Could UN Peacekeepers Be Headed for Ukraine?

Murmurs of a ‘frozen conflict’ raise prospect of Blue Helmet deployment.

Via Wikimedia Commons
The UN peacekeeping helmet icon. Via Wikimedia Commons

Forecasts that the war in Ukraine could eventually turn into a frozen conflict along the lines of the decades-old standoff on the Korean peninsula are not uncommon, but are growing in frequency. As the “frozen” equation gains currency, it will inevitably raise the question of who will provide the boots on the ground to keep the two sides from crossing lines that might eventually be decided by international mediation.

Might that  be the United Nations? Far-fetched though that may seem, it is not implausible. The UN’s department of peace operations maintains a dozen peacekeeping operations in various hotspots around the world, and adding a 13th to the roster would not in the long run be all that fanciful. According to official UN documents, UN peacekeeping “helps countries navigate the difficult path from conflict to peace. We have unique strengths, including legitimacy, burden sharing, and an ability to deploy troops and police from around the world.”

One country where the so-called Blue Helmets are already deployed is Cyprus, which since 1974 has been split between the southern, internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus and a heavily armed, self-declared breakaway state in the north recognized only by Turkey. As of last February, there were more than a thousand Blue Helmets monitoring an island-wide buffer zone and supervising ceasefire lines. 

The UN’s peacekeeping force in Cyprus was established in 1964 but expanded greatly following the Turkish invasion of the island a decade later. Since then it has not brought about any kind of political solution, but it has arguably helped to prevent a breakout of further hostilities. In some places, notably the capital of Nicosia, the buffer zone is gradually taking on the characteristics of a de facto border.

It is an unwieldy model to be sure, and one that is by no means a carbon copy of the situation in Korea or for that matter in Lebanon, where the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon has done little if anything to minimize security threats to Israel. Yet as with Cyprus, Ukraine is a country with two sides diametrically opposed to each other and for a mix of historical and cultural reasons unwilling to compromise. 

Managing a stalemate is UN peacekeeping’s unglamorous stock-in-trade. 

Back to those forecasts for freezing the conflict: Multiple Russian newspapers have lately been referencing with unusual zeal an article from Politico last week that claims Biden administration officials have been discussing “how Ukraine could become the next South Korea.” According to the report, there have been talks in the White House and various agencies about how and where to “set potential lines that Ukraine and Russia would agree not to cross, but which would not have to be official borders.”

There are plenty of factors that could mitigate both for and against the drawing of such lines that are arbitrarily set instead of fought for, chief among which is the unreliability of the Russians in terms of hewing to an agreement. Also at stake is Ukraine’s future relationship with NATO and the status of Crimea, which Russia annexed illegally in 2014.

When an American official says something like, “We are planning for the long term, whether it looks frozen or thawed,” as Politico noted, the cynical could say it sounds like someone is planning out a future dinner menu. 

On the practical level, though, there is a certain logic, especially as the initial urgency of the West’s getting important weapons to Ukraine has found a rhythm and everyone from President Xi to Pope Francis is dangling their own version of how to end the war. At some point, this is all going to come down to maps and maybe a few boots. 

That is why some calls to eject Russia from the Security Council, though interesting, are probably premature. Intellectual jousting has its merits, but not much can change the fact that World War II and the borders and institutions hammered out in its aftermath are what underpins most, if not all, of the current international order. Practically speaking, it is the Security Council through Chapter VII of the UN Charter that authorizes collective action and has the power to renew peacekeeping operations. 

The notion of American troops in Ukraine à la South Korea is not in the cards nor are NATO forces to be deployed. For the latter, the case of Cyprus is again instructive. 

Greece and Turkey, each members of the alliance, are two of the three guarantor powers on the island. To have a NATO force keeping Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots from attacking each other would spell a public relations disaster for NATO that it could ill afford. That is partly why when the Security Council renews the UN peacekeeping force’s mandate every six months, nobody objects. No one has a better solution. 

More importantly, the war in Ukraine that began with Vladimir Putin’s belligerence in 2014 is a hot conflict. After 15 months of fighting, there is no question that Russia has the bigger army, to say nothing of its nuclear arsenal and the fact that warhead reduction talks are in a more fragile state now than any time in recent memory. 

How likely is it that Moscow would agree to freezing a conflict more or less on Ukraine’s terms? One need only look as far as President Macron’s bruised ego to see how far that might go on the ground.

The New York Sun

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