The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), fighting back against mounting allegations of pro-Russian bias in its Ukraine crisis missions, has gone on the offensive, calling for stronger support and better access to the porous Ukraine-Russia border.
OSCE official Ilkka Kanerva, speaking November 13 in Vienna, complained the organization had seen its capabilities hamstrung since launching a monitoring mission in July along the Russian side of the border. The mission is allowed to supervise just two checkpoints, the Gukovo and Donetsk border crossings, despite the fact that the separatist-held frontier stretches hundreds of miles.
"Let's be honest -- the mission is restricted to report only what it sees pass through the official crossing along the tiniest strip of the border," said Kanerva, a Finnish lawmaker who heads the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly.
He added, "If we are not permitted to do it right, the question is -- is it worth doing at all?"
Kanerva's remarks come amid mounting Ukrainian frustration with the OSCE, the main international body tasked with fostering peace in eastern Ukraine, where government forces are battling pro-Russian separatists. Despite the checkpoint mission and a larger special mission launched on the Ukrainian side of the border in March, the OSCE has been unable to prevent separatists from receiving massive amounts of heavy weaponry.
Many Ukrainians believe the steady supplies of expensive weaponry prove Russia's direct involvement in the deadly eight-month conflict -- and are accusing the OSCE of pro-Russian bias and subterfuge for failing to corroborate it.
Most recently, NATO officials say that "multiple columns of" Russian tanks, artillery, and antiaircraft units have crossed from Russia into separatist-controlled territory since November 10.
The OSCE, meanwhile, has confirmed the buildup but not the origin of the equipment. Monitors on the Ukrainian side say continued violence and attacks on its new fleet of aerial drones have made it impossible to approach the border region. On the Russian side, the lack of checkpoint access is part of what Kanerva called "unacceptable restriction" that were condoned "in order to achieve consensus" among the OSCE's 57 member states, which include Russia and Ukraine.
Fears Of Further Fighting
The military buildup trashes September's Minsk cease-fire agreement and has spurred fears of full-scale fighting in eastern Ukraine, where more than 4,000 people have died in fighting.
OSCE observers oversee an exchange of prisoners between the Ukrainian Army and pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk in late September.
The UN Security Council, in an emergency session on November 12, heard concerns that Ukraine could be headed for many more months of fighting, or even a frozen conflict that could linger for years or decades.
Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, denied the delivery of Russian weaponry to the Donbas, the term used for the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, instead accusing Ukraine of launching attacks on residential areas in Donetsk.
Russia in recent weeks has used the OSCE's own findings to bolster its argument that Ukrainian troops are responsible for the bulk of the atrocities.
Accusations of Kremlin 'Spies'
Following the death of two teenagers in the November 5 shelling of a Donetsk school, the OSCE stopped short of assigning blame for the incident, saying only that the shells were fired from a "northwest" location.
A day later, Russia's OSCE ambassador, Andrei Kelin, said the facts in the report "proved" the shelling came from the Ukrainian military.
The statement, coming from an OSCE figure, enraged many Ukrainians, who accused the OSCE of padding its monitoring mission with Kremlin spies to ensure its findings would "work to Russia's advantage."
Mourners attend a funeral to bury two teenagers who were killed by shelling on November 5.
Michael Bociurkiw, the spokesman for the Ukraine special monitoring mission, suggested the OSCE did not endorse Kelin's interpretation of the Donetsk report.
"We would prefer that people not take what we've written in our daily reports as fact and perhaps then twist it to how they see things," Bociurkiw told RFE/RL, adding that he was not referring specifically to Kelin. "We report as faithfully and honestly as we can.... But to start getting into who was the source or who pulled the trigger, it would be very, very tricky business indeed."
But public anger against the OSCE remains high in Ukraine. Defense Ministry adviser Vasyl Budyk this week told media that 80 percent of the OSCE workers in the flashpoint city of Mariupol were Russians and had divulged strategic information to the separatists. He also accused monitors of openly using derisory slang -- including "ukrop," a word meaning "dill" used to deride Kyiv loyalists -- to refer to Ukrainians.
A November 13 ceremony to hand over armored vehicles for the OSCE to use in its monitoring mission
Ukrainian analyst Dmytro Tymchuk, whose Information-Resistance Facebook page offers a constant feed of news and insight into the military conflict, also said the OSCE had often "acted as a cover for Russia against Ukraine" and said it was "impossible" to work with the organization.
Bociurkiw confirmed that 18 Russians currently work in the special mission and said that number may be expected to grow when the mission expands from its current 270 workers to a possible 500 by the end of the year.
Each of the OSCE's 57 member states can contribute up to 10 percent of a mission's workforce.
Bociurkiw acknowledged there was natural interest in employing Russian-speakers for the Ukraine missions. But he added that all employees -- who are nominated by their country of origin -- are subject to rigorous screening and must sign a code of conduct that calls on staff to "refrain from any action that might cast doubt on their ability to act impartially."
RFE/RL requested to see the code of conduct but had not been given a copy by press time.
In a conflict where the specter of Kremlin involvement looms large, the presence of Russian monitors has been deeply disturbing to ordinary Ukrainians.
Many have voiced their resentment on social media, using the #mercenaryOSCE hashtag to taunt the organization as a pro-Russian agency filled with well-paid bureaucrats who spend more time in bars than the field.
A sticking point in the OSCE mission is that Ukraine, as the country requesting the mission, cannot contribute its own observers. Meanwhile, Russia, which has never been officially implicated in the violence, has not been barred from participating.
Bohdan Yaremenko, a career diplomat who has dealt with the OSCE's monitoring work in the Donbas, says the presence of Russian monitors is a "direct legal consequence" of Ukraine's failure to declare war. But he argues that monitors or no, the OSCE remains firmly under the sway of Russian influence.
"If Russia was a recognized party to the conflict, then of course there wouldn't be any Russians participating in this mission, just as there aren't any Ukrainians," he says. "But believe me, it wouldn't change much."
Editor's Note: This article has been edited to correct an error about the subject of remarks by the OSCE's Ilkka Kanerva. He was talking about the OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk, not about the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. A link to the OSCE's professional code of conduct has also been added.