The Force of Habit

19 August 2015, 17:00

“People are always more important than the institutions they work for,” the former French Ambassador Philippe de Suremain likes to remind everybody. The truth of these words is confirmed every time we see how truly limited is the influence of international agencies on events in the planet’s hot spots. The post-war checks and principles for decision-making ensure that they have a very tiny arsenal indeed: declarations, reports, observers’ missions, “concern” and “indignation”…

The UN Security Council is paralyzed by the prospect of a Russian veto, the OSCE and Ministerial Committee of the Council of Europe—by the mandatory principle of consensus. Moscow—or, hypothetically, any other member that is not interested in serious steps being taken against it—can easily avoid them. Might makes right is, of course, a medieval principle, yet recent developments in Donbas and Crimea testify that this principle has not outlived its time at all. On the contrary, it works quite well, thank you, in the Minsk accords. This document does not even state what should happen, if one of the parties deliberately ignores the agreement. So what next? In an ideal world, those in violation should find themselves facing serious obstructions. In reality, pressure continues to be put on Ukraine, simply because that’s much easier to do. And whatever cannot be really brought to bear against the DNR militants or on Russia, the OSCE mission simply spreads its hands and says, “We don’t have access to 40% of the occupied territory. Sorry. We do what we can. And what we can, compared to the scope of the challenge, is not much at all.”

“Unless the OSCE is stationed all along the ceasefire line, is stationed in Shyrokyne with all the necessary technology and as many observers as is possible, and—let’s call it like it is—stands there on a permanent basis, there’s no way that the ceasefire will ever be stable,” Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told Channel 5 in a recent interview. “We need the OSCE to completely control the withdrawal of all weaponry. They are ready to monitor this, but they simply aren’t being given access. But if the OSCE were to really stand all along the ceasefire line, our boys would stop dying from the endless shelling.”

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Yes, indeed. If the OSCE were to line up along the nominal boundary between occupied and unoccupied territories, things would definitely be a lot simpler. So how do we get there from here? “In the last 24 hours, the terrorists violated the ceasefire 95 times,” is what we hear on every day from various news sources. Every day, Ukrainians are killed or wounded and the shelling just doesn’t stop. And so? Nothing. Russia pays for 7% of the OSCE’s budget and that gives it the right to have 7% of its own observers in any mission—and that’s not all. If it so chooses, the Russian Federation can nip any undesired initiative in the bud because Council of Ministers decisions, according to the OSCE charter, must be approved unanimously.

“It’s important to understand that international organizations are not institutions that exist and develop on the basis of defending specific principles,” Bohdan Yaremenko, diplomat and chair of the board of the Maidan of Foreign Affairs, told The Ukrainian Week recently. “The main role in any international organization is played by national governments. In fact, any international organization is founded on the interests and activities of governments. They may announce that they are dedicated to some principles or ideals and have decided to set up this entity in the joint defense, promotion or development of said principles. But the positions of individual governments change and the organization has to then either recognize that one of its members has stopped acting honestly and responsibly or try and close its eyes to the obvious.

“Theoretically, all the countries that are members of international organizations and unions—with the exception of the Customs Union—are equal. And so, when it comes to voting, Russia’s influence is not only equal to France's, but also to Ukraine’s. Informally, everything depends on the level of professionalism, motivation, organization and resources of each individual national delegation or national diplomatic corps. In fact, only a few countries can globally control the agenda in organizations like the OSCE, the UN or even the Council of Europe.

Mr. Yaremenko went on to explain: “To globally control means to take active, conscious participation in reviewing each and ever issue that is on the organization’s agenda. Most countries monitor a limited range of issues and do not react at all to the rest that, in their opinion, do not affect their own interests. This offers advantages to those who operate on a global, mass and systemic level.”

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For many subjective and objective reasons, Ukraine is not one of the players in this global group. “Ukraine’s diplomats exist and function to the same extent as, say, its judiciary or education or healthcare systems do,” Mr. Yaremenko said. “In other words, there is an agency, there are powers and people. But it only creates the illusion of goal-oriented, effective activities. In 18 months of war, there has been not one initiative, not one draft propose or fresh idea from Ukraine’s diplomats. Not one achievement other than a completely unintelligent campaign that repeats that Russia is bad and there is no alternative to the Minsk agreements. This last is really telling: Ukraine’s diplomats see no alternative to negotiating with a state that they do not trust at all.”

Indeed, the Minsk accords are the inevitable result of “reactive diplomacy,” which is mostly what Ukraine seems to practice. A year ago, the world agreed to a format of negotiations with Russia regarding its attack on Ukraine’s lands. This was the Geneva format and it was the most beneficial to Ukraine, following the formula, US–EU–UA–RU.

But, as one diplomat put it, “Nobody would have agreed to rescue Ukraine in a format that did not suit Kyiv. Yet Kyiv showed no initiative whatsoever while Moscow did everything within its power to prevent the US and Brussels from participating.” And so, instead of the Geneva formula, Ukraine ended up with the Norman one: France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia. With the Minsk “codicil” that allowed for “consultations” with terrorists. Moscow takes hissy fits; Kyiv genteelly holds its tongue. And that’s how it is.

Is it fair to say that it’s all about the effectiveness of the pro-Russian lobby in the virtual absence of a pro-Ukrainian one? In the habits and prejudice of western politicians? It’s a bit of both.

“You have to understand that, for us, Ukraine is like a Russian Gabon,” a French official admitted off the record. “We understand Russians because we also ensure a local government that suits our interests in our former colonies and gives us access to the resources we need. These spheres of influence were not formed yesterday and they won’t disappear tomorrow.”

The heads of top international organizations rarely surprise us with clear assessments of what is going on in eastern Ukraine today. For instance, the OSCE Secretary-General, Italian Lamberto Zannier visited the frontline zone twice. He was in Dnipropetrovsk and spoke with the members of the mission currently working in the Donbas. What were his conclusions after both trips? “OSCE mission experts did not see any individuals without identifying marks crossing the border even once,” he told a UNIAN correspondent. “This is a very strange situation, because we see many different people and we cannot say who they are, what their orders are, and why they are doing what they are doing. We don’t know if they are motivated by ideology or are organized according to some other principle. And this makes it much more difficult for us to understand what’s going on.”

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This is the language of Aesop: We understand everything but we say almost nothing. Should we call a spade a spade? If we don’t have to, why bother?

The UN, where Russia has blocked an international tribunal in the MH17 case, isn’t much better. “We joined forces with the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Malaysia,” a Ukrainian diplomat told The Ukrainian Week. “Obviously, these countries are interested, not so much in helping us as in helping themselves, but this offers Ukraine the only ghost of a chance to achieve some kind of process. Yes, it would be somewhat in someone else’s hill, but we need to get to this peak. We can’t do it on our own, because we don’t have the resources, the political will or the support.”

In the Council of Europe, we can see the same alignment of forces. A year ago, in violation of the sanctions and at the invitation of the president of PACE, the Speaker of the Russian Duma, Sergei Naryshkin visited France. “These consultations were necessary to find a way out of the crisis at last,” Liberal Anne Brasseur and PACE’s top official defended her position when challenged by journalists. But no way out was actually found, while the controversial invitation only made it clearer that the Council’s stated principles could be bent through pressure from various Kremlin agents and the personal influence of Thierry Mariani, the member of PACE’s French delegation who organized Naryshkin’s visit. Such examples are rife.

“The greater the role of individuals, the worse the system works,” says Bohdan Yaremenko. “A strong personality can impose their will on an organization. But then we have to ask, what exorbitant price are we willing to pay for possible mistakes and the growing likelihood that this individual will prove wrong? But when the system is falling apart, unintellectual, poorly managed, corroded by conformity and corruption, then there may be no other way to move forward, other than through the will of strong individuals.”

That is the way of this world. Imperfect and insecure, where justice is only an ideal to which we aspire.

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In the current context, state diplomacy has ever shown itself to be more effective than the limited and clumsy diplomacy of international organizations. The legitimacy of actions in these situations is far less and the personal responsibility of leaders many times greater. And yet, it offers the chance to control the game. Reforming international institutions risks a second possible conflict, although something is being done in this area. But real changes will, at best, materialize only a few years down the line.

The system of international coordination of policy is weak and porous and ill-willed, overweening ambitions easily flourish in it, as we have seen happen with Russia. The challenge of our times is to find restraining mechanisms to counterbalance the entrenched habit of dividing the world into “spheres of influence.” It’s entirely possible that this is where Ukraine’s historical mission lies.

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