After many months of diplomatic wrangling, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was granted another lease of life at the annual ministerial council meeting last week in a messy compromise between Russia and the West. But rather than ushering in a period of renewed efforts to mend Europe’s broken security order, existing faultlines have deepened and new ones have emerged.
The OSCE traces its roots back to a period of serious attempts at detente between the U.S. and the USSR during the 1970s. It’s now the world’s largest regional security organization with 57 participating states encompassing three continents — North America, Europe, and Asia. Yet its ability to fulfill its mandate of providing security has been severely compromised in recent years.
While the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was the latest and most egregious violation of the OSCE’s fundamental principles, it was not the first. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the subsequent recognition of the independence of the Kremlin-supported breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in August was followed, in 2014, by the annexation of Crimea and occupation of parts of Donbas.
Russia has also deliberately undermined the OSCE’s existing missions in Ukraine. The “Observer Mission,” which was set up in July 2014 to monitor activity at key Russian-Ukrainian border checkpoints in eastern Ukraine was discontinued in September 2021.
Meanwhile, the “Special Monitoring Mission,” set up in March 2014 to observe and report in an impartial and objective manner on the security situation in Ukraine was closed in March 2022, weeks after Russia launched its all-out invasion.
The office of the project coordinator in Ukraine, which was set up at Kyiv’s request in 1999 to help it meet a range of security challenges and assist and advise on reforms, was closed in June 2022. All of these initiatives ended after Russia vetoed their continuation.
Yet, none of this stopped the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, from declaring at the latest meeting that the OSCE was becoming “an appendage of NATO and the EU” and found itself “on the brink of the abyss.”
At least on this latter point, there is little disagreement. The OSCE is experiencing the deepest crisis in its history. Because of Russia’s veto, the organization has not had an approved budget since 2021. It has only survived on the basis of “creative diplomacy,” with individual member states finding money to fund its missions.
Sense of Instability
The compromises achieved at the ministerial council in Skopje last week do little to put the OSCE back onto a more sustainable footing. While appointing Malta as chair of the organization for 2024 averts complete dysfunctionality, the mandates of the organization’s other top officials, including the secretary general, were extended by only nine months, rather than the customary three-year period.
This merely prolongs the existing agony by putting off a decision on who is to lead the organization and its institutions. The pervasive sense of instability that now surrounds the OSCE fits neatly with the Kremlin’s narrative of the need for a fundamentally new and different European security order.
While Russia managed to block Estonia’s candidacy for the chair and secured a non-Nato member for the role with Malta, this is hardly a triumph of Russian diplomacy, given that the Kremlin had to drop its opposition to the renewal of the other leadership positions.
Nor is the compromise a win for the West. Crucially, the West was far from united in its approach. Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states refused to send their foreign ministers to the meeting in protest over Lavrov’s attendance. Their US and UK counterparts, Antony Blinken and David Cameron, attended the pre-meeting dinner but avoided any contact with Lavrov.
By contrast, the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, attended in person and launched a scathing condemnation of Russia and Lavrov in her statement, underscoring that the Kremlin’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine is also a war against the OSCE.
Several, including non-western, delegates emphasized the importance of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all participating states. But only nine of them aligned themselves with the EU statement, which called on “Russia to immediately stop its war of aggression against Ukraine, and completely and unconditionally withdraw … from the entire territory of Ukraine.”
This does not mean that the remainder of the OSCE’s participating states support the Kremlin’s war of aggression. But it indicates the likely difficulties that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s peace formula will face in the future. A wider pro-western line was adopted by more than 40 participating states that issued joint statements on human rights and fundamental freedoms on the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor genocide in Ukraine in 1932-1933.
Yet this cannot gloss over the fundamental divide that persists in the OSCE between the collective West and Russia and its remaining allies. A joint statement by NATO members (and Sweden) squarely pointed the finger of blame for all that is wrong with the OSCE and European security at the Kremlin.
Russia and Belarus, in turn, received support from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in their attempt to deflect that blame and portray themselves as champions of peace, security, and human rights.
Much was made at the ministerial council of the OSCE as an important platform for dialogue, especially in light of the many security challenges that the region faces. But, as Liechtenstein’s representative aptly put it, for this to work, participating states need to recognize, and remind themselves of, the added value that the OSCE brings to each of them individually and the region as a whole.
There is little evidence that this message will be heard. And so the danger persists that an ongoing “dialogue of the deaf” will eventually push the OSCE into oblivion.
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