Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Wednesday that he plans to propose a resolution to the U.N. Security Council to send Russian “peacekeeping” forces to the site of the flight MH17 crash. While the resolution would never pass, the proposal illustrates a Moscow determined to simultaneously deride western nations and copy their methods of managing conflicts.
Lavrov told a group of foreign diplomats gathered in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, that the presence a Russian peacekeeping force would allow a team of international experts to access the crash site. On July 17, Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers on board. Evidence overwhelmingly suggests that separatists downed the plane, but the Russian media continues to claim the Ukrainian military bears responsibility.
Meanwhile, a battle between Kyiv’s forces and the separatists has been raging over the crash site, preventing unarmed international experts with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from reaching the area. Ukrainian military spokesperson Andriy Lysenko also stated that separatists have laid mines around the area where the crash occurred, adding to the danger. Somehow, Russia’s solution is to send in troops.
The move to send in Russian peacekeeping forces “would clearly be seen as tantamount to an invasion,” said Richard Gowan, associate director at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, in an interview with ThinkProgress. “Clearly, the Ukrainian offensive is complicating the chance of a credible investigation around the site,” explained Gowan, but he added that adding Russian soldiers into the mix would in no way help ease tensions.
Gowan noted that there’s a precedent for Moscow co-opting methods first employed by Western nations to tackle international conflicts. “At a point when the western countries were starting to set up humanitarian corridors into Syria, the Russians suddenly started talking about setting up humanitarian corridors into Ukraine,” Gowan said. “What Moscow does is it takes standard crisis management proposals like humanitarian corridors or peacekeeping forces and then subverts them, by twisting them and throwing them back at the west.”
That’s not the only precedent Russia has set with its peacekeeping forces, which have historically been used to effectively claim territory for Russia by setting up camp and never leaving. While he conceded Lavrov’s proposal is “probably game-playing rather than a real threat to deploy troops,” Gowan noted that “there’s a fear in the west that Russia might deploy forces under the guise of peacekeeping to essentially grab hold of territory in a way similar to Georgia and Moldova.” In 1992, Russia dispatched peacekeeping forces to intervene in a war between Moldovan forces and pro-Russia separatists in the country’s east. Twenty years later, Russian troops remain stationed in a major base in the breakaway region of Transnistria, even though the conflict long ago lapsed into an uneasy stalemate. Moscow similarly dispatched peacekeepers to South Ossetia in 2008 when the unrecognized government clashed with the Georgian military in a five day war, leading to a permanent troop presence. Russians had also made up a portion of the U.N. observer group stationed in Georgia prior to the renewed fighting in 2008; that mission ended in 2009 thanks to a Russian veto.
In the wake of the MH17 crash, some observers speculated that Putin would take the opportunity to distance himself from the separatists. The weeks since then have shown the exact opposite is the case. Lavrov’s proposed resolution goes to show how Moscow has actually shifted closer to the separatists despite international controversy. While rebel leaders have been calling on Russia to deploy peacekeeping forces for months, Lavrov issued a statement in June saying peacekeepers were unnecessary. The fact that Russian leaders are now listening more closely to separatist demands means the conflict is unlikely to wind down anytime soon.