Preserving the OSCE at a Time of War
Preserving the OSCE at a Time of War
A vehicle of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine departs from Donetsk, 1 March 2022. Sergey Averin / Sputnik via AFP
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 9 minutes

Preserving the OSCE at a Time of War

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine risks incapacitating one of the only remaining multilateral spaces for cooperation between Russia and the West, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Participating states must work to prevent this outcome and preserve the OSCE’s critical role in containing conflicts.

Russia’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine has sent shock waves through the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a body that has been instrumental in containing conflicts that erupted after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Russia’s actions in Ukraine are a glaring violation of the OSCE’s commitment to respecting sovereignty, territorial integrity and human rights, memorialised in its founding principles. They have poisoned the atmosphere at the organisation’s seat in Vienna – which hosts the 57 participating states, including Ukraine and Russia as well as all European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members – and compromised its ability to take decisions on matters big and small.

But for all the challenges it faces, the OSCE remains an essential forum. It is one of the only remaining multilateral spaces outside the UN for dialogue between Russia and the West; in the words of an OSCE official, the organisation has been “sort of an airbag that opens any time we face echoes of tensions” between Russia and the West. The OSCE is one of the few international organisations with the potential to play an important role in implementing any ceasefire arrangement that the conflict parties might reach in Ukraine, where prior to the war’s current phase it led a sizeable monitoring mission. It also helps manage the risk of escalation in conflicts from Moldova to Georgia to Central Asia.

Governments should do all they can to prevent the OSCE’s incapacitation. Russia must refrain from holding the OSCE hostage and letting core operations collapse. Western states, in turn, should resist pushing for Russia’s suspension from the OSCE. Suspension would likely lead Russia to withdraw, as it did on 15 March from the Council of Europe.

The OSCE in Ukraine

With roots that date back to the 1970s, the OSCE assumed its current institutional form in 1994 as a forum for peace, stability and democracy issues. It runs fifteen field operations that perform a range of tasks, from monitoring conflict situations and violence prevention to promoting governance reform.

Even before recent events, Ukraine was an important theatre for the OSCE. In 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the onset of a Russia-backed separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, the OSCE mounted a far-reaching response. It deployed a monitoring mission – one of the largest field operations in its history – that served as eyes and ears on the ground and helped to reduce violence along the line of separation between government-controlled Ukraine and the separatist entities in Donetsk and Luhansk. When Russia’s invasion began on 24 February, that mission still had close to 500 international monitors on the ground and continued its reporting as evacuation commenced. The mission has now essentially paused activities, although some Ukrainian staff remain present to carry out limited office functions in some locations.

The OSCE acted as a mediator bringing together Russia, Ukraine and the de facto entities in eastern Ukraine within the so-called Trilateral Contact Group.

Aside from monitoring, the OSCE acted as a mediator bringing together Russia, Ukraine and the de facto entities in eastern Ukraine within the so-called Trilateral Contact Group. The negotiations failed to settle the conflict in line with the 2014 and 2015 Minsk Agreements, which brought the war’s first phase of major fighting to a halt. But they did broker truces, for example in July 2020, which led to a marked reduction in hostilities. The talks also helped improve the situation of the civilian population in the areas affected by the conflict in eastern Ukraine, for example by enabling civilians to cross the line of separation.

The framework for these mediation efforts no longer exists. Russia’s recognition of the de facto separatist entities, and its 24 February invasion, have rendered meaningless the Minsk Agreements, which foresaw the reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk with Ukraine. The OSCE still has a special representative for Ukraine, Mikko Kinnunen, who was the main mediator within the Trilateral Contact Group, but his role is unclear at this point.

Since the start of the war, Poland, which chairs the organisation in 2022, has suspended all regular business, holding meetings only of two political bodies – the Permanent Council and the Forum for Security Cooperation – which were entirely dedicated to Ukraine. These meetings featured strongly worded condemnations of Russia and coordinated walkouts. Along similar lines, in the annual address of the OSCE Chair-in-Office at the UN Security Council on 14 March, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau likened Russia’s actions in Ukraine to “state terrorism”.

Beyond symbolic acts, the OSCE has only a handful of available tools for responding to the war in Ukraine, given the polarisation among its participating states and its convention of operating by consensus. On 3 March, it mandated a fact-finding expert group to collect information about violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed during the war. But this enquiry will be limited, as the group has to submit its report within a few weeks. Another tangible and important step it might take would be to preserve the OSCE’s monitoring mission in Ukraine, whose mandate expires at the end of the month. Participating states will shortly commence negotiations, but it is questionable they will extend the mission’s mandate as doing so would require Russia and Ukraine to agree. Absent consensus, they can and should at least agree to “hibernating” it, rather than shutting it down completely. Hibernation would mean preserving the mission as a legal entity and maintaining core administrative functions, even as its operations remain paused. In the event of a ceasefire, hibernation would allow for rapid reactivation, saving precious time. Another, though less likely, possibility is that a reactivated OSCE monitoring mission could serve as a stopgap until the deployment of a more robust UN or hybrid UN-OSCE peacekeeping mission.

When it comes to diplomatic engagement, the OSCE is unlikely to serve as the main mediator aiming to broker a settlement between Russia and Ukraine, given that Poland – which has an especially tense relationship with Moscow – now holds the chair. But the OSCE special representative for Ukraine could use his good offices to address specific issues, for example facilitating agreements on humanitarian access.

Beyond Ukraine

In countries beyond Ukraine, the OSCE continues to play a crucial conflict management role. A prime example is Georgia, whose two breakaway regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia –Russia has recognised as independent states. Since the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, the OSCE has acted as one of three international mediators, along with the EU and the UN. Together, the trio are responsible for organising the Geneva International Discussions, a negotiating format that brings together Georgia, the de facto entities, Russia and the United States. The talks in Geneva have kept communication channels open and helped address incidents that otherwise could have escalated.

In South Ossetia, the OSCE’s role has been particularly important. Much less visible than the EU, which runs a 200-person monitoring mission on the territory controlled by the Georgian government, the OSCE is considered an acceptable interlocutor by Russia and the allied de facto leadership in South Ossetia. The OSCE has therefore been able to broker deals, for example on water supply and access to farm land, which have reduced the risk of violence and improved the lives of people on both sides of the line of separation.

The Ukraine war risks reopening wounds from 2008 and could upend the OSCE’s diplomatic efforts.

The Ukraine war risks reopening wounds from 2008 and could upend the OSCE’s diplomatic efforts. Both breakaway regions have demonstrated strong support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, while Georgia, although not joining sanctions against Russia, has still sent in an application for EU membership and voted to condemn Russia’s aggression within international institutions. These developments could have an impact on prospects for future cooperation and even on negotiation formats that have helped keep these conflict zones stable for over a decade. A worrying sign is that the UN, EU and OSCE co-chairs decided to cancel the forthcoming round of the Geneva talks scheduled at the end of March, following postponement of their pre-talks visit to the region and to Russia. The absence of regular talks undermines the OSCE’s ability to act as a mediator just when its role as a go-between may be most needed to maintain communication between the conflict parties and help address incidents that could spark violence.

In Moldova, the OSCE plays an important role, too, acting as a mediator between the Moldovan government and de facto authorities in separatist Transdniestria. Its work has helped contain the conflict, stabilising the situation in a country that is vulnerable to being inflamed by tensions between Russia and the West. Likewise, the OSCE runs field operations in the Western Balkans and in Central Asia that perform local conflict management functions and aim to promote governance reforms, though the results in each place vary.

The Need to Preserve the OSCE

The deepening rift between Russia and the West threatens the OSCE’s very functioning. As noted, the organisation requires consensus to take decisions, which in effect bestows veto power on all participating states. The war in Ukraine risks not only paralysing the OSCE but also unravelling its core operations. For example, absent agreement among participating states, the OSCE’s field operations, which work to advance stability and governance reforms across the region, will collapse as they require annual mandate extensions. It is both possible and essential to avoid this scenario.

[Russia] must refrain from holding the OSCE hostage and letting core operations fall apart.

Russia bears the primary responsibility. It must refrain from holding the OSCE hostage and letting core operations fall apart. Western states also need to do their part. Their diplomats in Vienna need to find ways of engaging Russia and seeking pragmatic cooperation, even if it is difficult to do so in the face of an escalating war that rides roughshod over OSCE principles. They should refrain from pushing Russia out of the organisation via the “consensus minus one” rule, which states invoked in the early 1990s to temporarily exclude the former Yugoslavia on the grounds of massive human rights violations. Using this rule to suspend Russia from the OSCE would be both ineffective and dangerous – ineffective because even if Russia were excluded, its close ally Belarus could still block decisions, and dangerous because it would probably lead to Russia’s withdrawal, as it did in the Council of Europe. Russia’s exclusion would likely spell the end of the organisation’s ability to mediate in its neighbourhood, jeopardising its conflict management role in Bosnia, Moldova, Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh and various Central Asian states. These are precisely the areas that may now experience increased tensions, as parties come under political pressure from Moscow and the West to take sides.

Moreover, over the long term in Ukraine, the OSCE could come to play an important role if Moscow and Kyiv come to a compromise on a ceasefire or settlement. The existing monitoring mission could be repurposed to help oversee a ceasefire agreement, shedding light on violations and facilitating dialogue between the parties. It could also be deployed to monitor specific agreements, for example ones reached to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants in Ukraine. The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities could help find creative compromises related to the place of the Russian language in Ukraine, long a controversial issue, and OSCE election observers could be deployed in the event of post-war elections in Ukraine. However far off such issues may seem in the face of an escalating war, they will be among the issues the parties will have to grapple with when the fighting stops.

All of these are reasons not to burn the bridge between Russia and the West that the OSCE represents, even as it faces the most serious threat since its creation. Participating states should work to ensure the OSCE’s continued functioning, preserving its precious remaining space for pragmatic cooperation on international security matters in Europe. They must also try to shield the OSCE’s work beyond Ukraine – in places like Moldova, Georgia and Bosnia, where it helps to keep communication channels open, promote dialogue and resolve incidents that could spark violence. These efforts have helped lower tensions for years, and they are all the more valuable now that the fallout of the war in Ukraine creates fresh escalation risks.


Senior Analyst, South Caucasus
Former Representative for Dialogue Promotion

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