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The War in Donbas Up-close

Oleh Kotsyuba
October 24, 2015

The concluding panel of the second day of the Danyliw Seminar 2015 featured two presentations on observing the war in Ukraine’s East (parts of the Donbas region) through data available from open and official sources (presentation by Ralph S. Clem) and through immediate observation (presentation by Hilde Haug of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine).

In his presentation, Ralph Clem stressed that the official story line is a part of a broader geostrategic situation in the region. The official NATO story line on Ukraine states that Ukraine is a legitimate state and territorial integrity is to be respected; Russia attacked Ukraine; the attacks included Russian troops, military equipment, and cross-border artillery and rocket attacks.

International political actors usually base their activities on information that they don’t want to release to the public. This has often to do with concerns for protection of their sources and methods of information collection, but also the culture of “epistemic sovereignty.”

However, official data can be supplemented by openly available information, such as satellite imagery and street view data, especially with geo-tagging, plus “expanded networks.”

Examples of the use of such data for gaining a better insight into the situation in Eastern Ukraine include the imagery released by NATO on the Russian transfer of equipment to the separatists, on cross-border rocket attacks (firing positions, the border, and impact marks), while the trajectories of missiles when fired came from public sources.

In her presentation, Hilde Haug of OSCE reported of the activities of the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine that was established in March 2014 in order to promote dialogue and reduce tensions in the conflict. The mission has 10 offices in all of Ukraine (244 observers in Donetsk where the official office is located, with Kramatorsk, Mariupol, and Volnovakha being "hubs," and 181 in Luhansk, with Siverskodonetsk, Stakhanovo and Volnovakha being the Forward Patrol bases).

Haug pointed out that a number of local people left the conflict zone, especially young people, and increasingly so after the illegitimate referendum. Haug stressed that first people started to leave in May when situation seriously deteriorated, while most people did not leave until later, in July and August. People's lives were significantly complicated by the events, Haug maintained, as many left behind their jobs, homes, and lives "as they had known them," while the local support for the separatist forces remains questionable.

After the downing of the MH17 flight, SMM deployed within 24 hours, being the only international organization with substantial presence on the ground. Their main tasks were to monitor and document activities at the crash site, and observe efforts to contain the crash site.

Another important task of the mission was monitoring the ceasefire agreed upon during the Minsk agreements. Despite the reduction in violence, there still a great danger of reescalation of violence – it remains unclear how to fill the vacuum of power in the Donbas region, Haug maintained. A special threat pose numerous weapons that continue to be available, especially since some of the larger weaponry has not been withdrawn despite the signing of the agreement.

The ensuing discussion focused largely on questions of reliability of data and capability of all parties involved to produce convincing evidence, as well as on the feasibility for OSCE to effectively control the Russian-Ukrainian border.

Ralph Clem argued that the White House and the State Department refuse to use the term “invasion” in the Ukrainian context in order to leave themselves some “wiggle room” in solving the crisis diplomatically. The mass of the public source material, however, overwhelms that and leaves little space for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis.

Amandine Regamey asked about the continuous exhibition of proof on the part of Ukrainian authorities that appears rather unconvincing. In this context it would be important to know to what extent NATO and OSCE share information available to them with Ukrainian authorities. Ralph Clem pointed here primarily to public sources of information (such as and, while information coming from the war parties has to be taken with caution.

Hilde Haug commented on this that the extent of OSCE’s sharing of information is unprecedented: it is shared publicly in open statements, and the mission has a very good contact with the Ukrainian government. Similarly, the mission maintains dialogue with the insurgents in Donbas, in order to be able to operate in the conflict zone.

Joshua Tuck raised the question of the use of technology in making critical information about the conflict available, and of instances of forgery that are known. In response, Ralph Clem emphasized the importance of “gate keepers” in checking all incoming information, because even major mass media have been taken in by skillful forgeries.

In the context of international efforts to establish control over the Russian-Ukrainian border, Mychailo Wynnyckyj raised the question of OSCE’s ability of controlling the Russian-Ukrainian border in order to move forward to point 3 of monitoring the border. [In reality, this issue is related to measure 9 of the Minsk Package of Measures, which relates to the reinstatement of Ukrainian control over the Ukrainian-Russian border - O.K.] A significant problem is, Haug stated, that while OSCE tries to visit the areas adjacent to the border, it regularly experiences restrictions of access, especially in rebel-controlled areas. Furthermore, even if the number of monitors were to be increased to the maximum of 1000 allowed under the current mandate, the challenge to monitor the entire Ukrainian-Russian border would be tremendous, given its length of over 400 km.

The text of this blog was edited for content and formulations in consultation with Hilde Haug in order to maintain factual accuracy.