Sun, Jul 31, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Safe in hotels, European observers miss most of Ukraine war

By Andrew E. Kramer  /  NY Times News Service, AVDIIVKA, Ukraine

As the afternoon shadows grow long, nocturnal creatures begin to stir. A stray cat rises from a nap, stretches and trots off to hunt. Overhead, swallows swoop and screech in the deepening twilight.

Soon, the human inhabitants of this town in eastern Ukraine set about their evening rituals.

Green-clad soldiers strap on their helmets and load their guns, while white-clad European ceasefire observers pocket their notebooks, climb into their cars and drive away.

Then the fighting starts.

This improbable routine between soldiers and monitors with the Organization for Security and Co operation in Europe (OSCE) plays out nightly, illustrating the glum quagmire of the Ukraine war, now entering its third year.

“I never see them here at night,” said Tatyana Petrova, whose apartment looks over a parking lot that is a frequent listening post for the monitors. “In the evening, I look out and they are gone, and then the concert starts.”

Avdiivka, a warren of back streets eerily overgrown with years of untended vegetation, is the most troubled flash point along the so-called line of control separating Russian-backed separatists from the Ukrainian army.

The unarmed monitors, mostly European diplomats seconded to the mission, are empowered to listen for ceasefire violations, escort humanitarian aid and negotiate local truces. However, they patrol only during the daytime.

This adherence to bankers’ hours and other signs of weakness in their mandate are doing little to help end the only active war in Europe, at a time when the continent’s security is already unraveling from terrorism and tensions over migration.

Typically, the OSCE reports from dozens to hundreds of ceasefire violations daily. The Ukrainian army reports several deaths per week, commensurate with the casualties of the US Army during the Iraq War.

The UN said nearly 10,000 people have died in eastern Ukraine since March 2014.

Out on patrols, whenever military commanders on either side object to their presence, the monitors turn and leave, no questions asked.

During one recent patrol accompanied by a reporter, a Ukrainian military nurse shooed monitors away.

The mission now has about 100 budgeted yet unfilled positions, partly because European public employees are loath to interrupt long summer vacations.

It is a seasonal dip, OSCE officials said, caused by member governments struggling to recruit for summertime rotations.

Emblematic of the group’s weak hand, one key mission of observers stationed at two crossing posts on the Russian-Ukrainian border has conceded to Russian pressure not to use binoculars, lest the observers observe too much.

In March, Russia’s continued refusal to permit the use of binoculars at these sites attracted harsh criticism from deputy chief of the US mission to the OSCE Kate Byrnes.

In response, Russian Ambassador to the OSCE Aleksandr Lukashevich said that “the possibility of using binoculars was being considered.”

However, in July, the matter was still unresolved, with the EU issuing a statement condemning Russia for obstructionism in “small measures, such as the use of binoculars.”

No progress has been made, largely because the 57-nation group, which includes Ukraine and Russia, makes decisions by consensus.

The group’s mandate is limited to peace monitoring, not peacekeeping — an important distinction. The teams driving along potholed roads in armored, white Toyota Land Cruisers are not supposed to become human shields separating combatants, but rather to remain close enough to observe the fighting.

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