The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has marked this year the 25th anniversary of the OSCE’s Code of Conduct on Politico-Military Aspects of Security, 25th anniversary of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances to Ukraine (both pacts adopted at the OSCE’s 1994 Budapest Summit), as well as the 20th anniversary of the Charter for European Security, 20th anniversary of the signing of the Adapted Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty), and 20th anniversary of Russia’s commitments to withdraw its forces from Georgia and Moldova (all three pacts adopted at the OSCE’s Istanbul Summit). Russia has turned all these pacts into dead letters in Europe’s East. They are also epitaphs to cooperative security doctrines.
Russia has passed another year obstructing the OSCE on matters concerning security in Europe’s East. In that contested area, the OSCE’s operations and even its choice of words are subject to Russia’s statutory veto rights; while the organization’s hierarchy is reduced to diplomatic silence over this state of affairs. The OSCE’s year-end ministerial conference, in Bratislava on December 5–6, conformed to this pattern.
Russia’s veto of the Slovakian chairmanship’s draft declaration on Ukraine—a deliberately cautious draft, acceptable to practically all countries—naturally attracted attention, but it had no material impact and was irrelevant in that sense (except to the OSCE’s credibility). What happens in the field matters far more. There, Russian and proxy forces make it impossible for the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to monitor the ceasefire effectively or even safely. The mission’s personnel and vehicles are systematically harassed and threatened, their movements restricted or blocked outright, and their surveillance drones jammed, in order to obstruct the SMM’s reporting on Russian and proxy breaches of the ceasefire. The SMM’s mandate is a restrictive one to begin with; that was Moscow’s price for not using its right to veto the mandate and kill the mission. But the SMM is being prevented from fully carrying out even the Russian-approved mandate. The OSCE’s hierarchy avoids speaking up publicly about this from its Vienna headquarters or in year-end ministerial meetings, as just held in Slovakia. Individual countries (first and foremost the United States) as well as the European Union collectively do speak up forcefully about the SMM’s predicament, but they do so in their own name not the OSCE’s; whereas, the organization’s own officials seem to be unfree to do so.
The OSCE’s internal consensus rules—or Russia’s abuse thereof—seem to extend to word usage in some cases. Moscow’s official terms such as “the crisis in and around Ukraine” and “conflict in Ukraine’s east” have found their way into public statements by senior OSCE officials (Opening of the OSCE Ministerial Council, Bratislava, December 5, 2019). This can also lead to a form of self-censorship in the OSCE’s internal reporting. For example, the SMM’s internal reporting refers to Ukraine’s “non–government controlled areas” and the (unnamed) “armed formations” there, tongue-tied (pen-tied in this case) about Russia’s responsibility.
The previous year-end ministerial conference, in December 2018, in Milan, occasioned a German proposal to extend the OSCE SMM’s mandate to cover the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas pursued this idea during January 2019. There is no indication in the public domain that the OSCE’s hierarchy rallied to this proposal; rather, it seemed to take a wait-and-see attitude so as to avoid a Russian veto. Russia blocked the proposal anyway, not inside the OSCE but in the bilateral discussions with Germany (see EDM, December 13, 2018; January 21, 22, 24, 2019).
In Georgia, the OSCE has seen both of its missions forced out: by Russia acting directly in 2003 and by Russia through South Ossetian proxies in 2008. Eleven years later, in Bratislava, Georgia called the ministerial meeting’s attention to Russia’s continuing occupation, militarization, land-grabbing (“borderization”), and ethnic discrimination of the remaining Georgians in the occupied territories (Address by Foreign Minister Davit Zalkaliani, OSCE Ministerial Council, Bratislava, December 5–6, 2019).
Addressing the OSCE’s year-end meeting in Bratislava, the United States reminded the participants, “Russia continues its military deployments in Transnistria and the occupied regions of Georgia without the consent of the Moldovan and Georgian governments. The people of Moldova still await Russia’s implementation of its commitments made [at the OSCE summit] 20 years ago, in Istanbul in 1999” (Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker to the OSCE Ministerial Council, Bratislava, December 5, 2019).
Russia’s breach of those 1999 commitments, and the OSCE’s acceptance of the breach, dealt the first major blow to the OSCE’s credibility. In 2002, the OSCE postponed the deadline for Russia to withdraw its troops from Moldova and Georgia; and, at the 2003 year-end conference, the OSCE lifted the withdrawal deadline, so as to avoid further embarrassment from Russia’s noncompliance. This turned the OSCE into an organization unable to implement its own resolutions on security affairs in Europe’s East (Russia seemingly accepted resolutions but would not comply with them). And in the next stage, Russia took to blocking such initiatives from the outset, abusing the OSCE’s consensus rules against the organization itself.
Moldova is the last remaining European country where the OSCE is still trying its hand at conflict-mediation through a locally based mission. The effort is 26 years old, and undertaken jointly with Russia since 1997. From that point onward, the OSCE adopted Russia’s definitions of the Transnistria conflict: an internal conflict, Chisinau and Tiraspol “the Sides” to this conflict, Russia ostensibly being a mediator (like the OSCE itself) between Chisinau and Tiraspol, and the solution being a “special status” for Transnistria (mirror case to Russia’s “special status” project in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas since 2014).
By the same token Moldova is the only contested country on which the OSCE is able to adopt resolutions fairly easily at the year-end ministerial meetings, including this year in Bratislava. This largely reflects the OSCE’s acceptance of Russia’s definitions of the Transnistria conflict (see above) and the roles of both the OSCE and (officially) Russia as mediators. This year’s resolution stands out not for its practical recommendations or goals (these are phrased abstractly) but especially for treating Chisinau and Tiraspol as politically and morally equivalent. Thus, the OSCE’s participating states “commend the Sides for further consolidating the achievements since the Vienna ministerial meeting,” “encourage the Sides to develop joint proposals for confidence-building measures,” and “applaud the commitment, leadership and political will of the Sides to the resolution of a number of long-standing issues [the latter are mainly of a social nature]” (Ministerial Statement on the Negotiations on the Transdniestrian Settlement Process, Bratislava, December 6, 2019).
Russia has no intention to fully paralyze the OSCE as a security actor in Europe’s East. Russia is, rather, interested in keeping the OSCE where it is on the ground, unable to seriously interfere with Russia’s conflict undertakings, but providing a token of Western presence on a Russian leash. With the OSCE already holding (preempting) that niche, organizations unconstrained by Russia’s direct influence, such as the European Union, are given excuses to keep out from conflict-resolution and peacekeeping activities in Europe’s East.