For nearly three years, Kiev has been trying to get U.N. peacekeepers sent to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but now the suggestion is coming from Moscow. During a Sept. 5 press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed that the U.N. Security Council deploy peacekeepers to the front lines of the conflict, which would "benefit the resolution of problems in southeast Ukraine." The timing of the statement indicates that Russia could file a resolution during the upcoming U.N. General Assembly session, which begins Sept. 12. But the proposal should be seen more as an attempt to ease pressure from the West — and particularly Washington — than a sincere commitment to ending the conflict.
Ukraine, for its part, already suspects that Moscow is more interested in gaining leverage with the West than reaching a settlement in Donbas — especially since Putin's proposal is much more limited than any Kiev has put forth. It would not grant the United Nations access to Donbas proper or the separatist territories' border with Russia, limiting the ability to monitor or disrupt the flow of weapons and personnel. Ukraine's deputy head of parliament, Iryna Gerashchenko, said that, "In the best traditions of hybrid war, Putin is turning everything upside down by trying to distort the idea of Ukrainian leadership regarding peacekeepers in the Donbas."
But many Western countries will be taking Putin's proposal seriously, and Ukraine's Foreign Ministry has taken steps to try to shape any peacekeeping missions, stipulating that they not include Russian military personnel or require permission from the separatist territories, which Kiev does not recognize. Already, Germany — a key mediator who has called on Russia and Ukraine to do more to resolve the conflict — has expressed approval for Putin's proposed plan. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that, "By proposing to deploy peacekeepers to Ukraine, Russia has changed its policy towards Ukraine. We should not miss this moment." He went further, suggesting that, "If things work out well with the blue helmets, this would be the first step for removing sanctions against Russia."
However, it's the U.S. reaction that Russia is watching closest for. Despite President Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric about forging closer ties with Russia, Washington has maintained a fairly hawkish position on Moscow compared to the Europeans, particularly where the Ukraine conflict is concerned. Washington has continued to call on Moscow to abide by the Minsk protocols, and it's maintained support for Kiev in political and security matters. More recently, the passing of a Congress-led sanctions bill against Moscow illustrated the institutional constraints that the U.S. president faces when it comes to Russia.
Regardless of Trump's desires, the United States and Russia are increasingly at odds. In the past few months, Moscow and Washington have engaged in a series of tit-for-tat moves like diplomat expulsions and compound seizures, with Russia warning that it would respond in an "asymmetric" fashion. Meanwhile, U.S. officials have floated the possibility of sending lethal weapons to Ukraine, which would escalate the conflict but could also serve as a deterrent for Russia. When Putin weighed in on the lethal weapons issue on Sept. 5, however, he said that the move could not only lead to more casualties, but also spur weapons deployments to "other conflict zones where it will be painful" for those who give the separatists "trouble."
So within this context, Putin's peacekeeping proposal can be seen as an effort to convince the United States and the West that Russia is committed to limiting violence in the Ukraine conflict. Though it continues to play a spoiler role in Washington's North Korea and Syria agendas, Moscow wants to prove its ability to make considered, constructive decisions. That image may make some of Ukraine's Western backers, such as Germany, more likely to embrace the Kremlin's efforts. And by indicating a desire for de-escalation, Russia could have more breathing room in its talks with the United States.
As Russia's March 2018 presidential election approaches, Putin is unlikely to grant any major concessions that could damage his popularity among his people. And the limited scope of Russia's peacekeeping proposal almost guarantees that there will be little strategic change to the Ukraine conflict in the near term. But more than anything, Putin's proposal is intended to splinter Western countries' unified position on Russia and give Moscow more room to maneuver in its relationships. During the upcoming U.N. General Assembly session, it will be key to see just how successful those efforts will be, and just how much Western pressure Russia can ease.