With no end in sight of the suffering, losses of lives and destruction of Ukraine as a country, the need for mediation to achieve a ceasefire and negotiations between Ukraine and Russia on an agreed political solution to the conflict is more urgent than ever.
Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when Russia was massing troops at the borders with Ukraine, leaders of EU member states and other countries tried in vain to prevent the outbreak of the war. After the invasion, there were low-level direct talks between Ukraine and Russia and mediation efforts to achieve a ceasefire and establish humanitarian corridors but they failed too.
After Russia’s failure to capture Ukraine’s capital and overthrow its government, the war entered a new phase in the eastern part of Ukraine with heavy losses on both sides. Russia launched an offensive, supported by its superior firepower, to conquer all the Donbas region but its final war aims remain unclear. Ukraine, reinforced by advanced weapons, wants to liberate the areas occupied by Russia.
For the time being, the only mediator still active seems to be Turkey. On Thursday, agreements were signed in Istanbul by Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations to unblock the Black Sea for Ukrainian exports of grains. The agreements were welcomed by the EU and seen as a critical step in the efforts to overcome the global food insecurity caused by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
“Its success will depend on the swift and good faith implementation of the agreement,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in a statement. "Russia has in fact endangered food security for millions of people across the world. The present agreement offers an opportunity to start reversing this negative course.”
But already on the following day, Odessa’s seaport was hit by missile strikes which are believed to be Russian. Borrell tweeted that “striking a target crucial for grain export a day after the signature of Istanbul agreements is particularly reprehensible & again demonstrates Russia’s total disregard for international law & commitments.”
EU’s response to Russia’s aggression has been political, military and economic support to Ukraine and the granting of candidate status to Ukraine. The support is underpinned by packages of sanctions against Kremlin.
Last week, the European Commission proposed plans for reducing the demand for natural gas in the EU in response to a worst possible scenario when Russia will cut off natural gas to EU member states. The option of EU sanctions against import of natural gas from Russia seems off the table and not relevant any longer.
Until now EU has demonstrated a united front against Russia although not all member states have been willing to support Ukraine with weapons or only done it to a limited extent. The sanctions were adopted in unanimity.
But the new plan for saving natural gas has already shown cracks in EU’s wall of solidarity. A number of member states, mainly in southern Europe further away from the war but possibly although other countries, have reportedly raised objections against the Commission gas reductions plans. Even before that, Hungary had announced that it would not allow the export of natural gas which it needs itself.
What can the EU and individual member states do to address the root causes of the energy crisis and the urgent need to end the war?
“I can only recall that the EU is not directly mediating in the war,” Peter Stano, Lead Spokesperson of the European Commission for Foreign Affairs, told The Brussels Times at the daily press conference on Friday.
“We are supporting with all our means the efforts of our international partners to end the war. This is first of all an issue for Russia which started the war and is waging an illegal and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, violating the UN charter, international law and its own international commitments."
Different countries have been offering their mediation services but Russia has not been willing to engage with them seriously or to conduct direct talks with Ukraine. Turkey has been trying twice and the EU is supporting its efforts. The outcome of any mediation has first of all to be agreed with Ukraine, he explained.
“Our position has been clear but Russia isn’t accepting EU mediation and is hostile to us,” he added. “You can see that in Russia’s latest decision to designate more EU member states as ‘hostile’ to them.” Peter Stano was referring to Russia’s decision on Thursday to add Greece, Denmark, Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia to its list of ‘unfriendly states’ in response to the sanctions imposed by the EU.
The EU considers allegations regarding unfriendly actions as unfounded and unacceptable, urging Russia to revoke all such listings. “This decision is yet another step by Russia towards continued escalation of tensions with the European Union and its member states,” High Representative Borrell said in a statement on behalf of the EU.
Accountability for war crimes
The need to achieve a ceasefire and end the war as soon as possible is underlined in an interim report on violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws in Ukraine. The report was published on Thursday by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR).
The report covers the period from the beginning of Russia’s invasion on 24 February until the end of June 2022 and offers initial findings and recommendations connected to violations of laws which may account to war crimes and crimes to humanity, mainly by Russia and to a much more limited extent by Ukraine.
A spokesperson of ODIHR commented that, “ODIHR's monitoring is making a contribution towards exposing the truth of events in Ukraine during these long months of war. It is to be hoped that it can be used in the future as a tool to help ensure justice.”
The list of reported violations by Russia is long and includes indiscriminate attacks against civilian targets (such as Mariupol Drama theatre, the railway station in Kramatorsk, hospitals and schools), brutal sieges of cities as a method of warfare, and the use of weapons with wide area effects in densely populated areas (cluster munitions).
The report does not end by this and reports about sexual violence against women, extrajudicial executions of civilians, unlawful treatment of prisoners of war, suppression of peaceful protests in occupied cities, obstacles to the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and forced deportations of civilians to Russia or the so-called People’s Republics in Donbas.
This report and other reports by UN experts confirm the atrocities and violations of international law committed by Russia, commented Peter Stano, the Commission spokesperson. It feeds into the on-going international efforts to hold those killing civilians and destroying Ukraine accountable.
Normally war criminals are brought to justice after one side has lost a war and is forced to hand-over them to an international war crimes tribunal. Such an outcome is not likely in a war which needs to end by negotiations on a political solution. An authoritarian country armed with nuclear weapons and without any democratic barriers against war cannot be defeated militarily. But for that to happen, both sides need to implement the recommendations in the ODIHR report and respect international humanitarian and human rights laws.
The Brussels Times