“The conflict in Ukraine is likely to last a long time”

Former Ambassador Toni Frisch was coordinator of the working group on humanitarian issues in eastern Ukraine for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Ti-press

Former Swiss Ambassador Toni Frisch, who spent years coordinating humanitarian aid in Ukraine, talks about the delicate diplomatic act that Switzerland must play to push reform forward in a conflict-ridden region.

This content was published on October 28, 2021 – 10:24

This week, Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis is in Ukraine, in part to prepare for the Fifth Conference on Ukraine Reform, which will take place in the city of Lugano in July 2022. The international meeting aims to advise and support the reform process in Ukraine, which has faltered since the 2014 revolution due to recurrent armed conflicts on the country’s eastern border. The Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t helped either.

SWI swissinfo.ch spoke with Toni Frisch, former Swiss Ambassador and coordinator of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) working group on humanitarian issues, about the mediation of exchanges of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine, the current situation in eastern Ukraine and Switzerland’s role in peace and economic development in the region.

Ukrainian conflict

The crisis in Ukraine began in 2013, with protests in the capital Kiev against the government’s decision to reject an agreement for greater economic integration with the European Union. After a crackdown by state security forces that led to widespread protests, the Ukrainian president fled the country.

In March 2014, Russian troops invaded Ukraine’s Crimea region, before annexing the peninsula after Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation in a disputed local referendum. The crisis exacerbated divisions and two months later pro-Russian separatists from the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine called a referendum to declare independence. The unrest has evolved into a war between separatists loyal to Moscow and the Ukrainian armed forces. The war in the east of the country has claimed more than 13,000 lives and displaced an estimated 1.5 million people over the past six years.

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SWI swissinfo.ch: It has been a few months since your term as coordinator of the OSCE working group on humanitarian issues in eastern Ukraine ended. What can you say openly now that you’ve been wanting to say for a while?

Toni Frisch: Actually, I’ve always spoken openly. I have always insisted: there are not only black sheep in the East and white in the West. There are also many shades of light and dark gray. When there were reasons to do so, I criticized all parties. Unfortunately, I have to say that Ukraine appreciated this the least.

Over the years, I have criticized the authorities in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk republics for not giving the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to eastern prisons. Although the reviews have not changed this, from 2016 I personally gained access to prisoners and had the opportunity to conduct confidential interviews in Donetsk and Lugansk prisons.

On the other hand, the fact that the prisoner exchange was blocked was not the fault of the separatists, as reported in the media. Ukraine contributed a lot to this and was largely responsible for the delay. I also criticized Ukraine for the conditions at the border crossings, where people had to wait for hours in summer and winter. There was no medical care, no toilet, and no tent where people could warm themselves. I criticized Ukraine for this and about six months later conditions have improved dramatically. So the criticism did something. That’s what I’ve always wanted to say.

SWI: Isn’t Ukraine used to criticism from the West, which is generally in solidarity with it? Is that why he reacted so pungently?

TF: It’s definitely part of the reason. This is perhaps also a reason why the Russians have always said that the OSCE is not neutral. This organization has been very reluctant to criticize Ukraine but has been aggressive in its criticism of Russia. The OSCE Chairman’s Special Representative in Kyiv has not been neutral and has fallen into the role of approving, to the extent possible, everything Ukraine does.

SWI: Switzerland is also committed to Ukraine and is hosting the next reform conference in Lugano. Why this special commitment?

TF: This is a protracted conflict in the middle of Europe. For Switzerland, as a small country, peace and security in Europe are particularly important.

And it’s not just a local conflict. It is also a confrontation between East and West. These different interests collide on the contact line [dividing government-controlled and non-government-controlled territories] in eastern Ukraine. Ambassadors and European countries have asked me several times: is this the new Berlin Wall? My response to this is that there is no wall, but the dividing line is sharp and well guarded. This is why a neutral state like Switzerland can play a central role.

SWI: Ignazio Cassis is in Ukraine from October 27 to 29. What should be his agenda?

TF: The trip is a great opportunity to talk about certain things at the highest level. For example, it turned out that Ukraine released [pro-Russian] separatists after a hard-negotiated prisoner swap, but some cases have not been legally closed. As a result, these individuals continued to appear on the wanted list on the website of the Ministry of the Interior.

Some separatists released from Donetsk and Lugansk have even been re-arrested while visiting their families in Ukraine. It does not meet the rule of law standards. It would be important for Foreign Minister Cassis to address this issue during his visit. However, he must assess whether he can go this far without compromising future collaboration with Ukraine.

SWI: Eastern Ukraine needs to be cleared, and the separatist republics are also very poor economically. What role can Swiss development cooperation and humanitarian aid play?

RF: The economic outlook for self-proclaimed republics like Donetsk and Lugansk is rather bleak. Swiss cooperation in Eastern Europe is only active in the western part of Ukraine. As mentioned, Switzerland provides humanitarian aid to both sides, but talking about development cooperation is only possible when there is a ceasefire.

But no ceasefire is in sight. For me, it is clear that this conflict is likely to last a long time. I would call it a “custom frozen conflict”. I fear that the separatist zones are caught between two camps but do not belong to either. Ultimately the West will pay off [for the humanitarian situation].

SWI: Only Angela Merkel could stand up to Vladimir Putin. What does his departure for Ukraine mean?

TF: It’s good that you say it so clearly. Over the years, Ukraine has relied heavily on the support of Germany to assert its interests in Moscow. Angela Merkel played a central role in the Normandy Quartet [a semi-official contact group between Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine on issues related to the Ukraine conflict]. There have been personnel changes. Of the government officials at the time, only Putin remains. Of course, this does not weaken it, quite the contrary.

I personally experienced what this meant when Germany took over the OSCE Chairmanship in 2016, with Angela Merkel as Chancellor and Walter Steinmeier as Foreign Minister. It was a duo with power. This massively strengthened the process in Minsk. We could then take measures that were not possible before or after. Unfortunately, this constellation has not been around since – and that says it pretty much.

Toni Frisch

Toni Frisch started working in humanitarian aid in 1977, then in 1980 at the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), where he later became Ambassador. For many years he was a delegate for Swiss Humanitarian Aid and deputy director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). After officially retiring from the foreign service, he assumed the mandate of coordinator of the working group on humanitarian issues in eastern Ukraine for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Source: FDFAExternal link

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