Russia’s devastating invasion of Ukraine this year is not, for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a dramatic watershed or existential crossroads as it has been made out to be. The OSCE has all along been mired in a deep crisis inherent to this organization’s nature. It is an institutionalized form of Western unrequited hopes about Russia dating back to the 1990s.
Moscow’s current war in Ukraine—as part of its overall war against the West, by Russia’s own description—has, however, turned the OSCE’s crisis into sheer agony. At the organization’s year-end ministerial conference in Poland on December 1 and 2, most participating states had to face up to the possibility that the OSCE had little justification to survive in its existing form. Warsaw’s chairing of the organization for the current year has helped convey that realization.
Russia has largely evicted the OSCE from conflict theaters in Europe’s East, the organization’s area of responsibility as a presumed security actor. The OSCE has been losing its field missions there one after another, culminating with the loss of its missions in Ukraine this year, by dint of Russia‘s veto right (euphemistically referenced as the “consensus rule”).
Unable for many years to enforce its own resolutions on a non-compliant Russia, the OSCE then descended to the next lower level: that of an organization unable even to pass political decisions inconvenient to Russia.
The OSCE’s prevailing doctrines (common security and indivisible security, to be shared by the West and Russia in Europe) and its own ground rules (consensus-based decision-making, allowing Russia discretionary veto power) are fatal flaws. They have disabled the OSCE from opposing Russia’s re-expansion into Europe’s East ever since the 1990s and, more recently, Russian threats to Europe writ large.
Russia would like the OSCE to continue in this same vein. Moscow (seconded by Minsk) has appealed to the Ministerial Council to preserve the OSCE’s established principles of common and indivisible security and consensus-based operation to keep Russia aboard the organization (Twitter.com/RF_OSCE, December 2). Russia’s permanent representative to the OSCE, Aleksandr Lukashevich, even attempted to impart a sense of common ownership of the organization in his speeches to the Ministerial Council after all these years of playing cat-and-mouse with it (Mid.ru, December 1, 2).
Moscow is executing these feints because it worries about some unprecedented attempts to circumvent Russia’s veto power in the OSCE. Such attempts include tinkering with the OSCE’s ground rules or creating new cooperation formats around the European Union without Russia (see below). Tinkering is not remedying and cannot, in any case, allow the OSCE to continue in its accustomed shape.
Western powers and the OSCE’s own bureaucracy had kept silent about the organization‘s incurable flaws for decades. They upheld the pretense that the OSCE could help manage the protracted conflicts in Europe’s East on a cooperative basis with Russia, the initiator and manipulator of those conflicts. Western diplomacy had chosen this approach out of reluctance to confront Russia materially, as distinct from speeches in the OSCE’s Permanent Council in Vienna. Hard-hitting speeches were delivered with increasing frequency after Russia’s initial (2014) invasion of Ukraine, but they remained confined to the Vienna conference hall. They could not produce effective results because the Permanent Council’s decisions are hostage to Russia’s veto. For its part, the OSCE’s bureaucracy acted in the interest of institutional self-preservation, not above self-censoring its public language and documents under Russian duress.
The EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries comprise an absolute majority of the OSCE’s 57 participating states. Disparaged by Russia as an “arithmetical majority,” this community has made no attempt, thus far, to abandon the OSCE’s doctrinal postulates, divest Russia of its veto power or arbitrate the protracted conflicts in Europe’s East, independent of Russia. Such moves would presumably have caused Russia to quit the OSCE, scuttling this organization as constituted. Western diplomacy would presumably have lost this “unique platform for dialogue and interaction with Russia,” disposing of their forlorn hope that Russia would stop behaving as Russia.
Polish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman-in-Office Zbigniew Rau identified a few of the conceptual failures or complacent delusions in dealing with Russia (Osce.org, December 1);
- “What sort of consensus could possibly be achieved that ignores the existence of a violent belligerent at the table?”
- “Compromising … to reach a fraudulent, superficial agreement with those who do not negotiate in good faith” hurts the organization.
- “The idea of doing nothing because action might create a risk for the organization” itself.
- “Preserving this organization cannot be a goal in itself. Failure to oppose aggression cannot be a means of preserving the organization.”
- “Disingenuous engagement in confidence-building has been happening for the past 10 years at least,” [actually almost 30 years in the cases of Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan].
During the course of 2022, Russia has used its veto power (“withheld consensus,” in the OSCE‘s parlance) against the following initiatives (for a non-exhaustive listing, see (Osce.org, December 1):
- It blocked, in February 2022, the launch of a “Renewed European Security Dialogue” (a hope-against-hope attempt to engage Russia in negotiations following its December 17, 2021, ultimatum-like notes to the United States and NATO and its threats to invade Ukraine).
- It vetoed, in March, the effort to prolong the mandate of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (monitoring the armistice on the Donbas frontline and forced to evacuate from Ukraine immediately after Russia’s February 24 invasion).
- It opposed, in May, the holding of a regular Human Dimension Implementation Meeting.
- It nullified, in June, the mandate of the OSCE Project Coordinator in Ukraine, which had long predated the invasion (modestly funded but escaping Russian control).
- It vetoed, in August, Estonia’s candidacy for the OSCE’s 2024 chairmanship, without in any way justifying this move. (The OSCE traditionally designates its annual chairmanships two or three years in advance; the organization has designated North Macedonia for 2023 and Finland for 2025, but the office stands empty for 2024).
- And it blocked the adoption of the OSCE’s budget throughout the year (a countermeasure to the OSCE funding extra-budgetary programs beyond Russia’s control).
Throughout this year, the United Nations General Assembly, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and the European Parliament all passed resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The OSCE alone could not do so because of Russia’s veto power. Ultimately, this organization cannot speak, much less act, without Moscow’s prior consent.