On March 30, Gen. Wesley Clark, a retired U.S. four-star general and a former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, gave a talk at the Atlantic Council in which he reported on a recent trip to Ukraine. In the course of his remarks, he stated the following regarding the OSCE mission in Ukraine:
More than half of the make-up of OSCE, we were told, were Russian military, who are free to go up to the Ukrainian positions, look at their disposition. And, you know, they’re on the honor code, not to pass this back to Russian forces, if that – and maybe not even on the honor code. So OSCE is essentially non-functioning there.
He went to claim that Russia is making “preparations for a renewed offensive from the east” and that the offensive would likely take place between Orthodox Easter on April 12 and VE Day on May 8. He then argued that, given that a major Russian-ordered offensive was “imminent,” the United States should increase military assistance to Kyiv, including lethal weapons.
Readers of this blog will know that I doubt that either the separatists or Russian regulars are going to launch a major offensive in the coming months (although they might). What I don’t doubt is that Ukrainian officials told Gen. Clark that an offensive was highly likely, even inevitable. That, however, does not make the claim true, and indeed it doesn’t even mean that that is what Gen. Clark’s interlocutors actually believed. What it does tell us is that they wanted Gen. Clark to believe that an offensive is imminent, and they wanted him to say as much once he returned to Washington.
There are, moreover, two clear and important factual errors in what Gen. Clark claimed, which is that the OSCE is “non-functioning” and that more than half of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) is made up of Russians. These assertion are simply incorrect, as the following chart from the latest SMM status report shows.
There are thus a total of 690 members of the SMM, of whom 414 are international monitors. Of those, 23 come from Russia, compared to 42 from the United States. Which is to say, Russians make up 6 percent of the international monitors, not over half, and doubtless are a significantly smaller portion of the national (presumably all Ukrainian citizens) and other international staff.
I should also note that the SMM is only part of the overall OSCE mission in Ukraine, as described on its website here.
There is in addition to the Russia contribution to the monitoring mission a Russian military delegation, along with its Ukrainian counterpart and “representatives” from the DPR and LPR, on the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination (JCCC), which was established by the follow-on memorandum to Minsk I in late September. Now based in Soledar near the LOC, the JCCC is not an OSCE mission, although the SMM works with the JCCC and has a permanent representative on it. But the JCCC is not under SMM control, and it operates independently of the SMM. It is also a much smaller operation than the SMM – my impression is that the Russian delegation consists of around 10 officers, although I have been unable to confirm that by doing some quick Googling.
If Gen. Clark had said that many Ukrainians claim that the Russian delegation to the JCCC, as well as the Russian nationals among the SMM monitors, have been passing intelligence on to the separatists or Russian intelligence, that would be correct, And it might very well be true that they are passing intelligence on. In fact, I would be quite surprised if it weren’t true, at least to some extent. But that does not mean that the OSCE, or specifically its SMM, are non-functional.
On the contrary, my take is that the OSCE SMM is much the most regular source of reliable information on the location and scale of fighting in the conflict zone out there. The monitors are trained to report what they see and hear, and only what they see and hear, and my impression is that the daily and other reports that they put out reflect exactly that. And they are themselves closely monitored by social media, which quickly points out mistakes if and when they are made.
Of course that hardly means that what the SMM reports is, or could be, comprehensive – we are talking about a very large conflict zone, and there are always plenty of opportunities to conceal heavy and other weapons, or to cease or attenuate firing when combatants know SMM representatives are in the area. But the monitoring reports are nonetheless extremely useful.
The SMM also serves to constrain the combatants on “collateral damage” and war crimes, at least to some extent. And they have been working hard to encourage local commanders to work out local ceasefires and otherwise assist the civilian population.
And it warrants mention that the monitors are brave people who risk their lives, and they don’t get rich doing it.
Finally, a word on the SMM’s reporting from earlier today. In brief, the SMM reported another significant surge in fighting east of Mariupol and particularly in the northwest sector of Donetsk. Their spot report on the Donetsk fighting reads as follows:
At 9.35hrs on 12 April, upon arrival at Donetsk railway station (“Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DPR”)-controlled, 8km north-west of Donetsk city centre), the SMM witnessed heavy fighting between “DPR” and the Ukrainian Armed Forces in areas near the city visible from its position. Both the Ukrainian Armed Forces representative and the Russian Federation representative to the Joint Centre for Control and Co-ordination (JCCC) told the SMM that the Ukrainian side (assessed to be the Right Sector volunteer battalion) earlier had made an offensive push through the line of contact towards Zhabunki (“DPR”-controlled, 14km west-north-west of Donetsk), but the SMM was not able to verify this.
The SMM observed that an intensive armed clash was underway with the use of tanks, heavy artillery, automatic grenade launchers, mortars, heavy machine-guns, and small arms and light weapons (SALW). From its arrival at 9.35 to 15:00hrs, the SMM observed and recorded 1,166 explosions, caused mainly by artillery and mortar shell strikes. The SMM assessed that weapons with a calibre larger than 100mm were used by both sides during the fighting.
The fact that the monitors reported that both Russian and Ukrainian military representatives indicated that the fighting was initiated by the Ukrainians, and specifically by elements of the Right Sector volunteer battalion (notorious among the separatists and in Russia), is important and revealing.
If the fighting was indeed initiated by Right Sector volunteers, it is possible that they were acting at their own initiative. But it is also possible that the Ukrainian leadership — or at least some elements of the Ukrainian leadership — is as intent, and possibly more intent, as the separatists on keeping the LOC from stabilizing and allowing a genuine ceasefire to take hold.
If so, I think that would be a very unwise move for Kyiv. Ukrainian offensive operations at this point, while possibly provoking more fighting and thus additional military assistance from Washington, would ultimately undermine Western unity on the crisis. It would also increase the risk that Ukraine finds itself the victim of a full-scale proxy war between Russia and the United States.
Much better to push hard for a genuine ceasefire and a stable frozen conflict, as I keep arguing.