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No blue helmets in Ukraine until Moscow & Kiev reach compromise on roles – OSCE secretary general

The change of leadership in Ukraine has spurred hopes for dialogue between Moscow and Kiev. Can this crisis be stopped from becoming yet another frozen conflict, or is it too late? We asked Thomas Greminger, secretary general of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Thomas Greminger, Secretary General of OSCE, it's really great to have you on our show. It's the first time you're on my show, so I'm very happy to have you as a guest, we have lots to discuss. Let's start off with Ukraine. I know that you've been saying that your organization, OSCE, could serve as an honest broker between Russia and Ukraine, but the two countries have been at odds for, like, five years now. Why do you think that your organization has enough clout to actually push Moscow and Kiev to a breakthrough? 

Thomas Greminger: Look, we've been pretty good in managing the crisis around Ukraine over the last five years. I think we managed to prevent further escalation of the conflict. And thanks to the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, I think we also made a major difference for the people on the ground in terms of facilitating these windows of silence that allow for humanitarian repair works, that, again, make sure that millions of people have water, electricity, gas et cetera. But obviously, managing the conflict is not enough. We want to move closer to resolving the conflict, and there, I think, the OSCE has some tools on offer. For instance, the trilateral contact group that meets on a bi-weekly basis in Minsk, where you have all five signatories of the Minsk agreements around the table, and I think this is a platform that could be used much more effectively. But it's true, we need a political impulse, and that needs to come from, ideally, the Normandy Four, that in the past has been giving political guidance to the process. And so basically what I'm waiting for is another political impulse, ideally stemming from the Normandy Four. 

SS: We'll talk about Normandy Four in a bit, but before that, I want to talk about the possible UN peacekeepers arriving in Ukraine. Before the elections in Ukraine, then-President Poroshenko said that this could be solved, an agreement could be reached on UN peacekeepers arriving to Ukraine as early as May or June this year. Do you think that idea is still feasible? 

TG: Well, I always defended the position that if a peace operation, a UN peace operation, we even suggested a joint UN-OSCE operation, if this allows us to get out of the political impasse for implementing the Minsk agreements, go for it. Go for it! But what we have seen is that the proposals for such an operation differ so massively, from a very simple peacekeeping operation of a very traditional design to a vast, comprehensive peace operation with, I read, figures of twenty thousand men. And as long as we have concepts that differ so widely, we will not have a basis to negotiate the UN Security Council resolution. So basically, as long as there isn’t a more common understanding of the scope of such an operation, the idea will not fly. 

SS: So I want to get your point of view on how that should, sort of, take place. Russia wants the UN peacekeepers on the front line, protecting OSCE stuff. Ukraine wants UN peacekeepers on its borders with Russia. Where do you think they should be? 

TG: Well, I think the decisive issue is - does the UN operation serve to implement the Minsk agreements? If it does, I think we could eventually reconcile the different positions. I think it would be a matter of sequencing the build-up of such an operation and linking it with progress in implementing the political provisions of the Minsk agreements. So I think it will be doable, but I think the basis must be the Minsk agreements, and if there is an attempt to bypass the Minsk agreements, it won’t fly. 

SS: If that were to happen, UN has to rely on its members to provide troops, and we have a very delicate situation when it comes to Ukraine, a lot of interests are involved. Which countries do you think should contribute troops to the UN mission in Ukraine, so that no one is really blamed of being biased? 

TG: I think, there has been a tradition in UN peace operations not to engage troops of states that have a direct stake in a crisis or in a conflict, and this would certainly also apply here. So you would have to focus on a number of states that are not direct stakeholders of the crisis. I think, again, depending on the size of such an operation, this would probably be doable. But we are not there yet. First, I think we need to come to a much more common understanding of the scope of such an operation, and then, I think, the next question would then be who would contribute troops. 

SS: But no matter the scope of the peacekeeping mission, it will have to be decided by the Security Council. 

TG: That is correct, yeah. 

SS: So do you think that, at this point, the Security Council is getting more involved in the whole affair? 

TG: Well, if we pursue this option of a peace operation, yes. At the same time, I think, it would be wise to keep the OSCE closely involved, for obvious reasons: we've been now working in this context for the last five years, we know it very well. We have a lot to offer, basically, we have all civilian components of a peace operation to bring in. And this is also why we have hinted at the possibility of a joint UN-OSCE operation, but again, I would caution, we are not there yet. 

SS: So the new leader, Ukrainian leader Zelensky has said that Normandy Four maybe needs to be expanded, maybe America and the United Kingdom should also be part of it. What do you think? There are two opinions: that this would actually make it ever more chaotic and bury the whole thing, others think that it will breathe in new life. 

TG: We clearly are in dire need of a new political impulse if we want to get the implementation of the Minsk agreements moving, that is for sure. Now, where does this impulse come from? I referred to the Normandy Four before, and that would for me be the obvious format. Now, would you associate additional important stakeholders to the mediation format? I'm not sure. What I'm sure of is that once we come to a solution, we agree on the way forward, we need all major stakeholders behind such a solution, including, of course, the United States of America. But I think... 

SS: But you don't think they should be part of the extended format? 

TG: Look, that is up to the Normandy Four to design… 

SS: No-no, what do you think, as an idea?There's just a proposal that's floating around, just as an idea. Do you think it could help or not? You know the implications, you know the relations between the UK and Russia, United States and Russia.Do you think bringing them together at the same table could actually help the crisis - or on the contrary? 

TG: Well, we certainly need both the US and the UK to back a way forward, however the way forward will look like. If the two states should be part of the mediation format as such, I'm less sure, it might complicate matters. But again, this is up to the sides to define. That's in every conflict resolution process like that, mediators are chosen by the sides, and they need to feel comfortable with the mediators.

SS: You've also pointed out a couple of times that there's not enough political will in Kiev to implement the Minsk agreements. Now we have the new leader, Volodimir Zelensky, he's, like, a man from the people. Maybe he doesn't have experience of his predecessor in politics, but, you know, he's widely regarded as someone who would bring upon change in every possible field. Do you thing with him, we can hope that the Minsk agreements could move forward? 

TG: I've been saying there is not enough political will to implement the Minsk agreements, full stop. And this applies to all sides. Obviously, I do hope that after, now, the conclusion of the presidential election process in Ukraine, we will get a new impulse. I think it's very difficult to speculate about the new President's positions. We'll see, but clearly, I think there is an opportunity for a new beginning. There is an opportunity for these needed political impulses to move forward towards resolving the crisis. 

SS: So right now, the conflict is five years old. Do you consider it a frozen conflict, like that in Nagorno Karabakh or Transnistria? 

TG: No, it's clearly not a frozen conflict. I mean, there is people dying practically on a daily basis. There are ceasefire violations, varying between a few hundreds and two thousand. There were two and a half thousand recently. So this is still a very hot conflict. That also creates a lot of human suffering. And so for me, this is far from a frozen conflict. 

SS: So if it were to become a frozen conflict like the ones that I cited earlier, would the OSCE consider it as a success or a failure? 

TG: Well, you know, the OSCE can do what it is mandated to do by its participating states. If you're mandated to manage a conflict, as has been the case with the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, with facilitating the trilateral contact group, we can do so. And the same goes, for instance, for the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. I think we've been fairly successful in preventing further escalations, in making sure that local ceasefire violations would not escalate, would not spin out of control. 

SS: I want to talk a bit about Kosovo, because OSCE also has a mission there. Kosovo is considering shaping their security forces to a full-fledged army. Serbia, of course, thinks it is very dangerous, it could start a new conflict. What do you think? 

TG: We are, of course, concerned by, let's say, the very uneven progress to peace and stability in the Western Balkans. You have states that have lately progressed in a quite impressive way. I think, for instance, after Prespa agreement, North Macedonia, I think there we have managed, the international community, but also enlightened political leaders have managed to create an island of stability. I'm very disappointed that we are totally stuck when it comes to the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. And I think all, every progress in terms of Kosovo, they depend on this dialogue process, and, well, there have been a number of factors that brought this process to standstill… 

SS: Okay, but my question is very simple: do you think an army in Kosovo is a good idea or not? 

TG: It's clearly, at this point in time, it's not helpful, and at the same, obviously, goes for a 100% tariff imposed [by Kosovo].

SS: Both sides, Kosovo and Serbia, are playing with the idea of this land swap. But then, European Union says it's a very bad idea, and if that were to happen, that would open Pandora's box. What do you think, what if it could actually help bridge the divide between Pristina and Belgrade? Would your organization support that idea of land swap? 

TG: Well, I think, we're not there yet. There is, for the time being, this idea has been discussed by the two Presidents, but it has never been formalized, officialised. We can only guess what they've been talking about. 

SS: But I feel like for them, it's more real than for the Europeans, because I recently spoke to the Serbian Foreign Minister. I mean, yes, you're right, there are no concrete agreements on it, but they are thinking about it more seriously than one might think. So if that were to happen, would you support that idea? 

TG: Look, I had the chance of talking with both Presidents over recent months, and I agree. I think that there are serious proposals being discussed, but at the same time, I would also argue that we haven't seen the entire proposal. Both Presidents have always insisted that this land swap is only one of the items of a comprehensive package, and as long as we don't see this comprehensive package, I think it's difficult to take a serious position on it. What I would say is, if the two states come to a deal that they both agree to, I think eventually we will have to accept it. 

SS: I want to talk about the general state of things, and how they're looking right now. So on one side, we have Russia's Vostok 2018. On the other side, we have NATO's Trident Juncture. Do you think this is what it’s going to be from now on, and common response, and big military exercises - this is our world of today? 

TG: It is. That's the pattern that we've seen developing over the last three-four years. And it's, of course, a worrying picture, and the stance that the OSCE takes is, of course, 100% normal that you conduct military exercises, please, notify them, notify them also when they are below the formal threshold that needs to be notified according to the Vienna document. Be careful when it comes to snap exercises. Again, as much transparency as possible, and be careful the closer to the border you come. That is clearly one message that we are giving. Another message, I think, is we need to focus much more on incident prevention and incident management. You know, we have launched this Structured Dialogue process that engages all 57 participating states on political and military matters. Again, for the last two years, I think it's a promising, good format, the more we discuss issues of military risk management, mitigation, transparency, strengthening existing confidence and security-building measures in order to prevent miscalculations, accidents that potentially could spin out of control. 

SS: So potentially, talking about potential accidents,the Baltic states are repeatedly voicing concern of the Russian threat, and they're very happy every time NATO conducts their drills on their territories. This obviously gets on the nerves of the Russians, it's like a never ending story. But since your organization's mission is actually early conflict prevention, do you see a serious conflict potential there? 

TG: You see, I think threat perceptions need to be taken seriously, and this is one of the reasons why we launched this Structured Dialogue to allow participating states to come together and share strength perceptions. I think it is only by getting a better sense of what threatens the other side that we can gradually rebuild trust and confidence. 

SS: You come here all the time, you're not just part of the Western world, right? You know the reality on the ground here just as much as you know the reality on the ground there. Do you feel, you say threats should be taken seriously, do you feel there is a potential threat? 

TG: It's absolutely irrelevant how I feel about it. 

SS: It's not! You’re the head of the organization that takes care of the conflict prevention. 

TG: Yes, it is. I think it is. What matters are perceptions by participating states, because at the end, perceptions also shape reality. So if a participating state X or Y has a consistent threat perception, I think this needs to be taken into account when we develop responses. And I think for this, we need, again, dialogue to exchange and to better understand, and I think there is also a need for more readiness to more empathy to try to understand the other, if you want to progress, and if we want to come out of this very polarised, very antagonistic environment that we are operating in currently. 

SS: Do you feel like your organization in today's world has enough tools of influence to actually solve the problems that it is facing, because it's a Cold War child, right? It was created when America and USSR were at loggerheads, at odds. And yes, there was a potential conflict threat that was real, and that was a real threat to Europe then. I mean, right now, as much as America and Russia aren't liking each other, their relationship is definitely not a threat to European Union or Europe as a whole. Europe is definitely facing other threats, I don't know, like terrorism, populists, hackers, climate change, immigration, you name it, but this is nothing compared to a threat that it was facing before, when the Cold War was on. Do you feel maybe your organization needs a fundamental reform? 

TG: The quick answer will be of course, every organization needs to be constantly reformed, needs to respond to changing challenges. It needs to make sure that it still provides convincing answers to the challenges of today, and indeed, we are facing new challenges. I referred in my address to the Moscow Security Conference, for instance, to rapid technological change, artificial intelligence, etc, this is going to bring lots of new challenges in terms of security. But at the same time, I argue the OSCE has a fantastic toolbox developed over the time since we adopted the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. When it comes to facilitating dialogue, the OSCE has dialogue platforms, inclusive platform for dialogue on offer. We facilitate mediation formats for conflict, so I think it's not a matter of the toolbox. 

SS: Are they effective enough, those platforms? I'll tell you why I'm asking, because what we see lately is, for instance, I don't know, we have the Normandy Four for Ukraine solving the problem. You have Astana group for Syria. You have P5+1 for the Iran deal.So this makeshift diplomatic formats right now are more effective than anything that the UN can do, because people stopped, long stopped looking at the United Nations as a platform that decides anything, or solves any problems. For most of the people I know here and in the West, the United Nations right now is like a pointless platform where people can lash at each other. Do you feel like people have trust in your organization as a problem solver? Do you think it's effective enough? 

TG: I would wish participating states would use even more frequently instruments, tools that we offer to them. But at the end of the day, it is up to the political will and the commitment of participating states to use a dialogue platform that we offer, conflict management tool that we offer, and I think what we can do is make sure that these tools are smart, and that they are up to current challenges. But at the end, you need the political resolve if you want to move ahead. 

SS: Thank you so much, Thomas, for this interview, and good luck with everything. 

TG: Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you very much.

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