Many countries including Norway have urged all their citizens to leave Ukraine, because of the threat of a Russian invasion that also could spark a refugee crisis. Norwegians serving as observers for the Oganisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), however, were still in place this week, with veteran diplomat Jan Egeland calling any pull-out “absurd.”
Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC, Flyktning-hjelpen), has recently been in eastern Ukraine, along the front line of a war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists that’s already been raging for years. Egeland stressed how important it was to retain unarmed OSCE observers in the area, to follow developments and document military activity, which they claim has actually been less than it was last fall.
“My impression is that the local commandants on both sides (of the line between Ukraine and the separatist-controlled region of Donetsk) are well aware that the world’s eyes are directed at them,” Egeland told newspaper Klassekampen. The work being done by the OSCE observers “should be scaled up now. In my opinion it’s completely absurd to pull the observers out when they have a more important job than ever before.”
News bureau Reuters reported earlier this week that around 160 OSCE staff were being moved out of Ukraine, including 21 observers who’ve been in the disputed region around Donetsk. NRC has been involved in recruiting observers from Norway, and Egeland said the Norwegians would be staying in Ukraine. He said they play an important role in hindering further escalation of the highly tense situation.
Life in eastern Ukraine remains difficult at best, with Egeland describing poor and partially bombed-out communities along the front line. He told Klassekampen that he’d met “freezing pensionists who don’t have money for fuel.” Many homes have been destroyed, but he also reported that he didn’t meet anyone who believed Russia would mount a full-scale invasion.
Contrary to all the warnings of an imminent invasion that have come from the US, the UK and, on Tuesday, Norway as well, the Ukrainians he met don’t think Russia will invade. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), with a correspondent in Kiev, also reported that life in the Ukrainian capital was proceeding pretty much as usual this week despite all the international sabre-rattling.
“Everyone should be careful about being an alarmist when you’re located far away,” said Egeland, who had a long diplomatic career and served as a UN special envoy before taking the helm at the refugee council. “Those of us on the ground share the Ukrainians’ more sober analysis of the western analysis. It’s also important to remember that the intelligence now being spread publicly is part of the major politial and strategic game.”
Egeland added that he sees no reason to pull out NRC staffers in Ukraine either, and instead wants to increase staffing in eastern areas controlled by the Ukrainian authorities. “We’re not pulling out,” Egeland told Klassekampen. “We’re discussing how we can scale up if there’s a new refugee stream, which there will immediately be if the fighting increases.”
For more on the Norwegian Refugee Council’s warning that “renewed conflict in Ukraine would trigger massive displacement,” click here (external link to NRC’s website).