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Release of OSCE hostages 'a political signal'

Is the release of OSCE hostages in Slovyansk a turning point for the conflict in Ukraine? According to security expert Wolfgang Richter, it at least proves that Russia no longer wants to isolate itself.

DW: The OSCE observers who had been kept hostage in Slovyansk for more than a week were freed on Saturday (03.05.2014). They reportedly left town with Russian special envoy Vladimir Lukin. What role did Lukin play?

Wolfgang Richter: Vladimir Lukin is Russia's human rights ombudsman. He participated in talks on February 21 when an agreement between the then-Ukrainian government and opposition was brokered. That was done in cooperation with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the Polish and French foreign ministers. In this sense, Lukin is an old hand when it comes to crisis management.

The fact that he was involved in this recent case also goes to show that Russia has seen the release of the hostages as a special legal problem and thus treated this as an exceptional case. The good bilateral relationship with Germany probably played an important role. Russia didn't want to strain this [relationship] further.

But treating this as a special case doesn't allow one to draw conclusions on Russia's overall position toward Ukraine. Russia continues to criticize Ukraine's military operation as a crime against its own people, and call on it to stop. But Ukraine is continuing. That's why one has to consider it even more significant that Russia pushed for release [of the hostages]. This also shows that Russia has political authority over the rebels, which it has used to a positive end. So all these calls on Russia were justified.

On the other hand, one also has to see that the commonly held notion that Russia controls local events in every single case is wrong. If that were so, a special envoy wouldn't have had to have been sent. Events have gained momentum that Russia can hardly control. This is likely the reason why human rights ombudsman Lukin was sent.

Can it be regarded as a sign of de-escalation that Russia has intervened - especially with regard to the clashes on Friday (02.05.2014) in Odessa where more than 40 people were killed?

One can't deduce a fundamental change of Russian behavior in the conflict in Ukraine from that. But Russia did decide to send the special envoy and free the hostages, even though Ukraine didn't end its military operation. One can only view that as a political signal - especially to Germany.

So it's not really a turning point?

A turning point insofar as it makes clear that Russia doesn't want to continue isolating itself. Making hostages of these German and other OSCE observers is a special case because it was a breach of immunity. At this point, Russia also saw that a line had been crossed. But it's no fundamental turning point. Russia is still demanding the implementation of the agreement forged in Geneva, which would see an end to military operations and disarm all military groups. I still hope that this mission represents a positive signal for the peace process, and that it continues to go in that direction. There's a chance at least.

OSCE foreign military observers, who were arrested on suspicion of espionage on April 25, were released (photo: Mikhail Voskresenskiy/RIA Novosti)

The OSCE observers - from Germany, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Poland and Sweden - were released after being held for more than a week

You said Russia regards the hostage-taking as a special scenario: Do you think there's a connection between release of the OSCE observers and events in Odessa on Friday evening?

I do see that Russia doesn't regard an escalation like that in Odessa - a complete destabilization of Ukraine - as a desirable scenario. But Russia is probably going to insist that rebels in eastern Ukraine did react to something that both the rebels and Russia regard as illegal: the events on February 21 at Maidan and the toppling of the parliament that day.

The only way leading back to the Geneva agreement is probably that every single point [of the agreement] be fulfilled. Russia - with its great influence on the rebels - needs to take part in that. But of course questions will also be directed at Ukrainian rebels and the West in order to make sure that armed right-wing rebels are also disarmed.

What role did Germany play in terms of negotiations and the release of hostages?

Without knowing all the details, I think Germany played a decisive role. I think that direct and especially informal channels - bilateral, but also multilateral channels with the OSCE and Council of Europe - should not be underestimated. Germany and German-Russian relations have played a very important role.

Will this hostage incident have any effect on future OSCE missions?

I believe it will. One is now fully aware of the risk. It might not have been immediately foreseeable. By now we are dealing with a civil war situation with military operations. One has to be very careful in such cases. One has to realize that these measures, which are meant to bring about transparency between states, are usually a matter of routine. Fighting between states represents a special case that wasn't really accounted for in the Vienna treaty.

There is a crisis mechanism which is also a special case built on bilateral agreements between the government of the affected state and other OSCE member states. This government is then required to ensure that the inspectors are protected - and in my opinion, the Ukrainian government has not complied with that.

Wolfgang Richter is a security expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, and a former OSCE observer.

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