Ukraine SMM

Human or Machine? Lessons from the Use of Technology in the Monitoring Mission to Ukraine

Members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine arrive to monitor the disengagement of forces and hardware near the village of Petrovskoye in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. (Sergey Averin / Sputnik via AP)

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) recently extended the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) for another year. The SMM was established in March 2014 in reaction to the months-long protests of the “Euromaidan,” which left over 100 protesters dead and ended with the Ukrainian president fleeing the country. The mission was mandated to monitor and support “the implementation of all OSCE principles and commitments” in the country. Shortly thereafter, the situation in Eastern Ukraine escalated into a full-fledged armed conflict, where Russian-backed separatist armed groups established the so-called “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Following international mediation, modalities of a ceasefire and a political process were agreed upon in Minsk in September 2014 and February 2015. The SMM was tasked with monitoring and verifying whether conflict parties fulfilled their obligations. Since its launch, the number of monitors grew from 100 to 1,000. Of these, almost two thirds (roughly 600) were deployed to the Eastern Monitoring Teams in Donetsk and Luhansk, operating on both sides of the line of contact. This fundamentally changed the mission’s posture.

Monitoring the ceasefire and the verification of arms depots became the SMM’s main priorities, posing a particular challenge to a civilian mission. It required a certain degree of military expertise, a qualification alien to other OSCE field operations (and many participant states’ personnel rosters for secondments). Consequently, the SMM started recruiting more civilian staff with a military background.

A key impediment to the monitoring activities was the fact that the ceasefire was hardly ever respected. The armed conflict continued, oscillating between low and medium intensity exchange of fire between the opponents. This created substantial threats to mission personnel, as the majority of their activities was carried out by patrols in armored 4×4 vehicles on both sides of the line of contact. Patrols were often stopped by armed groups, threatened at gunpoint, or found themselves in the line of fire. In 2017, a patrol member was killed when his vehicle drove over an anti-tank mine. Henceforth, patrols were restricted to cruising on hard surface roads only, dramatically reducing their freedom of movement.

In order to fulfill its mandate, the SMM has thus been pioneering the employment of technical monitoring systems in peace operations. Give that the ceasefire remains shaky, this trend is likely to continue.

Introducing Technical Monitoring Systems

Today, the SMM’s technical monitoring systems are recording the majority of ceasefire violations, which mainly occur at night when vehicle patrols are grounded. The mission commands some 50 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of different types. A long-range UAV, launched from a permanent home base, is able to monitor large areas in remote locations, such as the vicinity of the Russian-Ukrainian border, and also operates at night. Mid- and short-range UAVs can be carried along in patrol vehicles and launched when and where appropriate.

The mission also set up 27 stationary video cameras, operating 24/7 at hotspots, crossings points over the line of contact, and disengagement areas, and is piloting acoustic sensors. To a lesser degree, the SMM acquired access to satellite imagery.

As neither the OSCE nor any other major peacekeeping operation used technical monitoring devices to such an extent, procuring and employing them has been a (sometimes costly) trial and error process. There have been a few key challenges. The first has been defining the precise operational needs that can form a proper basis for procurements. For this purpose, it has become clear that a concept of operations for the employment of technical tools should be mandatory.

The second is the need to develop a systems approach that ensures interoperability of all components and provides sufficient down-stream capacities for data management, including transfer and storage. A related challenge is selecting devices fit for the operating environment. Some UAVs, sometimes prototypes, proved unsuitable in the climatic conditions (low winter temperatures, strong winds) in the area of operation. Cameras needed to be able to operate autonomously in remote locations, where maintenance is possible only sporadically. Also, the electricity grid could not be relied on, so that generators needed to be attached to most of them. In order to allow for a more flexible use, some camera systems have been installed on movable trailers.

Another challenge is recruiting sufficient numbers of specialized personnel that can operate the systems, navigate complex procurement procedures, uphold maintenance cycles, and run the devices themselves. Internal trainings have provided monitoring officers with the basic knowledge to operate short- and mid-range UAVs on their own. In contrast to that, the long-range UAV is employed under a contract that includes its operation by the provider. Still, technical qualifications continue to be in high demand in the SMM.

There is also the challenge of ensuring meaningful analysis of the imagery generated. In the SMM Head Office, a real-time Technical Monitoring Centre and an Information Management Centre dealing with imagery analysis were installed. The SMM also has begun rolling out an Enterprise Geographical Information System (EGIS). The full integration of data management and access to information generated in the past remain on the agenda.

And, lastly, using technology in a conflict environment brings the added challenge of protecting it against outsider attacks. Due to the shaky ceasefire, video cameras and UAVs have been regularly shot at. More often, UAVs have been jammed, resulting in repeated losses through uncontrolled crash landings; the SMM has lost a number of long-range UAVs at a substantial cost. Also, mid-range UAVs that require a soft ground for landing were not suitable to environments polluted with mines or unexploded ordnance.

The “Human Touch”

As initially foreseen when the mandate was drafted, the SMM Monitoring Teams in the West and the Centre of Ukraine focused on monitoring the developments in the so-called human dimension of security, as reflected in a comprehensive catalogue of human rights and democracy norms underwritten by the OSCE participant states. The Eastern Teams, however, had to strike a balance between monitoring the ceasefire and developments in the human dimension. Surprisingly, the SMM has not taken a strategic approach to defining how the latter can best contribute to the execution of the mandate. There has been one attempt to draw up a mission implementation plan, which would be a typical instrument to spell this out, but it was not brought to conclusion.

Hence, it was left to the discretion of the teams how to incorporate a focus on the human dimension in the East. Again, this has been a process of trial and error, but it has not been evaluated systematically. Various approaches were introduced, continued and dismissed, less based on assessments of their contribution to the mandate but rather on personal preferences of the individuals that were assigned to this task.

Some activities were, like in the West and Center, carried out in patrols dedicated to monitoring court trials, demonstrations and the like. In others, human dimension monitors were mixed into the patrols that were tasked to verify violations of the ceasefire, assess conflict-related damages, or monitor the crossing-points for the population over the line of contact. It appears that the second approach, without diminishing the relevance of the first, generated important benefits not only for the ceasefire monitoring but also for the overall operation.

One key takeaway is that mixed patrols are better at reaching out to the civilian population. Staff with a military background are often used to limit activities to the strict minimum necessary to fulfill a task. Civilian staff are more prone to seeking contact to the population proactively, listening to grievances and enquiring about the context. This also increases the mission’s acceptance in the population. Another takeaway is that team diversity in terms of background, age, and gender contributes to a more positive corporate culture in that it counters tendencies to harden stereotypical behavior, often nourished in institutions that are dominated by male staff with a military background.

Today, peace operations, as well as humanitarian and development actors, are increasingly using technological means when operating in kinetic conflict environments. This raises the question of how much of a “human touch” is still essential and beneficial for activities. The use of technology has reduced security risks for personnel substantially and allowed missions to “see” far beyond their capacity to move. But a monitoring mission might still be well advised to maintain a visible human presence vis-à-vis the conflict parties and the population in order to show vigilance and, most importantly, build trust.

Dr. Andreas Wittkowsky is heading the Peace and Security Project in the Berlin Center for International Peace Operations (ZIF).