Photo from UNIAN

Russia has spent four years denying responsibility for the tanks and huge arsenal of weapons provided to the Kremlin-controlled militants in Donbas, and using OSCE observers to purportedly back this denial. 

While this is not the observers’ fault, the vast expanse of border area physically beyond their scope, as well as the clamps placed on what they are mandated to observe, must surely place the sense of their mission in question, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group reports.

The mission’s limited scope is stated clearly enough in its title – the OSCE Observer Mission at Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and [Russian] Donetsk.  It has 20 civilian monitors, including the Chief Observer, who “operate on a shift basis to ensure cover 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Frustration at what the mission was not even mandated to achieve  was expressed early on.  In April 2015, analyst Judy Dempsey noted that the restricted possibility for checking “what and who enters Ukraine from Russia … makes a mockery of the ceasefire in Ukraine and undermines the organization”.

Ukraine lost control of a vast expanse of the border between Russia and Ukraine during the summer of 2014. It was this uncontrolled border that made it possible to bring the Buk missile launcher that downed Malaysian airliner MH17 into militant-controlled territory in July 2014, as well as tanks, military personnel, mercenaries and arms.

But only 40 meters of this territory has been "monitored" since July 2014 by the OSCE mission stationed at the two Russian checkpoints at Gukovo and Donetsk. The idea of such a mission was first raised on July 2, 2014, at a meeting of the Normandy Four leaders (Ukraine; Russia; France and Germany).  Russia proposed that the OSCE was observe checkpoints crossing into Ukrainian-controlled territory where Russia was least likely to send soldiers, tanks and other heavy artillery across the border. 

The mission was also mandated to watch over only that specific area, and pay no attention to anything beyond. 

Read also"Get ready": OSCE says armed men near Kreminets threaten monitorsIt was seen as best to agree to Russia’s strict conditions regarding the mission’s tasks in order to get it launched, with the idea being that its geographical scope could later be expanded.   That, however, has never transpired.

Paul Picard, the first Chief Observer pointed to the severe restrictions on their mission. “When, during the battle around Ilovaisk, Russian military burst into Ukrainian territory, the OSCE mission could not physically record this.  That was convenient for Russian propagandists, who would enthusiastically spread headlines, quoting the OSCE observers, claiming that no tanks were coming across the border into Donbas.”

It is clear that both Picard and the current Chief Observer, Gyorgy Varga, are aware of the problem.  Picard recounts how he would insist each time that their mandate was restricted to those two checkpoints and that they could not talk about what was happening on the rest of the 400 kilometres of the border. 

According to Ukrainska Pravda’s information, the observers are even prohibited from using any devices, including binoculars.  Their sources, including those in diplomatic circles, recognize that the mission is not meeting the demands Ukraine and other countries have of those observing the border area.  There is, however, nothing they can do about it since any change would require consensus from 57 countries while Russia blocks all attempts to broaden the mandate.

Read alsoOSCE: Militants in Donbas want to flood coal mine, one of 1979 Soviet nuclear test sitesWhile Ukraine’s attempts to get permanent OSCE observers along the entire stretch of the border are blocked by Russia, the (separate) OSCE Special Monitoring Mission’s efforts to get unrestricted access to the border from the Ukrainian side run up against resistance from the Kremlin-backed militants.

The OSCE Gukovo and Donetsk checkpoint weekly updates do not make up for the harm the illusion of control causes.  However often individual monitors may stress that the mission’s scope is restricted, the very fact that they are there and their results are reported make it easier for Russia to deny the steady flow of military and human supplies which is part of its undeclared war against Ukraine.