Q&A: Where is the OSCE during Russia’s war on Ukraine?
Russia’s war on Ukraine sends shockwaves across Europe and the wider world. This Clingendael Spectator Q&A series explores the wider geopolitical consequences with key analysts from across the globe. In the fourth episode Pal Dunay (George C. Marshall Center) explains the role of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is the world's largest regional security organisation.1 The OSCE traces its origins to the détente phase of the mid-1970s when the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) was created to serve as a multilateral forum for dialogue and negotiation between East and West. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the OSCE became the CSCE’s successor.
The OSCE’s mandate includes issues such as arms control, promotion of human rights, freedom of the press, and free and fair elections. The organisation is also concerned with early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management, and post-conflict rehabilitation. It employs around 3,460 people, mostly in its field operations but also in its secretariat in Vienna, Austria, and its institutions. Most of the OSCE’s 57 participating countries are in Europe, but there are a few members present in Asia and North America.
Question 1: We hear very little about the OSCE during the war in Ukraine – why?
It would not be entirely accurate to say that the OSCE has remained silent. After the war in Ukraine broke out on 24 February 2022, the OSCE has made it clear that it remains a key channel of communication between all (warring) parties.
However, this role is burdened by the current toxic atmosphere at the OSCE’s intergovernmental exchanges in Vienna. Since 2014, countries like Russia and Ukraine (among others) no longer directly communicate with each other, to demonstrate resolve.
This may well illustrate that the OSCE is not the institution best suited to resolve high intensity conflicts. This should not come as a surprise, since the OSCE has always kept a low profile as an international organisation, at most making modest but important complementary efforts to establish and maintain links between participating states.
Question 2: The OSCE’s new chairman-in-office, the Polish foreign minister Zbigniew Rau, has indicated the organisation’s readiness to hold a dialogue with Russia on a revised security paradigm. How would this work, and is it a good idea?
The task of the OSCE’s chairman-in-office is to facilitate dialogue by all means available. It is quite remarkable how Minister Rau skilfully navigates between his two roles. As Poland’s foreign minister he must represent the interests of a country that is strategically vulnerable during the ongoing Ukraine war; as OSCE chairperson he must be neutral and work towards a consensus-based solution.
We should not forget that the OSCE cannot be expected to change Great Power rivalry. What it can do? The organisation can help to maintain a dialogue between conflict parties, for example when they do not recognise each other’s existence, as is the case with de facto states such as the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Ukraine (between 2014 and 2022). Furthermore, the OSCE may also help with the deployment of a monitoring mission which aims to offer accurate and trustworthy reports on developments in conflict regions. This is exactly what the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine has been doing for the past eight years.
Question 3: The UN Human Rights Council and the Council of Europe have suspended Russia from their organisations. Should the OSCE do the same, or at least minimise its cooperation with Russia?
The OSCE should respect its own rules. There is only one procedural framework that would make the suspension of a participating state possible, which is the so-called ‘consensus-minus-one practice’. This would mean that all OSCE states, except one, would have to vote against Russia.
This will not happen. Do not forget that Russia does not stand isolated in the OSCE: Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and perhaps even Armenia, Azerbaijan and Serbia would not support an expulsion (or suspension of membership) of Russia from the organisation. When the question of a possible Russian suspension was first proposed, the American OSCE delegation immediately indicated that there was no opportunity and need to do so.
Most communication channels between Russia and the West are now blocked – including the NATO-Russia Council and the regular high-level EU-Russia meetings. In times like these, we need more forums for dialogue, rather than less.
The OSCE is unique in that sense. It still offers several avenues for participating states to meet and discuss matters. Take for example the OSCE’s Permanent Council where all 57 of the organisation’s ambassadors convene on a weekly basis, the Forum for Security Cooperation or many of the OSCE's working groups. It would not make sense to marginalise the OSCE; it is the most inclusive security forum in Europe.
Question 4: How could the OSCE improve its ability to contribute to the peaceful resolution of crises, like we see today in Ukraine?
The OSCE cannot work miracles, but it can put diplomatic and institutional pressure on participating states that ‘misbehave’ and violate international law. Upon the initiative of 45 participating states, the OSCE has for example invoked the so-called ‘Moscow Mechanism’, which offers states the opportunity to send missions of experts that can assist in resolving humanitarian problems.
Moreover, a group of 38 participating states appointed Professor Angelike Nussberger to prepare a report to the OSCE Permanent Council that assesses Russia’s legal and administrative practice in light of the country’s commitments to the OSCE. The report was presented in September 2022, and is publicly available on the OSCE’s website.2 The report clearly indicates how Russian authorities have systematically violated international law and human rights, both before the outbreak of the war and in the present day.
So, one can say that although the OSCE has been poorly visible in the international media, the organisation does what it can under the current circumstances. I am sure that when a peaceful settlement will be reached (hopefully soon), the OSCE will be ready to facilitate the stabilisation of such an agreement.
Question 5: Some argue that – in the future – the OSCE is the best platform to find a modus vivendi with Russia. Do you agree?
I think it would be far too much to expect that the OSCE will achieve a compromise between Russia and Ukraine that would allow them to get along temporarily. Do not forget that the OSCE failed to play such a role in the past, for example during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. However, if a modus vivendi is achieved by Russia and Ukraine, the OSCE will be ready to step in and open all available instruments and channels of engagement. As the OSCE has tried to do after 2014, when the conflict flared up in the first place.
It would be premature for the OSCE to already prepare for a modus vivendi, since we have no idea today what form this will take. However, we should assume that if the borders of Ukraine and Russia end up not being identical to the internationally recognised state borders, there will be an urgent need for a neutral body to step in to monitor a cease-fire. The OSCE can take up this role if the opportunity arises.
- 1OSCE, ‘Who we are’.
- 2Angelika Nussberger, Report of Russia’s administrative and legal practice in light of its OSCE human dimension commitments, Warsaw: OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, 2022.