11 February 2021

Eastern Ukraine Situation Will Remain Fragile without Means to Calm Mounting Tensions, Under-Secretary-General Tells Security Council

Talks Taking Place against Backdrop of Russian Aggression, Delegate Stresses, Contrasting Kyiv’s ‘Positive’ Steps

The situation in eastern Ukraine will remain fragile until a way is found to calm rising tensions, the Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs warned during a Security Council videoconference briefing today.

Emphasizing that talks are no substitute for real progress, Rosemary DiCarlo said the overall situation remains fragile despite agreements on restoring stability and other encouraging developments, such as reduced violence and the release of detainees.  Despite the relative calm, however, worsening humanitarian conditions are unfolding, due in part to restrictions on the freedom of movement and the COVID-19 pandemic.

With more than 3.4 million people still in need of sustained humanitarian assistance, contact line crossings have been sharply reduced and water and sanitation services affected, she reported, noting that unexploded ordnance continues to cause harm.  Humanitarian access has also been restricted, she said, urging all actors to allow freedom of movement to permit the delivery of aid.  Under the new humanitarian response plan, partners aim to reach more than 1 million people in need and seek $168 million to provide it.

Noting that the first delivery of COVID-19 vaccines are expected in Ukraine later this month, she said the United Nations is working on that and related issues.  Guided by the Ukraine-United Nations partnership framework, the Organization will continue to strengthen recovery initiatives, among other measures, she pledged.  Expressing concerned about security incidents along the contact line, she stressed that the trend must be reversed.

Heidi Grau, Special Representative of the Organization for Security and Co‑operation in Europe (OSCE) Chairperson-in-Office, said the past year brought a radical reduction of ceasefire violations, but latest trends have shown that it will be difficult to maintain the relative calm on the front line if humanitarian and political issues are left unresolved.  It is, therefore, high time that all sides show commitment and responsibility, she said, pledging that the OSCE mediating team will do whatever it can to assist them.

She went on to report that pandemic-related travel restrictions have forced OSCE to hold its biweekly Trilateral Contact Group meetings by videoconference since the end of March 2020, emphasizing that such limitations have also made it much more difficult for Ukrainians to meet relatives on the other side of the contact line.  However, the Group continued its efforts towards implementation of the Minsk agreements and the 2019 Normandy Summit tasks, she noted.

Regarding the Normandy tasks, particularly the release and exchange of conflict-related detainees following the principle “all for all”, she said another step was taken in April 2020 with the release of 34 prisoners from detention.  However, negotiations later slowed down with participants accusing each other of failing to honour their commitments.  “I very much hope that this year will allow us to move forward on this vital humanitarian issue,” she said.

Two additional checkpoints along the contact line unfortunately remain unilaterally closed, while negotiations on technical details are ongoing, she reported, expressing optimism that the checkpoints will reopen soon.  The most important step of 2020 was the Trilateral Contact Group agreement of 22 July 2020 on additional measures to stabilize the ceasefire, she said, noting that it brought long-awaited relief to people on both sides of the contact line.  Despite a worrying recent trend of breaches, the number of ceasefire violations observed by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission is still significantly lower than it was in the first half of 2020, she noted.

Turning to disengagement and demining, she said not enough progress has been achieved on those fronts.  While participants identified 19 new demining areas and four disengagement zones in mid-2020, some participants in the Group made their implementation conditional on indirectly related political issues.  All discussions in the political working group stalled in August 2020 when some participants demanded that Ukraine’s parliament repeal a resolution on local elections before discussions could continue.  She expressed gratitude for the involvement of the political advisers of the Normandy Four in actively seeking ways out of the impasse.  She reported that the working group on economic affairs continued its indispensable efforts on a variety of issues, including the maintenance of vital infrastructure, environmental threats and pension payments.

Halit Çevik, Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, noted that, whereas 2020 was rife with unforeseen challenges, productive dialogue led to a period of stability.  If there is political will, the situation on the ground can improve, particularly for civilians affected by the conflict, he said, while cautioning that recent heightened tensions are threatening to derail the progress achieved.  The narrowing window of opportunity for de-escalation and obstacles to freedom of movement for monitors makes it imperative that the signatories to the Minsk agreements adhere to their commitments and uphold the additional measures they agreed in July 2020, he emphasized.  “The window of opportunity for further political progress that appeared last summer must remain open for the ceasefire to be sustained.”

Against the backdrop of the volatile security situation along the contact line, he continued, the 22 July 2020 agreement within the Trilateral Contact Group on additional measures to strengthen the ceasefire saw a substantial decrease in armed violence, but adherence has frayed over time.  Before the July 2020 agreement, reports showed a daily average of 594 violations, which dropped to 19 from August to October 2020, and has risen to 87 since November 2020, he said, pointing out that other violations continue, despite commitments by the parties, ranging from newly built trenches to the presence of heavy weapons in residential areas.  At the same time, discussions with the working group on security issues are at a standstill, with no agreement on a joint coordination mechanism to follow up and investigate alleged breaches, he noted, stressing that such a mechanism could serve as an important confidence-building measure, as would the parties answering calls to take action against impunity.

He went on to report lower numbers of conflict-related civilian casualties, from 24 deaths and 107 injuries in 2020 compared with 8 deaths and 32 injuries after the introduction of additional measures in late July 2020.  Small arms fire or shelling with heavy weapons caused 64 civilian casualties in 2020, with 61 occurring before the additional measures entered into force, reflecting a powerful demonstration of how sustained ceasefires can save lives, he said.  Given that mines, unexploded ordnance and other explosive devices continued to exert a heavy civilian toll — causing 16 deaths and 51 injuries in 2020 — the parties must implement demining commitments, he added.  In light of conditions exacerbated by the pandemic for those living along the contact line, he said, civilians still cannot use new crossings at Zolote and Shchastia, despite an agreement reached within the Trilateral Contact Group in 2020.

Noting that checkpoints have been operational in Government-run areas since 10 November 2020, but not in corresponding areas outside Government control, he reported that the number of crossings dropped by more than 92 per cent, from 11.99 million to 903,000, between March and December 2020.  The Mission continues to facilitate dialogue between the sides and to monitor ceasefires, and has repaired nearly 120 gas, water and electricity infrastructure objects serving 6 million civilians.  But, violations persist, including near the Donetsk filtration station, and shootings occur regularly during scheduled shift changes of workers known to the parties, despite specific security guarantees, he cautioned.

Despite the operational challenges posed by the pandemic, he said, the Monitoring Mission continues to maintain a robust presence throughout Ukraine and provides objective and impartial information about the situation on the ground through its monitoring and reporting.  Underlining the essential importance of freedom of movement for the mission, enshrined in its mandate and the Minsk agreements, in order for it to serve as the eyes and ears of the international community in Ukraine, he said obstructions persist, with more than 95 per cent of all such restrictions in 2020 having occurred in non-Government-controlled areas and 46 per cent in the southern part of the Donetsk region, and in areas close to the uncontrolled border with the Russian Federation.

Attempts to restrict the Special Monitoring Mission’s use of technical monitoring assets have persisted on both sides of the contact line, he continued, recalling that the Mission’s unmanned aerial vehicles were targeted by gunfire on 70 occasions and subjected to GPS signal interference 700 times in 2020.  Should that trend of restricting free movement continue, the Mission’s ability to monitor the situation on the ground and report objective and corroborated information will be increasingly constrained, he warned.

In the ensuing discussion, several Council members condemned the Russian Federation’s occupation of Crimea and continued aggression in Ukraine.  Others recommended ways by which to ensure further progress on implementing negotiated agreements, including establishing confidence-building measures.  Some speakers called upon the parties to ensure the delivery of much-needed assistance to improve conditions for those whose suffering has been exacerbated by pandemic‑related restrictions.  Members agreed that a diplomatic solution remains the only path towards ending the conflict.

The representative of the Russian Federation, noting that 12 February marks the six years since the adoption of the Minsk package of measures, said no answer has been provided to two of the most important questions about Ukraine’s intention to peacefully resolve the conflict and its vision for the future special status of Donbas within the country.  As the Ukrainian army continues to shell Donbas residential areas, people there do not feel a connection with Ukraine, he added.  Six years ago, the Security Council immediately endorsed the hard-won compromise in Minsk through its resolution 2202 (2015), making the accord a part of international law, he recalled, emphasizing that there is no other internationally recognized format for settling the conflict provoked by the Maidan coup d’état.

He went on to ask the OSCE Special Representative whether his country is mentioned in the text of the Minsk package of measures, except for the signature of its representative, and what obligations are addressed specifically to the Russian Federation.  He also asked fellow Council members to answer questions about Ukraine’s alleged fulfilment of the Minsk agreements, as to whether dialogue is taking place among the parties on the modalities of elections and about future self-government in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as the Minsk accords provide.  He also asked whether constitutional reform is under way in Ukraine and whether the new Constitution has entered into force, with decentralization as a key element.  Those measures should have occurred by the end of 2015, according to clause 11 of the Minsk accords, he emphasized.  Pointing out that the Donbass ministry of reintegration published a document calling for that region’s return to Kyiv’s control, he said that, instead of a word about direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk, the document contains fantasies about the establishment of some kind of international administration.  People in Donbas would not agree to such a form of international occupation, he stressed.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated that the Minsk agreements are not necessary to resolving the conflict, but only to maintaining sanctions against Russia, he recalled, adding that Deputy Prime Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said his Government will seek to reformat the Minsk agreements.  Obviously, he forgot that the accords are the only basis for settling the internal Ukrainian conflict, he said.  The Security Council’s presidential statement of 6 June 2018 emphasized the need for strict implementation of resolution 2202 (2015) and the package of measures, he further recalled.  Two years ago, the Special Representative’s predecessor stated unequivocally that the Special Monitoring Mission did not record any Russian military presence in Donbas.  Turning to the “Arria‑formula” meeting to hear the voices of Donetsk and Lugansk residents, he said those who did not attend and indulged in fantasies about Russian aggression cannot be called mediators.

The representative of Mexico expressed regret at the lack of significant progress in the political process, but welcomed the efforts of the Trilateral Contact Group and the Normandy quartet to stabilize the situation.  Emphasizing the fundamental importance of the OSCE special monitoring mission enjoying full and safe access in order to fully fulfil its mandate, he also reiterated the need to respect Ukraine’s unity and territorial integrity, in conformity with international law, especially the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

The representative of China emphasized the vital importance of the Minsk agreements, endorsed by the Security Council, in resolving the conflict.  Expressing regret that the accords have not been fully implemented, he said that his country upholds Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and rejects external interference in that country’s domestic affairs.  Only dialogue, not a military solution, can lead to lasting peace, he said, stressing that China will continue to play a constructive role in resolving the conflict.

The representative of the United States said the Russian Federation has blocked progress by, among other things, training and arming self-proclaimed authorities on the ground, killing thousands, displacing millions and undermining Ukraine, while declaring itself a mediator.  President Vladimir Putin pledged to make efforts on the ground, but refused to fully implement measures discussed at the Trilateral Contact Group meeting in 2020, he recalled.  Urging the Russian Federation to release detainees, cease its aggression in Ukraine, end its occupation of Crimea and implement all aspects of the Minsk agreements, he reaffirmed his country’s recognition of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, emphasizing that a solution must be diplomatic and respect that country’s sovereignty.  He went on to welcome Ukraine’s Crimean platform initiative, expressing hope that the international community will support that effort with a view to ending the occupation.

The representative of Viet Nam reiterated his delegation’s support for diplomatic settlement of disputes.  While noting that the Minsk agreements and subsequent discussions have resulted in a ceasefire and the release of prisoners, he said daily hostilities are hampering humanitarian efforts, contrary to the accords.  To create the conditions for advancing peace, the parties should refrain from hostilities and engage in constructive dialogue to resolve their differences, he urged.

The representative of Tunisia said that sovereignty and territorial integrity are principles to be respected and emphasized that dialogue and negotiations must persist to find a solution to the conflict.  Commending the exchange of prisoners and the opening of new crossing points, he said that, despite some ceasefire violations, such constructive steps can create an environment conducive to further progress.  Emphasizing OSCE’s role in the matter, he reiterated calls for respect of the ceasefire, removal of heavy weapons and for parties to engage in talks.  He went on to express concern about the worsening situation along the contact line, calling for a focus on coordinating the delivery of supplies and support to those in need.  All agreements must be swiftly and fully implemented in a manner that contributes to the prosperity the region’s people, he said.

The representative of France expressed regret that, seven years after the start of hostilities, the conflict continues, noting that his country and Germany remain fully mobilized within the Normandy format in pursuit of a fair and lasting settlement.  While welcoming the progress made since the Paris summit in December 2019 — including on the exchange of prisoners and the reduction of violence since the July 2020 re-engagement of parties to the ceasefire — he expressed regret that demining and the opening of new crossing points remain blocked due to the intransigence of the de facto authorities supported by the Russian Federation.  COVID-19 cannot constitute a legitimate reason to prevent implementation of the OSCE Special Observation Mission’s mandate, especially in areas not controlled by the Government of Ukraine, he emphasized.  Rejecting Moscow’s placing of blame exclusively on Ukraine, he reminded the Russian Federation of its responsibility as a member of the Trilateral Contact Group and the Normandy format and called upon that country to use its influence over the de facto representatives of areas not under Government control.  France will not waver in its commitment to a just and lasting peace and the restoration of Ukraine’s full sovereignty over Donbass, he affirmed.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines reaffirmed her country’s full support for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission’s efforts to continue encouraging all parties to fulfil their obligations under all agreements, while also emphasizing the importance of ensuring safe and unimpeded access for monitors.  Emphasizing the need for full implementation of the Minsk agreements, she said they remain the basis for a political solution to the conflict in Donbas.  All parties must recommit to the peace process and fully implement all measures agreed in the Normandy format and the Trilateral Contact Group for the sake of immediate progress and lasting peace, she stressed.

The representative of Niger, recalling that the 2019 Normandy format summit in Paris created hope for a relaunch of the peace process, said there was a lack of progress on its conclusions.  Expressing concern over the impact of mines on civilians and the heightened tensions, he noted that 3.4 million people need humanitarian aid and 1.4 million people are internally displaced.  He called for the safe passage of aid workers and relief supplies.

The representative of Norway, reiterating her delegation’s strong support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including the Crimean Peninsula and the adjoining territorial waters, condemned the Russian Federation’s aggression against that country.  Norway is also deeply concerned about the presence of Russian military equipment and personnel in areas held by the Russian Federation-supported armed formations in eastern Ukraine, she said, urging Moscow to stop fuelling the conflict.  She called upon the Russian Federation to discontinue its simplified passport application procedure for residents of eastern Ukraine, saying it further undermines Ukraine’s sovereignty.

The representative of Ireland emphasized the importance of establishing a functioning mechanism to investigate ceasefire violations, stating that a first positive step would be the Russian Federation’s return to the Joint Control and Coordination Commission.  Calling for the easing of movement restrictions to avoid exacerbating the already acute humanitarian crisis, she urged the Russian Federation to implement the commitments it made at the Normandy summit in Paris, as well as in the Trilateral Contact Group, in order to ensure the Shchastia and Zolote entry-exit crossing points are fully operational, and that all the currently closed crossing points are reopened.

The representative of India said that meetings under the Normandy format will further facilitate resolution of the issues related to implementation of the Minsk accords, including its key security and political aspects.  India welcomes all efforts aimed at reducing tensions in the region and hopes that all sides will work together constructively to find political and diplomatic solutions to the conflict.

The representative of Kenya expressed concern that the humanitarian situation in the conflict-affected areas has been compounded by COVID-19, including related measures, such as the closure of crossing points.  Calling for the urgent de-escalation of tensions and for greater flexibility of pandemic‑related restrictions, he emphasized the need to create a conducive environment for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to those in need.

The representative of Estonia lamented that the Russian Federation has neither acknowledged nor reversed its actions and that it continues to violate fundamental principles of the United Nations Charter, as well as numerous bilateral and multilateral agreements, including the Helsinki Final Act and the Budapest Memorandum.  Moscow’s actions are not only a European concern, but a global one as they pose a threat to international peace and security, he noted.  Expressing regret that the Russian Federation keeps violating the Minsk agreements and the conclusions of the Paris summit, he pointed out that 91 per cent of all violations relating to the withdrawal of heavy weapons have been recorded in areas not under Government-control.

The representative of the United Kingdom, Council President for February, spoke in her national capacity, pointing out that the Russian Federation claims that it is not a party to the conflict while it continues to fuel violence.  Emphasizing that Moscow must withdraw heavy weapons, end its aggression and stop its intimidation efforts against OSCE, she urged the Russian Federation to match the political will demonstrated by Ukraine in order to ensure progress.  The Ukrainian people deserve peace, she emphasized, reaffirming her country’s support for efforts to resolve the conflict.

Leonid Kravchuk, Head of Delegation of Ukraine to the Trilateral Contact Group, outlined the practical steps his country is taking in implementation of the Minsk agreements and to settle the conflict.  Recalling that Ukraine was among the first countries to enforce the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, he said other steps, made possible by support from such partners as the United Nations, include disengaging weapons, initiating four new disengagement areas and addressing the pandemic, despite the occupying administration’s failure to provide needed services and supplies to the population.  Ukraine has also provided the Trilateral Contact Group with a plan for joint steps towards fully implementing the Minsk agreements.  Recalling such gains as prisoner exchanges and a de-mining plan, he said the Government has opened crossing points and is taking steps to settle the situation in Donbas.

However, the Russian Federation has not followed suit, he said, noting the recent proliferation of armed groups.  To date, Ukraine has not received that country’s reaction to its positive steps, he added.  Indeed, the negotiating process is taking place against a backdrop of Russian aggression, he said, citing illegal border crossings in areas outside Kyiv’s control, while emphasizing that no one is deceived by Moscow’s attempts to convince the international community that there is no military presence.  Moreover, the Russian Federation continues to issue passports to those in the affected areas, he pointed out.  He went on to express the concern shared by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about reduced safety measures around sites threatened by nuclear radiation, pointing out that requests to Moscow remain unanswered.  Ukraine will continue to work towards resolving the conflict, he stressed said, expressing hope that the Russian Federation will follow suit.

The representative of Germany recalled that, in the first paragraph of the Budapest Memorandum signed in December 1994, the Russian Federation reaffirmed its commitment to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against that country.  Then, 20 years later, the Russian authorities invaded Ukraine and Crimea and staged an internal uprising, he said, adding that a Russian leader rejoiced at the downing of flight MH17, thinking it was a Ukrainian plane.  He went on to note that the Russian Federation’s representative cited several paragraphs of the Minsk agreements, but failed to refer to others, including the most important first paragraph, on the ceasefire.  The relevant agreement took effect on 15 February 2015, but Russian attacks did not stop, he said, pointing out that Moscow has not yet withdrawn heavy weapons.  The OSCE Monitoring Mission cannot perform its tasks in the areas not controlled by the Ukrainian authorities, he added.  Referring to the detention of activist Alexei Navalny, he quoted a remark by his country’s Chancellor Angela Merkel:  “We are witnessing the Russian Federation’s detachment from the rule of law.

Under-Secretary-General Di Carlo, taking the floor a second time, urged the parties to implement all elements of the Minsk agreements.

Special Representative Grau explained that constructive discussions beginning in 2020 addressed the issue of legislative acts that Kyiv can establish, including an amnesty law, local elections in non-Government-controlled areas and a special status law, but disputes over a resolution in Ukraine’s Parliament led to an impasse.  Instead of blocking and blaming, the parties should return to the discussions held in 2020, she emphasized, noting the persistence of divergent views on the exact identity of the parties to the conflict.  The Trilateral Contact Group maintains an inclusive format, she added.

Chief Monitor Çevik said the working group on security issues is at an impasse, calling for a focus on advancing discussions on practical issues in order to overcome the standstill.  On civilian casualties, he said deaths continue due in large part to the ongoing presence of landmines.  He added that there was no reported sighting of Russian soldiers in Donbas, but weapons were seen in certain areas.

The representative of Russian Federation, noting that Special Representative Grau did not answer his question about references to his country in the Minsk agreements, clarified that he had not been asking about the identity of the parties to the accords.  Concerning the Budapest Memorandum, he expressed his readiness to hold a bilateral conversation with Germany’s representative, while emphasizing that the provisions of that document do not apply to the consequences of an internal uprising.  Regarding occupation, he emphasized that the Russian Federation did not occupy Ukraine and Ukraine did not occupy Russia.  Rather, Ukraine occupied Ukraine, he said, adding that it waged war on its own territory.  It is important that the Council discuss the present agenda to remind Ukraine of its obligations to implement the Minsk agreements, he stressed.

For information media. Not an official record.