Despite restrictions on its monitoring, the SMM has been able to monitor and to issue over a thousand reports about the impact of the conflict and ongoing attacks. “The findings in our reports should be followed up with tangible remedial actions by the sides”, said Mr Hug.
Alexander Hug warns that the situation is dangerous - civilians are dying, heavy weapons are still in use – observed over 2,500 times this year alone in places where they should not be.
Mr Hug told also that the sides are coming closer and closer to the contact line, and to one another. It poses a danger –resulting in increased tension and violence and risking even further escalation. The situation is volatile, assesses Mr Hug.
Deputy Chief Monitor of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, Alexander Hug (C-R) with OSCE members inspect an area in Kominternovo village, near Mariupol, Ukraine, 15 January 201. Fot. PAP/EPA/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO
PolskieRadio.pl, Agnieszka Kamińska: How do you assess the situation in the monitored area as far as security is concerned?
Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine Alexander Hug:
The situation at the contact line is highly unpredictable at the moment and remains highly volatile. The situation at the almost 500-kilometer long contact line is static in a sense that the contact line itself does not shift any longer; however, in some geographical areas along the contact line we register heavy kinetic activities. That involves small-arms fire but also the use of heavy weapons.
In all the areas where we see fighting, the sides are far too close to each other and heavy weapons that should have been long withdrawn under the agreements reached in Minsk are still present. These heavy weapons include tanks, mortars, artillery, including multiple launch rocket systems.
The problem is that all of these geographical areas where fighting takes place – for example, in areas to the west and north of Donetsk - these are built-up areas, huge population centers.
In a sense, the western part of Donetsk city, for instance, is a part of the contact line, and therefore, a part of the fighting theatre. These places are inhabited by civilians and at the same time the sides use them as positions. And because there are positions in built-up areas where the fighting takes place, these positions are used not only to fire on the other side but they also attract retaliatory fire from the opposite side.
Because in this conflict, indiscriminate weapons systems are used that cannot target exactly (they are prohibited by the International Humanitarian Law, ed.) – it is unavoidable that civilians continue to suffer. Civilians are being injured, killed in this conflict to a large degree - mainly by heavy weapons, by those weapons that should have been long withdrawn.
Since the beginning of this year (to the mid-July, ed.) the Special Monitoring Mission has registered 306 civilian casualties in the conflict. Compared to the same period last year, we had registered 186 civilian casualties in 2016. Also, the number of civilians killed in the same period, if comparing 2017 with 2016, has increased by almost 65%. That is quite troubling and it shows how volatile the conflict still is.
PolskieRadio.pl: So we may have an impression that the conflict is intensifying at least at some aspects. We have 1.5 times as many fatalities.
It is important to note that the conflict has evolved, that we have different stages in the conflict. In 2014, there was no contact line. It was very unpredictable, with greater mobility, and with large battles, most notably in Ilovaisk. With the contact line drawn in late 2014, there was a more static form of fighting, concentrated mostly along the line, particularly at Donetsk airport. The contact line still moved. The last time when it shifted significantly was after the battle in and around Debaltseve in the early months of 2015. Since then the sides have moved closer to one another towards the contact line and that has led to the fact that they are now so close in certain areas that they can even see each other at a distance of 10-20 meters. There is continuing tension and this often translates itself into long lasting fighting in the area. There is only one way to calm down the situation and make it sustainable – that is to withdraw the positions to a distance where the engagement is less possible and concurrently we need the withdrawal of the heavy weapons beyond the withdrawal lines that were agreed in Minsk.
PolskieRadio.pl: So these are the main challenges, threats. What should be done? The measures, as you told, they all are written down in the Minsk agreements but it does not work, yes?
First of all, ultimately, whether or not there will be the success of the agreements depends not on the agreements, but on those who have signed them. So we have to be clear on that. We know that when the signatories agreed to take certain actions to cease fire at the beginning of the school year or for the Easter holiday – it is possible that the fire stops and we have often seen that the sides have control over their respective sides. What is happening is a question of will.
As mentioned before, there are two main measures that need to be implemented to stabilize the military technical side of the situation; increase the distance between the positions where they are too close now and in parallel, withdraw heavy weapons – tanks, mortars, and artillery, including multiple launch rocket systems, beyond the withdrawal lines, beyond the distance where they can be engaged; as already agreed in Minsk.
If these two measures are implemented, the situation will immediately stabilize on the contact line. The conflict now remains unpredictable because these two measures are not implemented. But this is not the fault of the agreements, this is a matter of the sides not willing to implement it.
PolskieRadio.pl: We have meetings of Normandy Four – between Germany, France, Russia, Ukraine. Could it bring something new? Could it help in this situation and how?
Ultimately, this conflict can only be resolved through dialogue. Therefore, any discussion on finding the solution is welcome. The OSCE SMM contributes to these discussions by providing objective information, based on which decisions can be made at these important meetings.
However, our ability to provide the information is severely curtailed by the sides’ unwillingness to co-operate with the mission and the impediments they put on the mission’s work.
And there can only be one reason why the sides prevent the mission from monitoring and that is to prevent the mission from seeing certain activities.
It is very important to mention that although we are stopped and our work is hindered on both sides of the contact line, those impediments are much more severe and aggressive in the areas not controlled by the Government.
There, we are being intimidated, we are being shot at, we are being blocked in a much more aggressive manner than in areas controlled by the government
PolskieRadio.pl: Could you tell more about the security of the mission? One of the observers has died recently in the areas not controlled by the Government, others have been injured due to an alleged mine explosion. We have heard of many dangerous situations.
Indeed our monitors work in a complex and dangerous environment. We train our monitors, equip them and prepare them to confront these risks, and make sure that we apply all possible mitigation measures to have their work conducted safely and securely at the contact line. However, it is not possible to eliminate all the risks and our monitors are exposed to the risk of unexploded ordnance, the risk of mines, indirect and direct fire. And that does happen on a rather regular basis and we have encountered at least two serious incidents per week recently– that is double the number that we had before the 23 of April tragic incident in an area controlled by the so-called “LPR” (so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic”).
PolskieRadio.pl: What can be done to make the mission more secure and ensure the access that is needed?
First of all it is true that there is a correlation between the increase in hostilities and increase in restrictions the mission faces. Whenever there is more fighting, there are more restrictions for the mission. These restrictions are often imposed on the mission by the sides by physically stopping us from proceeding with our patrols or we have to restrict ourselves because the sides do not remove the security risks on the ground: they do not demine roads, they do not remove obstacles that are in the way of our work. It is in the hands of the sides to enable the mission to do its work.
It is important that the sides take action against those who put obstacles in our way, and action against those who shoot at our patrols.
These violators have to be held to account by those who have signed the agreements. The Minsk Agreements state very clearly that the sides have the responsibility to ensure our safety and security and it is expected from them that they will take this responsibility seriously. Violators must be held to account so that violations against our monitors and our work stop.
PolskieRadio.pl: Are there any sanctions in case of obstructing monitors activities? What happens if one of the sides stops monitors or there is a dangerous situation? Are there any consequences? Do we have any reaction on the political level?
We expect that all the impediments that are introduced against the mission are being followed up swiftly by the sides. We would like to see measurable actions by the sides; actions that would hold to account those who violate our freedom of movement and those who shoot at us.
The sides have an obligation to ensure safety and security for monitors. If the respective chain of command is not fulfilling this responsibility, then measurable actions must be taken to hold to account those who do not follow through on the promises that the signatories have taken in Minsk.
PolskieRadio.pl: What could be done to improve the security [of the SMM?]
First of all the sides need to implement the key measures that they have agreed to in Minsk; that is to increase the distance between themselves, to withdraw heavy weapons, to stop laying mines and to remove the mines that have been laid and to stop the restrictions they impose on us.
If these basic measures are introduced, the mission would be able to do more than it is doing now.
But I have to be very clear. Already what we see now is sufficient to indicate the trends, it is sufficient to point towards the violators.
We have seen for instance more than 2,500 weapons accumulated since the beginning of the year in areas where they should not be.
These violations must be dealt with, actions must follow our reports. We see the tip of the iceberg, but even if those violations were removed, the situation would remarkably improve and the situation at the contact line would become much more stable.
PolskieRadio.pl: What data do we have on the Russian military presence in the area?
The OSCE SMM reports what it sees, what it hears and does not speculate. And in this context I would like to refer to our public reports where we inform that we have seen uniformed men, bearing the insignia of the Russian Federation.
We have spoken to individuals captured by the Ukrainian forces who claimed that they had been part of an official Russian armed forces unit in Ukraine.
But it is not for the SMM to draw conclusions from that. We are an observer mission; our readers can draw conclusions on the facts established by us.
PolskieRadio.pl: And we were talking about the violations of the Minsk agreements. Do we have any statistics which part does it more often, which heavy weapon comes from Russia?
What is certain and it is a fact that both sides violate the Minsk agreements, they use their weapons, place them in the areas where they should not be. All of that is well documented in our reports. There are no saints in this conflict and both sides violate the agreements.
What is more important than the question of who violates more is the question of what are the sides doing to prevent the violations from occurring in the first place.
The civilians at the contact line are interested in stopping the fighting. And finger-pointing at this moment is not helpful. The sides should introduce measures to immediately enforce what they have agreed to, increase the distance, remove the heavy weapons - what both sides are not doing at the moment and that is the cause of the continued fighting.
If they take measures to implement the agreements, to hold to account those over whom they have command and control if they violate the agreements, then the civilians at the contact line, who have endured this conflict for far too long, will finally get to a situation where they have a normal life again. If the sides fail to implement their promises, the civilians on both sides on the contact line will continue to suffer.
PolskieRadio.pl: Could you tell more about the humanitarian situation, what data do we have, what should be done? There is war. That means people are still dying and suffering, there is hunger, no access to medicine. But perhaps you have a clearer image of the situation there. And what could be done?
Where the fighting still takes place, the humanitarian situation is difficult. The fighting affects directly the lives of the civilians in these areas. They get injured, they get killed in the vast majority of cases by the use of heavy weapons; they die from splitter wounds, shrapnel wounds, and because of the use of weapons that should have long been withdrawn. If they had been withdrawn, many of these civilians would still be alive.
Also, the environment is still being damaged by the ongoing fighting - critical infrastructure, water, electricity, gas pipelines across the contact line are being repeatedly damaged by the continuing fighting.
Roads civilians used to take to see relatives, visit a doctor etc. are no longer available for them. At the moment, there are only four entry-exit checkpoints in Donetsk region and a single one in Luhansk region. They are only five at the 500-kilometre long contact line.
Incredibly long queues build up in front of these checkpoints. Sometimes people wait 10-15 hours in their cars until they can cross.
Now, in the summer heat, people suffer from being overheated. There is not enough shade, there are not enough services provided in these areas. People even die in the queues.
Often people get tired of waiting so they try to cross to the other side through unapproved roads – where mines are laid. And people often die there by stepping on explosive devices, mines.
Since the beginning of the year (till mid-July, ed.) we have confirmed 73 civilian casualties from mines and unexploded ordnance. 20 people have been killed and 53 have been injured.
Also, the supply of specific goods is difficult in the areas where the fighting takes places because often these villages, or towns, or parts of towns are sealed off by checkpoints. So if specific medication, specific services have to be delivered, they often cannot go through these last checkpoints because on either side on the line the access through them becomes difficult. So where the fighting takes place, life is very difficult.
PolskieRadio.pl: When we look back at the evolution of the conflict it seems that the situation is not improving. It is worsening in many aspects. And the Minsk Agreements are violated all the time on a regular basis. We still hear about all the political meetings and declarations or postulates that Minsk Agreements should be enforced. But we cannot see that. Can you see the way out of the situation? And how do you perceive the evolution of the conflict?
It is important to understand that in 2014 when takeover of administrative buildings started, when protesters then got armed and the fighting erupted in the eastern part of the country, there was no contact line. At the beginning, the conflict was fluid, emerging in one town, then another town; very unpredictable. Only towards the end of the 2014 after the initial agreements in Minsk had been signed, did the conflict become more concentrated towards the contact line. Large battles followed, however, – where the sides engaged in large-scale exchanges of fire with lots of losses on both sides: in Debaltseve, Donetsk Airport – just to mention a few examples. Since then the conflict concentrated towards the contact line. The contact line has not been shifting much in the past year, but the sides have become dangerously close to each other in many of the areas which is one of the reasons why the conflict still continues.
The sides should implement the Minsk agreements – but there is no will shown by the sides to implement them.
The discussions in Minsk and the ongoing meetings of the Normandy Four are important because they are platforms where dialogue is taking place. Ultimately, this conflict can only be resolved through dialogue. If the platform for dialogue did not exist, the situation would be much more difficult to address in the event of an emergency, in the event of high tension. The connections established through the dialogue are vital to control if there is a deterioration of the situation in the eastern part of Ukraine.
PolskieRadio.pl: What are the most urgent actions that could be taken now? Sometimes I am afraid some people which are far from this conflict, just unaware got used to the statements that the situation is very bad, they treat it as something obvious. But the situation is sometime so bad that we need to react, and some actions are needed immediately.
It is important that the international community does not accept the abnormal situation in eastern Ukraine as normal.
Every shot fired in eastern Ukraine is not normal. Our reports – more than a thousand we have issued since the beginning of the conflict – reflect the reality; this abnormal reality in the eastern part of Ukraine.
It is not normal what is going on in the eastern part of Ukraine. The measures to stop this abnormal reality have been laid out and the signatories have agreed on what measures need to be undertaken.
What is urgently needed is to calm down the situation. This requires ceasefire which is only possible, sustainably possible, if the distance between the positions is large and heavy weapons that cause so much damage have been withdrawn as agreed beyond the withdrawal lines.
That would bring stability. Stability and predictability are the ingredients for further stabilization and normalization in this conflict.
PolskieRadio.pl: Perhaps the SMM also needs some kind of help in order to make it more secure.
The single action that would help the mission is for the sides to implement the agreements. This is what is required. The mission has the equipment, the strength, the expertise, and we have the political backing of 57 participating states, including the Russian Federation and Ukraine, for our mandate.
What is not happening at the moment - and that is the major obstacle for the mission’s mandate to be implemented in full - is the unwillingness of the sides to implement their commitments.
The Mission already implements its mandate as far as the sides allow it to do so. If the sides provided a safer environment for the mission – through implementation of their promises – the SMM would be enabled to deliver on its mandate even more. But I have to be very clear: already now despite all these restrictions imposed on the mission, it is delivering on its mandate.
What is lacking – these are the actions by the signatories based on the facts that the mission establishes on a daily basis in eastern Ukraine.
All the SMM reports you can find here http://www.osce.org/ukraine- smm/reports; http://www.osce.org/special- monitoring-mission-to-ukraine
Agnieszka Kamińska, PolskieRadio.pl