‘The Ukraine conflict 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 Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Ti-press

Former Swiss ambassador Toni Frisch, who spent years coordinating humanitarian aid in Ukraine, talks about the delicate diplomatic act Switzerland must play to move reforms forward in a region consumed by conflict.

This content was published on October 28, 2021 minutes

This week, Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis is in Ukraine, in part to prepare for the fifth Ukraine Reform Conference, 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 recurring armed conflicts on the country’s eastern border. The Covid-19 pandemic also hasn't helped.

SWI spoke with Toni Frisch, a former Swiss ambassador and coordinator of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)'s working group for humanitarian issues, about the mediation of prisoner exchanges between Russia and Ukraine, the current situation in eastern Ukraine and Switzerland’s role in peace and economic development in the region.

Ukraine Conflict

The crisis in Ukraine began in 2013, with protests in the capital city Kiev against the government’s decision to reject a deal 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 heightened divisions and two months later pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of eastern Ukraine held a referendum to declare independence. The unrest evolved into a war between separatists loyal to Moscow and the Ukrainian armed forces. The war in the east of the country has killed more than 13,000 and displaced about 1.5 million people over the past six years.

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SWI It’s been a couple of months now since the end of your mandate as coordinator of the OSCE working group on humanitarian issues in Eastern Ukraine. What can you say openly now that you’ve been wanting to say for a while?

Toni Frisch: Actually, I have always spoken openly. I have always emphasised: there are not just black sheep in the East and white ones in the West. There are also many shades of light and dark gray. When there was reason to do so, I criticised all parties. Unfortunately, I have to say, Ukraine was least appreciative of this.

Over the years, I have criticised authorities in the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk for not giving the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to prisons in the east. While the criticism didn’t change this, from 2016 I was personally granted access to the prisoners and had the possibility to conduct confidential talks in the prisons of Donetsk and Lugansk.

On the other hand, the fact that the prisoner exchange was blocked was not the fault of the separatists, as was reported in the media. Ukraine contributed a great deal to this and was largely responsible for the delay. I also criticised 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 toilets and no tent where people could warm up. I criticised Ukraine for this and about six months later the conditions improved considerably. So, the criticism did something. That is what I have always wanted to say.

SWI: Is Ukraine not used to criticism from the West, which usually acts in solidarity with it? Is that why it reacted so prickly?

T.F.: That is certainly part of the reason. That is also perhaps a reason why the Russians have always said that the OSCE isn’t neutral. This organisation was very reluctant to criticise Ukraine but was aggressive in its criticism of Russia. The OSCE Chairperson's Special Representative in Kiev has not been neutral and has fallen into the role of endorsing, where possible, everything that Ukraine does.

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

T.F.: It is about a protracted conflict in the middle of Europe. For Switzerland, as a small country, peace and security in Europe is particularly important.

And it’s not just a local conflict. It’s also a confrontation between East and West. These different interests collide with each other on the Contact Line [dividing government-controlled and non-government-controlled territories] in East Ukraine. I have been asked several times by European ambassadors and countries: is this the new Berlin Wall? My response to that is that there is no wall, but the dividing line is sharp and well monitored. That’s why a neutral state like Switzerland can play a central role.

Kai Reusser /

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

T.F.: The trip is an excellent opportunity to bring up certain things at the highest level. For example, it has emerged that Ukraine has released [pro-Russian] separatists after a hard-negotiated prisoner exchange, but some cases have not been legally closed. As a result, these people continued to be listed as wanted on the Interior Ministry's website.

Some released separatists from Donetsk and Lugansk were even arrested again when they were visiting their families in Ukraine. That isn’t up to the standards of the rule of law. It would be important that Foreign Minister Cassis addresses this during his visit. However, he has to weigh whether he can go that far without jeopardising future collaboration with Ukraine.

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

R.F.: The economic prospects of self-proclaimed republics such as Donetsk and Lugansk are rather bleak. Swiss cooperation in Eastern Europe is only active in the western part of Ukraine. As mentioned, Switzerland is providing humanitarian aid to both sides but talking about development cooperation is only possible when there is a ceasefire.

But no such ceasefire is in sight. For me, it’s clear this conflict is likely to last a long time. I would call it a “tailor-made frozen conflict”. I fear that the separatist areas will be caught between two sides but belong to neither. Ultimately the West will end up paying [for the humanitarian situation].

SWI: Angela Merkel was the only one who could stand up to Vladimir Putin. What does her departure mean for Ukraine?

T.F.: It’s good that you say that so clearly. Over the years, Ukraine has counted heavily on Germany’s support in asserting its interests towards 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 representatives at the time, only Putin remains. Of course, this doesn’t weaken him – on the contrary.

I personally experienced what that meant when Germany held the OSCE Chair in 2016, with Angela Merkel as chancellor and Walter Steinmeier as foreign minister. That was a duo with power. That massively strengthened the process in Minsk. We could take steps then that weren’t possible before or after. Unfortunately, this constellation hasn’t existed since then – and that says almost everything.

Toni Frisch

Toni Frisch started working in humanitarian aid in 1977, and then in 1980 in 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 took on the mandate of Coordinator of the Working Group on Humanitarian Issues in Eastern Ukraine for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Source: FDFAExternal link

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