(Bloomberg View) -- Perfection is impossible in conflict resolution, and it's usually easy to spot the weakness of paper plans. But the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank, has devised a plan for resolving the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine that avoids all the usual traps. If adopted, it would seem to offer the most realistic hope of a breakthrough.
Eastern Ukraine may be out of the headlines, but sporadic fighting between Ukrainian and Russian-sponsored forces continues. People die almost every day, and so far, no one has come up with a way to defuse the tension, much less resolve the underlying issues. Russian-Ukrainian talks mediated by France and Germany have produced the difficult-to-implement and thus largely stalled Minsk agreements. Recent negotiations between Kremlin representative Vyacheslav Surkov and U.S. special envoy Kurt Volker look as though the sides aren't listening to each other.
The Hudson plan takes a different approach. Its author, Richard Gowan, used to work for the United Nations Department of Political Affairs, and he starts rightly from the position that the UN is the only organization acceptable to both Russia and Ukraine as an intermediary.
Gowan's plan is to set up a medium-sized international military force -- some 20,000 soldiers, half of what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization sent initially to Kosovo -- under UN auspices that wouldn't rely on NATO member countries but rather on experienced peacekeepers from Latin America, troops from former Soviet states that aren't hostile to either Ukraine or Russia, such as Kazakhstan and Belarus, and a contingent from neutral European countries such as Sweden, Finland and Austria. These troops would be stationed throughout the self-proclaimed "people's republics," including on the border with Russia, where they would act as a "tripwire" to deter Russian incursions. They'd also isolate the pro-Russian rebels' troops and weapons "in secure bases, as a first step towards demobilization or retraining in non-military roles." The military force would take care of any rogue attacks from either side.
The military force would be supported by a sizable police contingent that would keep the peace during elections. Organizing an election and ensuring it's free and fair, as well as smoothing the reintegration of the rebel-held areas into Ukraine, would also require an external civilian administration run by a special representative of the UN secretary general.
The operation would be modeled on a largely forgotten initiative in the Yugoslav wars -- the UN transitional administration in Eastern Slavonia, a Serb-held region of eastern Croatia. A force of 5,000 blue helmets secured the area and the border with Serbia, an election was organized, a managed transition to Croatian control followed -- all in the space of two years from 1996 to 1998. The region retained a soft border with Serbia; thousands of refugees returned to their homes, although some residents of eastern Slavonia moved to Serbia as UNTAES wrapped up.
Of course, the initial situation in eastern Slavonia was different from the one in east Ukraine. The Croats, unlike the Ukrainians, were capable of a military victory, so the UN administration was largely meant to avoid a bloody, violent takeover, and it handled the job well. And while the NATO bombing of Belgrade was yet to come, Serbia even then faced a credible threat of force that Russia doesn't.
Gowan's proposals for eastern Ukraine are based on a simple logic. The Minsk agreements require a local election before Russia restores control of the border to Ukraine. Elections won't take place without an external catalyst and wouldn't be fairly conducted without international administration and policing. Ergo, something close to a full international takeover of eastern Ukraine is desirable. It's also the only way to alleviate Russian President Vladimir Putin's stated concerns for the safety of the pro-Russian population if Ukrainians were allowed to re-establish control, a risk that Gowan acknowledges. The international administration would also serve as a buffer for non-combatants who have worked for the "people's republics" -- such as teachers or public servants -- to transition to a peaceful life in which they aren't persecuted by a vindictive Ukrainian government.
The tricky part of imposing the transitional administration would be to figure out the degree of control it would have. Gowan's proposal is for a power-sharing arrangement in which the UN administration takes full control of all election- and security-related matters and has veto powers in other areas. The peacekeepers' functions would change after the election, but they'd stick around to control Ukraine's behavior.
The international military force wouldn't be designed to fight off large-scale attacks but rather to monitor the Russian border and the separation line, helping to stop minor incursions. That's smart for at least two reasons: The force needs to look non-threatening to Moscow, and lining up anything larger drawing from neutral-country personnel is unrealistic.
"In peacekeeping as in war, no plan survives first contact with reality," Gowan concedes. It's important, however, to start with a clear understanding of the strategic political goals and then fit the means to them, and Gowan does just that. His proposal gives the Kremlin a way to end the conflict without surrendering the rebels to Kiev's vengeance and to maintain cultural and economic times with eastern Ukraine; and it provides the Kiev government with a way to getting its territories back and the border with Russia under its control again.
The biggest problem is that it's not clear that either side is sincere about those goals.
Putin still doesn't believe in the Kiev regime's stability. He appears to hope the pendulum will swing back in Russia's favor and to use the "people's republics" as a permanent destabilization tool while the Ukrainian government is still hostile. President Petro Poroshenko's government isn't really interested in ending the conflict, either: The corrupt Kiev establishment uses it to get more Western aid than its policies deserve and to present itself as an important Western ally.
Where there's no will, there's no way. But Gowan's plan, if aired at the UN level, would at least force the sides to admit that they prefer the problem to any reasonable solution.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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