OSCE’s Year-End Conference Fails to Deal With Ongoing Conflicts

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 163

OSCE Vienna Ministerial, December 7 (Source: osce.org)

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) annual ministerial conference, held on December 7–8, in Vienna, exposed yet again the 57-member international organization’s incapacity to hold its own against Russia. The latter used its veto power as a member to block any and all inconvenient draft declarations and resolutions during the Vienna conference or already in the run-up to it.

The Russian veto pattern is a familiar one, but there have been some past cases when the OSCE’s Chairmanship-in-Office (the position rotates annually) would issue a Chair’s statement, which is veto-proof, for at least minimal redress to the organization’s reputation. At this Vienna ministerial, Russia vetoed references to Crimea and the war in Ukraine’s east—the most salient European security issue at this time—from the conference’s draft documents. But the Chairmanship failed to rise to the occasion. Instead, in this case, the Troika of the OSCE’s immediate past, present, and next Chairmanships—Germany, Austria and Italy, respectively—issued an equivocal statement, more preoccupied with conciliating Russia than with speaking the truth. The German, Austrian, and Italian ministers of foreign affairs declared in their joint concluding statement:

“We would have preferred to reach consensus [with Russia] on a joint declaration on the OSCE’s response to the crisis in and around Ukraine. Due to disagreement, in particular, over a reference to the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine and the status of Crimea, this was not possible again this year. Nevertheless, we, together with nearly all [sic] participating States, reaffirm our full respect for the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders, and call on all the sides to accelerate the disengagement process. We also stress the implementation of the Minsk agreements in their entirety” (Osce.org, MC.Del/31/17, December 8).

No aggressor country and not even the vetoing country is named; the belligerents (aggressor and aggressed) remain anonymous and are treated equidistantly as the sides; the call for disengagement means from the front line within Ukraine, instead of withdrawal of Russian forces (or at least “foreign” forces as per the Minsk armistice) from Ukraine’s east (Donbas) over that border. In the case of Donbas, the Minsk armistice renders Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and control of its border no longer an unconditional right under international law, but instead conditional on Ukraine fulfilling a set of political clauses.

Further, “We urge the sides to enhance connectivity,” an elliptic, awkward turn of phrase seemingly implying direct contacts between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk, something that Moscow urges while Kyiv resists.

Regarding the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine’s east, the German, Austrian and Italian Ministers’ Troika declares that this mission is “Operating in a challenging environment. All participating States [i.e. including Russia] have agreed that the SMM is mandated to have safe and secure access and called for this to be fully respected. We condemn any threats against SMM monitors and damage of OSCE assets” (Osce.org, MC.Del/31/17, December 8).

SMM’s own field reporting (which is veto-free, but not free of Russian scrutiny and budget-manipulation) makes clear that its monitors are often shot at in the day time and grounded at night, its drones often jammed and shot at, and its mandate (like that of all OSCE field missions) negotiable year to year with a veto-wielding Russia. All this helps explain the discrepancy between the Chairmanships’ extremely cautious statement and the dire reality in the field. Moscow could remove the SMM (as it did remove two OSCE field missions from Georgia—see EDM, July 1, 2009), but it is far preferable for Moscow to have a half-effective SMM in place, rather than a potentially more robust mission independent of Russia.

The Ministers’ Troika fails to mention the proposal for a United Nations–authorized peacekeeping operation in Ukraine’s Donbas, even though Moscow itself launched that proposal (Interfax, September 5) and is now negotiating with Washington over that operation’s parameters. The differences are profound, and the German-Austrian-Italian concluding statement on the OSCE’s behalf evaded taking sides by ignoring the issue.

Russia, however, made its own preconditions starkly clear: Any UN-authorized peacekeeping mission in Donbas could only operate as an adjunct to the OSCE’s SMM, escorting the latter and “in strict conformance with SMM’s own mandate.” Proposals for a UN mission to exceed that mandate “would be tantamount to an occupation administration in Donbas” (Interfax, December 7). The OSCE’s SMM may not be fully effective but is good enough in its present form to hold the place, as far as Moscow is concerned.

Moscow’s reasoning along this line applies to the OSCE as a whole in its capacity as a conflict-management institution. As Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov told the Vienna conference, “working toward settlement of [post-Soviet] conflicts remains an important role for the OSCE.” In his speech, Lavrov urged Georgia (from which Russia had evicted OSCE missions in 2005 and 2009—see above) to enter into a non-use of force agreement with Abkhazia and South Ossetia—i.e., recognize them de facto (RIA Novosti, December 7).

Russia is urging Kyiv to take some first steps toward Donetsk-Luhansk (unsuccessfully—see above) and is showing some success with Moldova in this regard. Lavrov commended Chisinau and Tiraspol for taking “small steps” toward each other most recently—in practice the Moldovan government’s steps toward Transnistria, however. In Russia’s and the OSCE’s common terminology, Moldova and Transnistria are co-equal “sides to the conflict,” while Russia (no belligerent) and the OSCE are “mediators.” For its part, Tiraspol sent a message to the Vienna conference, openly questioning the “vague, abstract idea of Moldova’s territorial integrity” with the argument that Transnistria is, after all, a recognized side to that conflict.

Moldova’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Galbur called for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova’s territory in his speech to the Vienna conference. Some delegations attempted to include this issue in the drafting of concluding documents, but Russia vetoed it (Moldpres, Kommersant. December 8, 9).

The OSCE as an organization is co-responsible for this regular annual failure. The OSCE’s “decisions” (not legally, but merely “politically” binding) at its 1999 Istanbul Summit had stipulated that Russia should withdraw its forces from Moldova, fully and transparently, within three years. In 2002, however, the OSCE’s ministerial conference granted Russia an extension of one year, and (at Russia’s insistence) added some prerequisites to the troops’ withdrawal that Russia could and did interpret at will. Faced with Russia’s noncompliance again in 2003, the OSCE’s ministerial conference that year quietly dropped the issue from those documents in order—as OSCE officials privately explained—to avoid exposing the organization as incapable of enforcing its own resolutions. But this is actually the case, even when Russia accepts a decision in order to sabotage it later, let alone when Russia vetoes decisions from the outset.