12 May 2020
The deployment of UN-mandated peacekeepers to the Donbas region has been on the table for several years; however, Russia has made it clear that it will only support a mandate for UN peacekeepers when a political settlement is reached in the region (see Arbatov, 2017). The political feasibility of a peacekeeping force is up for debate. However, if it does become a political reality, then European policymakers must ask what it would mean for the future of European defence and interoperability. Donbas would be not only a prime opportunity to end an ongoing conflict of close to 6 years but also a chance for an EU peacekeeping force to play a key part in any future settlement.
If the EU were to take a leading role, this would mean the largest-scale deployment in its history, dwarfing the Althea operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina which mobilised 7,000 troops (Tardy, 2018: 239). Most open-source estimates put the necessary size of any UN peacekeeping force at around 20,000 or potentially far more (Brunson & Grono, 2018). However, with Europe’s proximity, expertise and resources, It is hard to imagine the EU not playing a central role in a peacekeeping operation in Donbas. In terms of interoperability, this would put European defence mechanisms to the test, showing where they stand when it comes to working in a unified command on the field.
With the deployment of a NATO or Russian peacekeeping operation very likely off the table, this is a perfect opportunity for the EU to step into a leading military role as part of an UN-mandated peacekeeping force. This would be even more feasible if the force is led by one of the neutral EU states like Austria, Finland, Sweden and Ireland, or some combination thereof. Indeed, Sweden has already offered to take a leading role in a peacekeeping force if a political solution is found via the Minsk agreements (Deutsche Welle, 2018).
This may cause acrimony from Moscow, but the EU has enough political leverage to act as an alternative to a US or NATO-led peacekeeping force. Since 22 of the 30 NATO member states are EU countries, It is an unavoidable reality that there would be indirect EU involvement if Europe is to play any role at all in a post-conflict peacekeeping force. In turn, this will also likely mean that Russia will insist its close allies such as Belarus and Kazakhstan be part of a peacekeeping force. Russia’s closest allies are part of the Collective Treaty Security Organisation (CTSO). However, they could also deploy under the auspices the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), possibly even in tandem with their EU partners.
The structure of an EU peacekeeping force
The most important question boils down to what a large EU peacekeeping force would look like, and what defence mechanisms would be most effective. In terms of boots on the ground, Eurocorps could be an ideal resource to deploy to Eastern Ukraine. It has a highly autonomous force structure and a theoretical capacity of up to 60,000 troops. Eurocorps already has combat experience in Afghanistan and peacekeeping experience in places like Kosovo and throughout the African continent. Most importantly, the very purpose of Eurocorps is to be a rapid response option for both the EU and NATO.
So far, only nine EU member states are either member or associated nations of Eurocorps, with none of the EU’s non-NATO members participating. Depending on the extent of member states’ involvement, other mechanisms would still need to be put to use for contributions of military personnel. This could be supplemented by the wider implementation of the initiative on Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), and the different EU Battle Groups.
The EU defines executive missions as combat-oriented, and non-combat missions as non-executive (Council of the EU, 2019). Because a peacekeeping mission in Donbas would be non-combat oriented, the wider command structure would fall under the overarching operational control of the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC). Whenever any multinational coalition is built, there would be a European task force commander from a member state appointed to oversee on-the-ground operations, presumably under an UN-backed mandate (see Umland, 2018).
This would also allow for the pooling of resources, which will inevitably invite the important question of how a multinational EU corps would be put together and financed. One important financial tool could be the Berlin Plus Agreement, which allows the member states to tap into NATO resources for EU-led missions. Furthermore, using the agreement would be an excellent way for the US (and Canada) to support its European allies without putting American boots on the ground. It is also a back channel through which NATO can directly or indirectly stay engaged with member states.
EU defence interoperability
Such a large-scale EU peacekeeping deployment would be an excellent testing ground for further implementation of doctrine, organisation, training, material, leadership development, personnel, facilities, and interoperability (DOTMLPFI) (see Jones, 2020: 1). This would be the first time that European policymakers and defence planners would be able to see the effectiveness of interoperability of a large multinational force under PESCO and other EU initiatives. Defence planners could then set benchmarks concerning DOTMLPFI, and assess the effectiveness of various initiatives. The deployment would also give Europeans a more substantial stake in the security of their continent.
This is especially true of Eastern European countries that share a border and/or a similar history with Ukraine. For example, the Baltic states’ involvement in a peacekeeping force would give them a chance to build their interoperability amongst themselves, and these countries could deploy simultaneously under the Nordic Battle Group.
Poland is in a particularly advantageous position to take a leading role. More so than any other EU country, Poland shares a tense but similar history, language, and culture with Ukraine. It could deploy under the Visegrad Battle Group that includes other former Warsaw Pact countries Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Hungary. Given the countries’ shared history, Poland could work as a key interlocutor with Ukrainian authorities. One notable past example of cooperation was the joint Polish-Ukrainian POLUKBRAT battalion sent to Kosovo. There may be pushback from Moscow on Poland taking a leading role; however, the peacekeeping mission would quite likely involve former Soviet states with close ties to Russia that would make Ukraine hesitant. Poland’s inclusion in the peacekeeping force could, therefore, help ensure the political balance and impartiality of the mission.
An often forgotten, but vitally important aspect of force interoperability will be the EU’s ability to work with civilian-led entities. Cooperation with regional and international organisations will be an important testing ground for streamlining DOTMLPFI. For example, the division of labour between the EU and the OSCE should be seamless, as all EU member states are also a part of OSCE. Having gained experience from a peacekeeping mission in Donbas, policymakers could assess how an integrated larger EU peacekeeping force works with civilian entities, and how it affects the interoperability of a larger integrated force.
The two most significant complications will be funding a large-scale peacekeeping force and providing the number of personnel required for such a force. Questions like who will lead the force on the ground, and what countries will provide the resources, could only be determined with an agreement of all parties via the Minsk accords. The financial aspect of the matter will be exacerbated by the economic damages caused by the coronavirus, which cannot even be fully assessed until the spread of the virus has abated. In other words, the coronavirus is inviting Europe to play wait-and-see.
Another complication could come from Russia itself if it gives stiff resistance to EU involvement on the ground. However, Brussels will have economic and diplomatic leverage, like the potential of removing the biting sanctions on Russia. Furthermore, from the Kremlin’s perspective, EU involvement could be seen as a lesser evil than a much larger and likely US-led NATO peacekeeping force miles from the Russian border.
On the whole, Donbas could present a golden opportunity for further integration and interoperability of a larger European-led force in its backyard. Such a move would come with some complications but could signal to the broader world that Europe is ready to move in the direction of a larger unified military force. From a policy perspective, it would also signal that the EU is ready to take a leading role in international security. All in all, an EU peacekeeping mission would be a massive win for the European project and the overall security of the European continent writ large.
Written by Freddie Whitlow, Defence Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre
Arbatov, A. (2017, September 28) A U.N. Peacekeeping Operation Is the Only Way Forward In Ukraine. Carnegie Moscow Center. Accessed 8 May 2020. Available at https://carnegie.ru/commentary/73251.
Brunson, J., & Grono, M. (2018, March 5) Peacekeeping in Ukraine’s Donbas: Opportunities and Risks. International Crisis Group. Accessed 8 May 2020. Available at https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/easterneurope/ukraine/donbas-peacekeeping-opportunities-and-risks.
Deutsche Welle (2018, February 17) Sweden Says It is Open to Leading UN Peacekeeping Mission in Ukraine. Accessed 8 May 2020. Available at https://www.dw.com/en/sweden-says-its-open-to-leading-un-peacekeeping-mission-in-ukraine/a-42631517
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Jones, B. (2020) CSDP Defence Capabilities Development. Brussels: European Parliament Policy Department for External Relations. Accessed 8 May 2020. Available at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/IDAN/2020/603482/EXPO_IDA(2020)603482_EN.pdf.
Tardy, T. (2018) The European Union and UN Peace Operations: What Global–Regional Peace and Security Partnership?, in C. de Coning & M. Peter (eds.) United Nations Peace Operations in a Changing Global Order. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 231–251.
Umland, A. (2018, June 8) UN peacekeeping in Donbas? The stakes of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. European Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed 8 May 2020. Available at