Inside the OSCE’s botched withdrawal from Ukraine

OSCE Secretary General Helga Schmid gave an order in Vienna on the evening of Feb. 24 to evacuate international staff from Ukraine and instructed her chief monitor there to “facilitate the relocation of national mission members within the country where possible and if requested,” according to a statement delivered by Schmid to a special meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna on Feb. 27.

But for the hundreds of Ukrainian OSCE staffers, relocation wasn’t an option — and even communication was in short supply.

As Russia began pummeling locations across the country with missile strikes, hundreds of monitors and local staffers were desperately seeking answers from senior OSCE officials. What they received — instead of support or an evacuation plan — was an email expressing sympathy. “Stay safe and the best,” it read.

An email provided by a Ukrainian SMM staffer to POLITICO that was sent by Almir Mehanovic, the Donetsk unit’s deputy team leader, at 10:40 p.m. local time on Feb. 25, indicates the Ukrainians had expressed their worries to the OSCE.

“I’d like to use this opportunity to address our National Staff. I know the tragic deterioration of the security situation in the country and the fact that OSCE decided to temporarily evacuate international staff has caused the feeling of uncertainty for all of you,” Mehanovic wrote in the email. “I want to reassure you that we are doing everything in our power to get answers to the questions that you have.”

But a POLITICO examination of the OSCE’s activities in the days and weeks leading up to the invasion and immediately afterward found that local staffers never did get answers, or at least the ones they needed.

Instead, there was internal resistance to prior evacuation planning, a lack of an up-to-date plan at the time of the attack, breakdowns in communication, and rules that limit which staff members could be evacuated that put 478 Ukrainian staffers and their families in vulnerable and dangerous situations.

That chaos also led to the abandonment of 43 bulletproof Toyota and Nissan vehicles in Russia, and saw sensitive data compromised and fall into Russian hands. For at least one former staffer, it had deadly consequences.

On March 1, Maryna Fenina was killed by Russian shelling in Kharkiv while gathering supplies for her family, OSCE Chairman-in-Office and Foreign Minister of Poland Zbigniew Rau and Secretary General Schmid said in a statement the next day.

At least six local OSCE employees have been detained in Russia-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk areas of eastern Ukraine for alleged spying and treason; three remain in custody and face bogus charges that carry stiff sentences or possibly the death penalty.

Dozens more in those areas are afraid to leave their homes over fears they’ll be snatched off the street and face a similar fate or even be forcibly conscripted in the Russian armed forces to fight against their own countrymen.

Making matters worse, SMM members in those Russia-controlled areas had their contracts terminated in April after having been promised one-year extensions in March, leaving them without a safety net, staffers said.

“Goodbye. No more security guarantees. Insurance payments canceled, contracts canceled,” a former SMM employee said. “They just threw people out.”

POLITICO’s findings are based on interviews with four former members of the SMM in Ukraine and three current senior OSCE officials, as well as internal emails and documents and publicly available information.

In a statement responding to this article, Gunnar Vrang, the OSCE’s head of communications, said: “The scale and brutality of the Russian invasion of Ukraine took many by surprise, but the OSCE was responsive to the warning signs. In early and mid-February, with heightened military build-up around the country, the OSCE Secretary General sent her security team twice to Ukraine to update existing contingency plans. On 17 February, the OSCE Secretary General provided early warning to OSCE Ambassadors noting the rising prospects of escalation and violence in the area.”

Vrang said the SMM’s withdrawal was “complicated by the increased violence in many areas of Ukraine, but also the imposition of martial law, preventing adult males from leaving the country.” He said that “relocation and evacuation was only possible when it was as safe as it could be to do so” and that in some cases local staff chose not to relocate for personal or family reasons.

Pseudo-authorities in Russia-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine also complicated matters. “Unfortunately, those in control of certain areas of Luhansk and Donetsk were uncooperative in our effort to safely relocate our staff,” Vrang said. In April, as pressure on local staff mounted and arrests were made of several SMM members in Donetsk and Luhansk, he said, the OSCE decided “to separate all national mission members there, as their association with the OSCE may have created even more challenges for their personal situations.”

A senior OSCE official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue, said it was an “extremely difficult decision” to cancel the contracts of the national staff in non-government-controlled areas but added that this was done “as a precautionary measure after the threats against the OSCE.”

“The Organization is pursuing all available channels to have the privileges and immunities of its current and former officials respected. Regrettably, the Russian Federation, and those in control of Donetsk and Luhansk, have refused to respect these principles,” Vrang said. “Three of our national mission members are still being unjustifiably detained in Donetsk and Luhansk. Their release is our first and utmost priority.”

Sleepwalking into the Russian invasion

This wasn’t the first time an OSCE monitoring mission faced a challenging evacuation in dangerous circumstances. The organization knew what could happen if it left behind its national staff.

On March 20, 1999, its Kosovo Verification Mission pulled its people out of the war there, but left local employees behind.

“Local staff of the OSCE-KVM, and other people associated with the mission were harassed or forcibly expelled, and some were killed, after 20 March,” read a mission analysis published afterward.

Duncan Spinner saw the writing on the wall. He held posts as head of SMM operations and team leader in the eastern Luhansk region between 2015 and 2019, before becoming a gender and economics adviser for the organization in western Lviv — until his contract was terminated along with most other staffers on May 31. Spinner said he warned the OSCE on multiple occasions that its security plans and protocols needed to be updated, but was ignored.

“We were set up to fail from the very beginning,” he told POLITICO.

Spinner, a British military veteran with experience conducting high-risk operations, said he had recognized in 2015 that the SMM lacked a sufficient strategy for evacuating people if Ukraine was invaded. When he and others attempted to put one in place, he said, they were met with resistance from Vienna and the task was never completed.

That information was independently corroborated by three other SMM members — two Ukrainians and one international staffer — who spoke to POLITICO. Those three as well as a fourth former SMM local staffer who all spoke on the condition of anonymity said the OSCE bungled its response after Russia’s invasion began.

The international staffer said the OSCE had a rudimentary evacuation plan in place before Feb. 24 but described it as being out-of-date. That person said an updated evacuation plan for the SMM in the event of a large-scale Russian invasion was brought to the OSCE’s attention in December but ignored despite Western warnings of an attack.

“The mission management was sleepwalking into this,” the staffer said. “They were warned many times.”

A Ukrainian staff member described the organization as “really not ready” when Russia invaded and said its hasty response in the hours and days after was “hectic.” Another local employee described the response as “inadequate” and “frustrating.”

A third said the way in which the organization’s leadership reacted led many staffers in Ukraine to believe Vienna didn’t take the invasion seriously and thought “it would not last long.” That person said early discussions emphasized that evacuations would be temporary, which led to some within the organization not taking seriously or fully understanding the risks to local staff, particularly those in Russia-controlled areas of Ukraine.

The SMM went into a limited, administrative mode after its mandate expired on March 31 to allow Rau and the Polish OSCE chairmanship to continue negotiations in Vienna with all OSCE participating states, including with Russia, on a possible continued presence in Ukraine. Since support for a continued presence was overwhelming among OSCE states, Poland took the lead to continue consultations on the matter.

But the OSCE is now in the process of shutting down its flagship operation in Ukraine after it became clear that these talks would no longer be fruitful. The organization said on April 28 that it was mothballing the SMM and keeping on only a core group until the closure is complete later this year.

Eyes and ears on the ground

The SMM, an unarmed, civilian mission, was originally deployed in 2014 and consisted of 350 to 400 civilian monitors from some 40 countries whose tasks were to observe and report cease-fire violations in the east in an impartial and objective manner, and to support dialogue throughout the country. Its presence, which would eventually grow to around 1,000 members from 43 nations (the mission’s final status report, dated Feb. 7, counted 689 monitors) meant there were eyes on the ground in every corner of Ukraine — but especially the east, even as the conflict waned after a tenuous peace accord was agreed in February 2015 and media attention dissipated.

The mission regularly advocated for prisoner exchanges and safe passage across the front line for humanitarian groups. When SMM monitors showed up at locations where fighting flared, their arrival would often slow or even halt the shooting, providing at least a temporary reprieve for civilians living in the war zone. The SMM also brokered local cease-fires to allow for the repair of critical civilian infrastructure near the front line, such as the Donetsk water filtration station.

In one of its most visible moments, the SMM played a crucial role in facilitating access for teams investigating the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014.

But the SMM’s tenure was also marked with trouble and controversies.

In spring 2014, Russia-backed separatists detained and held hostage 12 Western staffers in the city of Slovyansk for a week before releasing them. Both the Ukrainian and Russian governments regularly criticized the SMM for being partial to the other side; Ukrainian members were accused of providing intelligence on Russian military activity to Kyiv, and Russian members were blamed for passing knowledge of Ukrainian troop movements to Moscow. And in April 2017, Joseph Stone, an American paramedic working with the SMM, was killed in an explosion when the bulletproof SUV he and two others were driving in eastern Ukraine ran over a mine.

The work of the SMM was difficult and often thankless — but it was important, the former members said. They were glad to be a part of the organization, even though it put them in harm’s way on a daily basis and at risk in the event of a full-scale Russian invasion.

“I was really proud. It was a prestigious job with good pay,” said a former Ukrainian staffer who is now unemployed and disappointed in the organization’s handling of the situation around Russia’s invasion.

For internationals only

The decision to evacuate international mission members was preceded by weeks of a nerve-wracking buildup of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine that was closely watched by the international community, including by the OSCE.

Several OSCE participating states, among them the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, came to the conclusion that the situation was too dangerous for their own citizens working for the OSCE in Ukraine, and they therefore pulled them out ahead of the invasion on Feb. 11 and 12. The OSCE decided to keep its remaining SMM members in Ukraine and on Feb. 13 declared that it “will continue to implement its OSCE approved mandate with its monitors deployed in ten cities throughout Ukraine.”

Chief Monitor Yaşar Halit Çevik sent an email to all SMM staff a little more than a week prior to the invasion, acknowledging the difficult situation, but asking staff to focus on their mission duties. The email was reviewed by POLITICO.

As a result of the unilateral withdrawls, the OSCE had 488 international mission members left in the country at the time of the invasion, out of the original 689 international monitors, and approximately 478 national staff from Ukraine.

The local members held posts as translators, administrative assistants, advisers, financial and press officers, drivers, and cleaners at the mission. The OSCE regularly boasted that they were the mission’s backbone, the three SMM employees said, and considered their experience and local knowledge invaluable to the monitoring mission.

But when the invasion began, international and local staff members were told to shelter in place or move to their respective hubs and be ready to relocate if officials at the headquarters in Vienna gave the order.

“They told us just to sit and wait,” said a current SMM staffer.

It was 14 hours after the first Russian missiles struck that the order came through for the 488 international SMM members to get on the road, according to the staffers and an email provided to POLITICO; the OSCE would be evacuating them in convoys.

Those working in central and western Ukraine would drive west and cross into Moldova and Romania. Others stationed in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, in the territories under the control of Russia’s separatist proxies since 2014, would head east into Russia, as it was too dangerous to cross the front line, making their way to the Uspenka border crossing point, then onward to Rostov and eventually Sochi, before flying to Turkey. They left dozens of OSCE armored vehicles at a railway station parking lot in Russia. It took 10 days for all international mission members to be evacuated from Ukraine.

But the 478 national staff from Ukraine were not part of the OSCE’s evacuation plan. The Vienna-based body told some of the Ukrainian mission members they could try to follow the international convoys in their own vehicles but with no guarantees of assistance at border crossings. The OSCE said that regulations prevented local staffers from officially joining the evacuations and leaving their home countries, even while under attack.

“Do we have an opportunity to join the patrol in a private car with our families, as was done in Kramatorsk in Mariupol?” asked a Ukrainian doctor working for the SMM of international managers in an email sent at 11:10 p.m. on Feb. 25, the end of the second day of Russia’s invasion.

“Unfortunately, according to the organization’s rules, evacuation of OSCE staff from any mission area to a another [sic] country is only intended for international mission members,” responded Mehanovic, the Donetsk unit’s deputy team leader, at 1 p.m. the next day.

Though uncoordinated, dozens of Ukrainian staffers were able to leave the country as part of the OSCE convoy. Male staffers stayed behind; according to Ukrainian law, all Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 are banned from leaving the country.

According to the OSCE’s Staff Regulations and Rules, the main legal document regulating the relations between the organization and its personnel, all OSCE officials, including national staff, enjoy protection in the performance of their duties. In parallel, the OSCE as an employer also has a duty of care toward all of its personnel, meaning that it has an obligation to ensure their safety and security in connection with their employment.

‘You all remain at the forefront of my thoughts’

The situation is less clear when it comes to the OSCE’s obligations to evacuate national staff out of the country in the case of emergency. In contrast, international staff enjoy the right to repatriation within the terms of their employment.

Lisa Tabassi, former head of the OSCE office for legal affairs, told POLITICO that it is common practice, including within the United Nations, that international organizations evacuate only their international staff. As a rule, they don’t evacuate local staff from their own countries, Tabassi said.

“Yet, there is a lot of room for interpretation in this, and depending on the circumstances and what is reasonable, it is up to the OSCE secretary general to decide what support to national staff may be appropriate in the event of a war breaking out,” Tabassi said.

Vrang, the OSCE head of communications, said many national SMM members were relocated, “with some being offered shelter in OSCE premises and/or use of OSCE vehicles.”

“During and following the most active evacuation and relocation phase, further support was given to national mission members. This included psychosocial care and written letters aimed at protecting their privileges and immunities co-signed by the Secretary General, SMM Chief Monitor and Head of the Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine,” he said in a statement.

In an attempt to support national staff members remaining in Ukraine, on March 2, OSCE Secretary General Schmid sent them an email, seen by POLITICO. Attached to the email are two documents that were supposed to ensure the safety and security of local staff. Both documents stress the protection, privileges and immunities that OSCE officials should be granted under international law.

“You all remain at the forefront of my thoughts, and the Chief Monitor and I will do everything we can do to support you, including by continuing to explore opportunities for your relocation and that of your dependents where possible,” the email reads.

But Spinner and the four former SMM staffers said those opportunities never materialized. In fact, after announcing a one-year extension of SMM local contracts until March 2023, the OSCE canceled most of them in the following months, including those of the most vulnerable staffers living in the Russia-occupied territories. The OSCE said it was done out of concern that they would be targeted for their work.

National staff at Russian proxies’ mercy

Ukrainian former staffers in those areas under Russian control declined to speak on the record out of concern for their safety. But some granted permission for other local staffers to speak on their behalf. Those people told POLITICO that dozens of staff members and their families are desperate to flee the occupied territories but have not left their homes for months because the proxy authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk have targeted former staffers while also forcibly mobilizing men to fight in Russia’s war.

The former staffers also said that some in the Donetsk SMM office weren’t even made aware by management of the OSCE’s decision to withdraw international staff; they found out only when a local videographer associated with a pro-Russian Donetsk media outlet contacted them.

“He called asking if he can go and film the [SMM] cars leaving for B-roll for a TV report later that evening,” the former staffer recalled, adding that their colleague was shocked. “And [the videographer] was like, ‘Yeah, all of your colleagues are now driving out and leaving permanently.’”

There’s another concern for local staff stuck in Donetsk and Luhansk: the OSCE failed to take with it or destroy its work systems and documents, essentially allowing them to fall into Russia’s hands. Not all of them are sensitive, a former SMM staffer said, adding that some electronic files, including emails, were able to be remotely wiped from the OSCE’s systems. But among the files left behind were daily patrol plans, cease-fire violation reports, and maps, as well as some personnel records.

It’s the latter that could prove particularly dangerous, former staffers say.

In the weeks following the March 2 email and as the war evolved, the situation became especially precarious for the Ukrainian staff members in Russia-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. A smear campaign targeting the OSCE was pushed by Russian and pro-Russian separatist propaganda sites and on social media. And then detentions and interrogations of those staffers began.

Human rights groups and former detainees have detailed the horrific abuse of prisoners by Russia-backed forces in eastern Ukraine since 2014.

Six SMM staffers have been detained in all; three remain jailed pending the bogus charges of high treason and espionage after the OSCE was declared illegal by Donetsk and Luhansk proxy authorities in April. POLITICO is naming two of them — Vadim Holda, held in Donetsk, and Maksym Petrov, held in Luhansk — because their cases have been publicized in those places; POLITICO is not naming a third man at the request of his family and SMM colleagues.

Holda, a security adviser accused of espionage in Donetsk, and Petrov, a language assistant accused of treason in Luhansk, were detained in April. The four former SMM staffers said both men are innocent and recalled them being kind, skillful colleagues who were devoted to the OSCE’s mission of objectivity.

Their exact whereabouts are unknown.

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