ZOiS Spotlight 41/2021

Problems of International Peace Missions in Eurasia

by Nina Lutterjohann 17/11/2021
Donetsk, Ukraine. Members of the Special Monitoring Mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). IMAGO / Russian Look

According to the Global Peace Index 2021, the average level of peacefulness in many parts of the world has not increased; on the contrary, global peacefulness has deteriorated by 0.07 per cent and therefore shows a continuous decline. The responsibility for preserving international peace lies with the United Nations (UN), whose engagement in numerous conflicts worldwide is growing – although not in Eurasia.

More tasks – more criticism

The peace operations undertaken by the UN are intended to protect civilian populations in conflict regions, disarm combatants and restore the rule of law, all in compliance with international law. The spectrum of tasks addressed by this global institution, with its 193 member states, is steadily growing, evident, not least, from the uptick in staff numbers. What’s more, the UN is now increasingly intervening in conflict situations rather than engaging in post-conflict recovery, although the latter is in fact its main role. This demonstrates the ever more acute need and demand for crisis prevention. In cooperation with the African Union (AU), the UN currently has more than 100,000 troops deployed in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2016, 94 per cent of the missions focused on Africa and the Middle East.

With such a strong UN presence worldwide, the question which arises is why there is not more engagement by the international community in the Eurasian conflicts. This was called for by Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, in his speech at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly on 23 September 2021. He criticised the international community’s failure to react to Russian aggression against Ukraine and described the UN as an outdated institution long in need of reform. It is, he said, “a retired superhero” who has forgotten what he can do. Little attention was paid, in this context, to the supportive role played by various UN agencies in human rights monitoring on the ground and in the country’s humanitarian reconstruction.

More engagement needed

The message is clear: despite all the criticism, the UN’s work in keeping the peace is still in demand. So why does it not have a mandate to engage wherever it is needed? In the case of the protracted Eurasian conflicts, only one mandate was ever granted, and it ended some time ago.

In August 1993, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution to establish a United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia and its conflict regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Mission was terminated by a Russian veto in 2009, however. In reality, it is the other organisations which play an active role in the conflicts in Eastern Europe, foremost among them the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Although its mission in Georgia likewise ended in 2008, the OSCE has a presence in a number of other, in some cases neighbouring conflicts – a circumstance which can cause complications.

Mandate chaos?

One example is the friction that recently emerged within the OSCE Minsk Group, not to be confused with a negotiating platform for Ukraine, which deals with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Until late March 2021, Armenia had used its veto to block the extension of the OSCE’s mandate in Ukraine; its aim was to terminate the organisation’s involvement in a local conflict which, from Armenia’s perspective, was receiving a disproportionate amount of attention. The move attests to the general lack of confidence in external observers. In fact, it was the Russia-brokered ceasefire agreement of 9 November 2020 that ended the conflict – or at least the hostilities – over Nagorno-Karabakh, not the OSCE or the United Nations.

Engagement by too many actors can also make conflict resolution more difficult. This is apparent in the Ukraine conflict, for example, with its multiple communication channels, including in Kyiv, Minsk, New York, Vienna, Geneva, Brussels, Paris, Berlin and Washington, and the involvement of diplomats who had previously mediated in other post-Soviet conflicts. The long list of cities itself shows how this can make reaching agreement and sharing out responsibilities more difficult. The discussion about the possible involvement of the UN is an example: while Ukraine was in favour of UN engagement from the outset, several years passed before Russia, in the Security Council, made any effort to support the establishment of a joint UN mission with the OSCE – a move which was opposed by a number of other countries, including the US and Germany. A year later, a discussion paper drafted by Martin Sajdik, at that time the OSCE’s Special Representative for Ukraine, was circulated, also calling for a joint mission involving the two organisations. Again, this initiative was rejected across the board.

The reality of conflict dynamics

A further problem is that the specific provisions of the conflict resolution mandates are sometimes overtaken by reality. The OSCE’s Ukraine mission was not initially intended or equipped to deal with a military conflict – a war – on this scale. The armed unrest in South-Eastern Ukraine also exceeded the scope of political accords such as the Kyiv Agreement of February 2014, which provided, inter alia, for early presidential elections and the creation of an interim cabinet that would include members of the Opposition, or the Geneva Statement of April 2014, which was an attempt by the US to bring Russia to the negotiating table and assign a mediating role to the OSCE.

Consensus instead of control

Despite some positive developments and countless agreements, the longevity of the mandates thus raises the question of how effective they are in finding political solutions to conflicts. Furthermore, there is always a risk of the organisations being instrumentalised in the interests of the conflict parties and a lack of overall control. The United Nations’ minor role in the Eurasian conflicts greatly curtails opportunities to discuss conflict resolution strategies at this level. The Ukraine conflict is regularly placed on the agenda at Russia’s behest, but this might also serve to demonstrate that Moscow does not see itself as an actor here, since a conflict party is not permitted to participate in Security Council deliberations. Given the UN’s lack of impact in current conflicts, the unity of purpose which led to the founding of the United Nations in the first place is indeed miraculous. It will be interesting to see whether the involvement of the OSCE and the EU as regional organisations and institutions carries any weight in the Eurasian conflicts.


Nina Lutterjohann was until recently Visiting Scholar on a post-doctoral scholarship from the DAAD at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University in New York. She has researched the geopolitical and cultural implications, perceptions and discourses of protracted conflicts and de facto entities in the post-Soviet space. Her research interests also include conflict resolution, identity-building, migration, and radicalisation/extremism.