dissatisfaction with the OSCE’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict — resulting in what one diplomat called a “nerve-racking experience”.

In addition to numerous efforts by Swedish officials, several European foreign ministers and the U.S. State Department intervened in Yerevan to convince the Armenian government to sign on, diplomats told SHR Monitor.

The SMM plays a vital role in monitoring ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine. The recent deterioration of the security situation on the ground, which saw the killing of four Ukrainian soldiers, added a sense of urgency to the SMM mandate negotiations.

Already last week Sweden organized two Preparatory Committee meetings among OSCE Ambassadors to negotiate a prolongation of the mandate but Armenia, as the only country, said that it could not join the consensus as it had “no instructions” to do so, according to diplomats. Several meetings and efforts on 30 March also failed to produce an agreement.

The issue was also raised to the level of foreign ministers and was already discussed on 16 March during a meeting between Armenian Foreign Minister Ara Aivazian and Swedish Foreign Ann Linde. As Sweden currently chairs the OSCE, Linde traveled to Armenia in her capacity as OSCE Chairperson-in-Office.

“I welcome that consensus has been reached on the budget and mandate for the OSCE’s largest field operation, the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine,” Swedish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ann Linde said. “The mission plays a vital role in the OSCE’s conflict resolution efforts through its monitoring and reporting on the security situation in Ukraine and facilitating dialogue.”

The Chief Monitor of the SMM, Y. Halit Çevik from Turkey, also welcomed the agreement. “The unanimous decision of the 57 OSCE participating States to extend the mandate for another year signals continuing support for the OSCE SMM, and commitment to reducing tensions and fostering peace, stability and security in Ukraine,” he said.

According to diplomats familiar with the situation, Armenia felt that all conflicts in the OSCE area should be dealt with the same degree of urgency and commitment and that there should not be any prioritization of conflicts.

This suggests that Armenia seems to have had misgivings about issues unrelated to the actual work of the SMM. After all, the OSCE SMM generally enjoys the support of all 57 OSCE participating States. There are also two monitors in the SMM from Armenia.

Armenia’s position seems to be more of a reflection of its desire to have seen the OSCE play a more active role in preventing or at least de-escalating the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. The fighting last year claimed thousands of lives and forced Yerevan to agree to a Russian-brokered ceasefire that led to the extensive loss of territory it once controlled. Since 1992, the OSCE has spearheaded international mediation efforts through the so-called OSCE Minsk Group but was arguably bypassed in the most recent situation, as Russia took over the role of mediator and peacekeeper.

Addressing a parliamentary committee on foreign relations on 29 March, Armenian Foreign Minister Ara Aivazian said the Minsk Group Co-chairs had failed to fulfill their mandate regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “They were and are called not only to create a favorable atmosphere for the settlement of the issue through negotiations but also to exclude the military resolution,” he said.

One diplomat suggested that Armenia may also have been upset about Kyiv deepened its “strategic partnership” with Baku last year and repeatedly voicing its support for Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, similar to most other OSCE participating States. Ukraine has supported Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity since the first ceasefire in 1994 but has become more vocal since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Some of these reasons may therefore have contributed to Armenia blocking the consensus and to push a decision to the last minute to “ventilate its anger”, as one diplomat put it. This reflects how both consensus and the linking of unrelated issues can cripple the OSCE. Taking up this point, the Austrian Mission to the OSCE tweeted that a “valuable asset” such as the SMM “should not serve as a bargaining chip for unrelated purposes”.

That said, the fact that Sweden was able to adopt the decision prolonging the mandate of the OSCE’s flagship field operation demonstrates how multilateral action can be taken, particularly if there is effective diplomacy and leadership.

Meanwhile, there is also some speculation about the role of Russia in all of this. Moscow is Yerevan’s security guarantor and the two countries are close allies, leading some observers to think that Russia must have given at least a tacit agreement to Armenia’s blocking of the decision.

Yet, it seems clear from statements in Moscow that Russia is supportive of the SMM. Yesterday the spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed support for the extension of the SMM mandate. Maria Zakharova also said that Russia makes a significant contribution to the OSCE SMM operation and is interested in the mission’s effective and unbiased work, both in Donbass and the rest of Ukraine.

The OSCE SMM was deployed to Ukraine in 2014. It currently consists of 730 international, civilian monitors. The SMM’s reports are widely regarded as a source of unbiased facts, including on issues such as ceasefire violations, withdrawal of heavy weapons, and military disengagement. The mission also facilitates local ceasefires in order to ensure repair and maintenance of critical civilian infrastructure, including the Donetsk Filtration Station, which provides water to around 380,000 civilians on both sides of the contact line. The SMM confirmed an uptick in ceasefire violations in its most recent status report.

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