Interviewed by Anna Korbut, Yuriy Lapayev
In our interview last year, you spoke about demilitarisation zone as a key priority for the de-escalation of tensions. How do you assess it this year, as the fighting intensifies?
There has been a decision for disengagement: not just withdrawal of certain types of weapons, but actual forces too. Three areas were agreed upon as the initial ones: Petrivske in southern Donetsk region, Zolote in western Luhansk region, and Stanytsia Luhanska, also in Luhansk region. In Petrivske and Zolote, some disengagement did happen. The immediate result was that ceasefire violations there were eliminated or at least reduced. In Stanytsia Luhanska this disengagement did not happen, so ceasefire violations there repeatedly feature in our reports.
The problem remains that the sides are far too close to one another in all of the hotspots where there is still fighting. Since we last spoke, that distance reduced in many of those places. In some places the sides can virtually see each other, which leads to permanent state of tension. Logically, unless this changes, the tension will remain.
This proximity is also a reason why some of these areas remain inaccessible for civilians. Moreover, there are infrastructure zigzags across the contact-line, so it becomes trapped between positions. If the fighting erupts between them, it gets affected directly.
At the same time, it only makes sense when the second major cause of instability is removed in parallel: the presence of proscribed weapons. Otherwise, it won’t work, even if the sides go 2km apart. Because even the smallest mortar easily covers that distance. That has already been agreed and we don’t need to re-discuss this. What you read in our reports even now is full of evidences that these weapons are still there and are still being used.
This has to be done in agreement, not unilaterally. For us to be helpful to the process, we need to be enabled and allowed to monitor and verify this process. In some of these areas, both sides do not permit this access. In many instances this is due to the presence of mines and other obstacles. Let there be no mistake: It is the responsibility of the Ukraine Armed forces and of the so-called “DPR/LPR” to remove those mines. We the SMM are ready to patrol anywhere anytime – but we are not let to by the sides, they refuse to grant us access. As a result, we cannot fully attest that the force has actually been disengaging because we simply cannot see it. We try to overcome this by placing additional technology there. We have a camera in all of these three areas. These should help us see more of what’s happening around the clock. And you have seen some of the footage that we have made public, especially in the Stanytsia Luhanska area, where we have seen quite a lot of ceasefire violations.
Again, the only reason why it’s still happening there is that the sides are too close to one another. Including across the bridge which is not just a disengagement area, but the only entry-exit checkpoint in Luhansk region. That makes disengagement even more of a necessity, so that the civilians would be able to cross safely and the bridge could be repaired.
Both sides have committed to ceasefire and both don’t stick to it at the moment. As long as heavy weapons are not withdrawn and as long as the sides do not disengage, the situation will remain unpredictable.
You have been monitoring the stationing of heavy weapons. How do you assess the dynamics in that regard? Has the amount of heavy weapons along the contact line been increasing?
It is certainly not been decreasing. We have continuously been reporting about weapons gone missing in these holding areas, and we have seen weapons appearing in the security zone on both sides of the contact line. If we are to certify or to verify that the weapons has actually been withdrawn, the sides need to give us an inventory list, which we have been asking for many times, where they say where the weapons are now and where they will be brought. In that case we can go to a specific spot the next day and verify that the weapons are still there, that the side has withdrawn. If we don’t have this list, we can just monitor.
You don’t have these lists?
We have not yet been given comprehensive list of weapons to be withdrawn. We have lists of weapons that are already withdrawn. But that is not of much concern to us because that equipment is already behind the line and not be firing. Nonetheless, we will also monitor these weapons.
We can monitor, of course, and we will continue to do that. But if more is to be done, we need to get the inventory of weapons to be withdrawn. Our role as monitors is to state a fact. If we hear explosions and see tanks, the reader will know that the weapons are not withdrawn, despite claims of the sides to the opposite.
How much access to the Ukraine-Russia border the mission has now? You reported numerous difficulties in accessing it in 2016. Has the situation changed? What length of the border are you able to monitor?
The mandate of the SMM extends to all of Ukraine, including the 400 kilometers that the Government does not control currently. We conduct patrols to the border crossing points between Ukraine and the RF on a regular basis. But it takes an incredibly long time to reach these points. That is often preceded by the crossing of multiple checkpoints. So it is already known that we are coming. Also, we are often told to step back from the area of the actual crossing. And we are not allowed or supported by those in control, at least up to this day, to open bases in Novoazovsk, Amvrosiivka, Antratsyt, Krasnodon etc. If we could have those offices all along the line, the distance would be much shorter and we could visit the area more frequently.
Therefore, what we see there, for the reasons I have just explained, is highly controlled under any circumstances. That has to be taken into account.
Could there be any progress in terms of deploying the police mission in the conflict zone?
I have heard of these suggestions just like you have. However, decisions on any new field operations are taken by the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna. It requires a consensus of all 57 participating States. Any change to our mandate would equally require a consensus decision by all 57 participating states. Unless a decision is made, it is difficult for me to assess whether it is possible or not.
The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine has recently published an Action Plan on the reintegration of the occupied territories. Has the SMM been involved in the preparation or discussion of this plan?
We are in close contact with the relevant ministry on a regular basis. On that specific matter, we have not been involved directly. But we have studied the document carefully. We have also alerted our monitors in the field that there may be changes coming as a result of this Action Plan. We welcome any initiative that will further stabilize and pacify the area, that is introduced to the benefit of the civilians, their freedom of movement, of their intention to go to work, that will bring kids to school including, and in particular, at the entry-exit checkpoints. For now, there are only five of them and it takes an incredibly long waiting time to cross them. Plus, there are positions near them.
Everyone should put back their agendas there and put the humanitarian one at the front to make sure that the civilians get the attention they need.
How can you describe the quality of co-operation with the Joint Co-ordination and Control Centre?
We have a specially assigned team that works with the JCCC in Soledar. As headquarters of the SMM in Ukraine, we are in regular contact with the JCCC directly. The generals there call –us multiple times a day, especially these days when the situation is tense.
This exchange and co-operation is very important because JCCC was assigned a critical role in implementing some of the key provisions of the Minsk agreements. They are there to assist in ensuring comprehensive ceasefire, to co-ordinate the demining action, to assist in ensuring our security, and to assure rapid response to any impediments to our monitoring activities.
They play vital role concerning technical military aspects of the problem. We are mandated for the monitoring part. So that relationship is key. The JCCC has proven that it can truly function jointly. The most recent example was when we worked closely with them to facilitate the restoration of electricity in Avdiivka and of the Donetsk water filtration station. I on the one side would like to express my appreciation for their work. And on the other side, I call on them to operate even more jointly.
Do you plan any 24/7 monitoring in problem areas? So far, it often happens that the fighting erupts when the SMM leaves a spot.
First of all, it is incorrect to say that it’s quiet when we are in the area and the shelling starts when we leave. If you read our report from February 21, we registered 780 violations of the ceasefire overnight from 6 p.m. till 8 a.m. Our monitors do not patrol the areas physically at nighttime, but there are 14 locations along the contact line where we do the monitoring with our eyes and ears. There are camera locations that are operated 24/7.
In fact, most violations of the ceasefire we register are recorded during night time.
What are your priorities for 2017?
We will continue to implement our mandate to the best we can. Within the mandate, we will support the implementation of the Minsk agreements through our monitoring activities. The mission and the Chairmanship have expressed great concerns about civilians in the security zone, their lives jeopardized by continuous fighting. We would like to draw attention to the fact that the humanitarian agenda must be given the priority.
Those responsible for decision-making can base their decisions on the reports we provide. We don’t see everything. While we are ready to monitor anytime and anywhere, those who make decisions refuse to enable us to do so. Most of the restrictions affecting the SMM are not a result of our own decision. The reports published by the SMM provide objective information and facts of the reality on the ground. If decision makers and those giving orders would remedy the violations we have observed, much of the violence, death and destruction could be prevented.