17:01 Oct. 28, 2016
The drones were repeatedly shot out of the sky by surface-to-air missiles. Suspending the program effectively blinds observers to numerous cease-fire violations
The European security organization tasked with monitoring deadly violence between government forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has lost its most effective surveillance tool in the conflict: long-range unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.
The long-range drone program was crucial for spotting armed attacks, the stationing of prohibited weapons, and countless other cease-fire violations. But it was cancelled two months ago, Foreign Policy has learned, after several of the aircraft were targeted by surface-to-air missiles and military-grade electronic jamming.
"Long-range UAV operations were suspended in August following a series of hostile acts," said Natacha Rajakovic, a spokeswoman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the group authorized by world powers to observe the conflict. "The mission's UAV strength has been severely undermined"
The OSCE would not assign responsibility for the drone downings, citing a lack of access to the crash sites. Senior U.S. and Ukrainian officials accused Russian-backed separatists of targeting the UAVs to conceal their actions. Russian officials declined to comment for this report after several requests, but Moscow has repeatedly denied involvement.
The OSCE's decision to suspend the drone program, which has not been previously reported, creates a major blind spot for the organization. It also raises questions about how a cease-fire can ultimately take hold without a capable third party to call out violations.