The Ukrainian crisis: the OSCE’s special monitoring mission

The Ukrainian crisis: the OSCE’s special monitoring mission

On March 21, 2014, against the backdrop of internal and regional tensions, the 57 participating states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), including Ukraine and Russia, decided unanimously on the deployment of the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM), with a mandate to contribute to reducing tensions and to help foster peace, stability and security. The mission was tasked with engaging with authorities on all levels, including civil society, ethnic and religious groups, as well as local communities, to facilitate dialogue on the ground. The broad yet innovative mandate stipulated that the mission would gather information and report on the security situation and establish and report facts in response to specific incidents, including those concerning alleged violations of fundamental OSCE principles. 


Ever since its inception, however, the mission has faced grave challenges in carrying out its aforementioned functions and in performing its tasks and operations. As its personnel and equipment have been subjected to both direct and indirect attacks in the volatile regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, security for its staff remains the mission’s primary concern. There is still insufficient compliance with the implementation of agreed decisions on the non-use of weapons, withdraw al of weapons, disengagement of forces and hardware, as well as demining. There have also been repeated – and sometimes violent – restrictions on the freedom of movement of SMM personnel and a high number of cease-fire violations. It must be underlined that such a restriction constitutes a violation of the mandate that the SMM has received unanimously from all 57 participating OSCE states, as well as of the Minsk agreement.

The mission needs safe and secure access, freedom of movement and operational flexibility for all of this.

Lessons learned

Some wider lessons and conclusions can also be drawn from the experience of the SMM. First, a civilian peace operation can provide effective monitoring, verification and reporting – even in a high-risk environment.  Second, political negotiations and continued political support are of central importance. The chief monitor of the SMM coordinates the Trilateral Contact Group’s (TCG) Working Group on Security Issues, and thus, through its involvement in the management of the conflict on all levels, strengthens this connectivity between the political and the ground level. Third, sequencing often leads to a dilemma. In the Donbas region, a sustainable cease-fire has to be supported by a withdrawal of weapons in accordance with the Minsk agreements, and there needs to be progress on other security-related topics such as disengagement and demining. Fourth, cooperation in the field with the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination (JCCC) is crucial, particularly with regard to the cease-fire, disengagement and the withdrawal of weapons, as stated in the Minsk agreements. Cooperation with both local institutions and authorities and international partners is also essential. Finally, careful consideration of the expectations and needs of the people on the ground are vital for both conflict management and prevention efforts. A decisive humanitarian response by the international community to any conflict is not only required by international standards and commitments, but also has a de-escalating impact at every stage of the conflict cycle. When tensions are increasing, careful attention to humanitarian issues can ultimately help prevent the breakout of the conflict.

 During the active phase of a conflict, it mitigates the effects on the civilian population and, at the same time, can prevent further escalation and accelerate political solutions. In the aftermath of a conflict, humanitarian work will create the conditions for reconciliation and prevent damaging effects for the society as a whole. The SMM in Ukraine is a unique case in which a civilian mission both implements its mandate through monitoring and reporting on the security situation in an ongoing conflict, and thus, contributes to both preventing and resolving the conflict. This experience and the example of the SMM has the potential to be helpful for conflict management and prevention in other parts of the OSCE region

Ertuğrul Apakan is the chief monitor of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine, while Wolfgang Sporrer is a political analyst with the OSCE’s SMM to Ukraine. This is an abridged version of their article originally published in Turkish Policy Quarterly.