Interview with Andrea Cellino – Former Team Leader of the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine for OSCE
Andrea Cellino is a former team leader of the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) where he has worked from April 2014 to September 2015. He is now working as Head of the North Africa desk at the Geneva Center for Democratic Control of the Armed Forces (DCAF).
The opinions expressed by Mr. Cellino in this interview do not reflect those of OSCE or DCAF, but are entirely his own.
The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine is mandated to contribute to reduce tensions and to help foster peace, stability and security. In practice, I would like to ask you Mr. Cellino, how does the OSCE Mission operate on the ground and what are the major challenges to its work?
The mission, as all OSCE missions, was started by invitation of the host country, in this case by the Ukrainian government, and by a follow-up decision in Vienna by all the 57 OSCE participating states at the end of March 2014. We immediately set up a very ambitious structure: we had 10 teams located in the major geographical regions along the whole country, and primarily in the East. I was leading, since the begging of April 2014, a team in the city in Lugansk, in the most Eastern region in the country in one of the two key areas where the conflict had erupted.
The mandate of the mission was to monitor the security of the situation in Ukraine and its developments on behalf of the international community and the 57 OSCE participating states; but also to establish “eyes and ears” of the international community on the Ukrainian crisis.
From what you have witnessed, what was the state of the civilians in Eastern Ukraine who were going through the fighting? What was their access to basic necessities such as water, food and heat?
The situation when I arrived was initially “quasi normal”, but the challenges surfaced soon after the initial period of the crisis. As I previously said, when I arrived, the Ukrainian government was still in charge in Donetsk and Lugansk, where the regional government was located. When the crisis erupted, it degenerated quickly from an initial occupation of one public building in the city, by the so-called separatists or pro-Russians, to an occupation of the whole city. They used and are still using what used to be the regional administration building as their “government” headquarters. This happened in less than 2 months, and by then end of June we were already living in a conflict situation.
So it was a violent occupation?
Not violent in terms of occupation because most of the population did not oppose, or even favoured, the moves of the separatists. The violence started when the armed forces of Ukraine legitimately tried to regain control of these areas and, of course, they were faced by the violent opposition of the separatists, who were also supported by other external forces coming from the Russian Federation. This was clear to us from the very beginning, even though they claimed to be autonomous.
What do you mean with “support of other forces”? Are you talking about economic, military or political support?
I mean all of them. On the ground we clearly witnessed the material support of the Russians in terms of weapons. In various instances we also saw non-local soldiers; although, and this is the tricky part, we could never, and still cannot -my former colleagues cannot – identify these soldiers clearly as Russian. We obviously reported the presence of “non-local fighters” in the reports from the monitoring – which are all available online.
However, we could not clearly identifying these people as Russians, nor we could clearly say that these Russians were mandated by Moscow, also because Russia is one of OSCE participating states. But we could report about the presence of weapons coming from across the Russian border and also the presence of men, who were clearly not local. But officially the reporting of the OSCE stops there.
Considering your strong suspicion of the presence of regular Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine, I would like to ask you to comment on a statement made by the Ukrainian President at the Munich Security Conference in February. Petro Poroshenko claimed that “The Ukrainian question will remain unsolved as long as the West will not provide support to strengthen Ukraine’s independence politically and economically, as long as military.” Do you think that increasing Ukrainian military deterrence is the most effective strategy for a long‐term solution?
Personally I strongly disagree with this view. I believe that providing weapons from the West to the Ukrainian government to strengthen its armed forces would be a mistake and would only keep protracting the conflict. It would almost be like fighting a proxy war against Russia, which is not what, I think, the Europeans and the West should do.
Of course there are many in the West that think differently, but in most European countries there is a general agreement that the solution to this conflict should be, and will be, a diplomatic solution. The efforts made by European Union as a whole, have always clearly stated that the best way to address and try to solve this conflict is by diplomatic means.
Given the current crisis in Ukraine, which is close to economic collapse, do you think that the international community should do more in terms of immediate economic support?
Strengthening economic ties and helping Ukraine to reform its economy and its system is definitely a crucial element for its recovery. However, this is being done and should be done separately from dealing with the conflict. I believe that the reforms that should go hand in hand with the resolution of the crisis are political in nature rather than economic.
We should not forget that this crisis has not only been the consequence of international dynamics, but it has also very deep roots in the internal situation of Ukraine itself. Ukraine is a country divided in many ways: not just between East and West. Many citizens do not support the government in Kiev, not only in the East, because as we have seen in Maidan, and with all that happened before the outbreak of the crisis, there is a desperate need for Ukraine to be reformed. It is a country that has been victim of several, utterly corrupt governments of different colors, which have mismanaged the country’s governance in many ways and for many years. Therefore, a country that could potentially be a very rich country, thanks to its resources and workforce, has never fulfilled its promise of prosperity due to bad governance. We should not forget that this is one of the main causes of the current conflict. So what I think Europe should do, is to help the current democratically elected government to reform and to implement the political reforms that are necessary for Ukraine.
Moving slightly away from our focus on the war in Eastern Ukraine, I would like to ask you a question more closely related with your current job.
In the past weeks, we have seen a drastic escalation of Putin’s military involvement in Syria, which in many respects is reminiscent of the incursion in Eastern Ukraine. Do you see a pattern between Russia’s intervention in Syria and in Ukraine?
I see a pattern, definitely, which is Russia’s assertive foreign policy. Moscow’s assertiveness in the international arena is not just limited to Ukraine or to the Middle East, but it is something that is manifested also in Central Asia. Some people have noticed, for example, that at the same time as Putin was announcing the Russian army’s operations and air campaigns in Syria, the Russian army has also strengthened its positions at the border with Afghanistan. In Tajikistan, where they already had a base, they also provided more resources to strengthen the security of the country that is very friendly to the Russian federation.
How can we read all this? I think it is the effect a combination of strategies: Firstly, and quite evidently, Moscow wants to strengthen its position internationally. Secondly, it is important for a quasi authoritarian democracy such as Russia to maintain people’s support for the government and to distract its citizens from current internal problems, such as their ongoing economic crisis. Therefore, Mr. Putin uses something that is very dear to all Russian citizens: the prestige and the international standing of the country. Thirdly, Russia is also a country that has been heavily threatened by Islamic terrorism in the past and they feel, I think genuinely, that ISIS in the Middle East is threat to them as it is at threat to us. So I think there is some genuine belief that this intervention is something useful for the entire international community.
However, it has seemed that the first Russian interventions in Syria have not actually targeted ISIS, but regime rebels.
The reason why Putin is keen in this intervention is that it is about coming to the rescue of an authoritarian leader, Bashar-al Assad, who in many ways is a mirror of what Russia could be. We know, for instance, that Russia and China have been the strongest opponents in the UN to foreign interventions to remove authoritarian regimes. This is of course because they fear that the same thing could happen to them.
It is the same thing when we talk about Ukraine. The success of the Maidan revolution is seen by Putin as a threat to his power in Russia, because he cannot help but think that if this happens to his Ukrainian brothers, this could happen in Russia one day too, which is not so far form the truth.
As it happened in other situations when in the UN arena Russia and China have defended authoritarian leaders, the same is happening with Bashar al-Assad. Therefore, the intervention in Syria is as much to support Assad as to fight ISIS, which is probably why we have seen that the attacks conducted by the Russians have been made against all the enemies of Bashar al-Assad and not just ISIS
For more on this on our Ukraine Focus: The chronicle of a Silent War