Vice President Biden Envisions New Tasks for the OSCE

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 94

The Obama administration is about to launch policy initiatives regarding Europe’s eastern neighborhood and conventional arms control in Europe. US Vice-President Joseph Biden has unveiled a number of ideas through the May 6 New York Times/International Herald Tribune article, “Advancing Europe’s Security,” under his byline.

Biden’s article sets a new landmark to the administration’s policy on European security. It no longer mentions the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty when calling for arms control and transparency measures. It rehabilitates the OSCE as security actor in NATO’s and EU’s eastern neighborhood, after the OSCE’s serial failures in that area. And in so doing, it reflects the de-prioritization of Europe’s eastern borderlands by the US and NATO.

According to Biden, peace and security in Europe “have been sustained by security institutions, principally by NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe…But now it is vital that we ask how these institutions, which have served us so well, should adapt to a new era.”

The proposals would increase reliance on the OSCE for conflict-prevention and conflict-management in the grey area to the east of NATO and the EU, where these are absent as security actors. The OSCE would be asked to provide some international presence in that area. However, Biden’s article does not propose to emancipate the OSCE from Russia’s veto power, nor otherwise to reform this agonizing organization.

In light of the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, the US sees the need for a more effective conflict-prevention, conflict-management, and crisis-resolution mechanism in the remaining insecure areas. Thus, according to Biden:

    “We support the creation of an OSCE Crisis Prevention Mechanism that, in situations of tension between OSCE states, would seek to prevent crises before they start. And in the case that they do, it would empower the organization to offer rapid humanitarian relief, help negotiate a ceasefire, and provide impartial monitoring.”

The US further proposes authorizing the OSCE to facilitate consultations in cases of serious disruption in energy supplies. Biden’s article stops short of hinting at how, or where, this could work in practice.

Portraying NATO and the OSCE as peer security organizations, and the OSCE as successful in its own right, are unprecedented claims. Thus far, NATO was given exclusive credit and recognition for maintaining peace and security. The OSCE, paralyzed from within by Russia’s veto, never received anything like equivalent billing with NATO; and was not considered for some division of labor with NATO along geographic lines. On the contrary, NATO (and, to a modest extent, the EU) took over the security arrangements at every step of the Alliance’s enlargement. The OSCE’s track record is one of unrelieved failure in the grey zone adjacent to the Euro-Atlantic frontier.

Claiming the opposite seems designed to justify involving the OSCE more actively in Europe’s eastern borderlands, as a substitute for the disengaging US and NATO.

The OSCE, however, is structurally disabled from operating independently of Russia on security issues, wherever Russia’s interests are involved. The organization is not authorized to speak, much less act, without Russia’s prior agreement through the “consensus” process.

Biden does not identify specific areas for OSCE early warning and monitoring mechanisms to be deployed. Such measures are indeed necessary, for example, on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula (where no such presence has been established thus far); or inside Georgia’s secessionist territories (from which Russia has already evicted the OSCE and other organizations). To be effective, however, such measures would require an organization that can speak and act without needing Russia’s approval.

Ceasefire mediation and post-conflict humanitarian relief are tasks that imply de facto acceptance of gains achieved through military force. The OSCE’s structure has blocked any attempt at reversing the occupations of territory, ethnic cleansing, and other consequences of the use of force in Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. The proposals under Biden’s byline do not suggest any measures to reverse those consequences.

Conflict resolution under OSCE aegis has failed in Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Karabakh for almost two decades. Despite Russia’s own, active involvement in those conflicts, the OSCE legitimized Russia as arbiter of those same conflicts. Moscow operated through the OSCE’s mechanisms, using its veto power to block, or shape, the organization’s positions. Most recently, the OSCE could not even consider reacting to the violation of Ukraine’s constitution when the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s basing rights were extended.

Proposals to entrust the OSCE, despite its inherent weaknesses, with further conflict-management tasks, will not remedy the security vacuum in the Black Sea-South Caucasus area. NATO has recued itself as a security actor in that area, the US is disengaging from such a role, and Russia can exploit the window of opportunity to fill the vacuum on its own terms.