Fragile States and Conflict
Fragile States and Conflict
Speech / Global

Fragile States and Conflict

Speech by Nick Grono, Deputy President of the International Crisis Group, to Institut Royal Supérieur de Défense, Brussels, 27 March 2010.

Fragile and failed states have been with us since we've had a state-based international order. But the interest of policymakers in such states took on a new life after 9/11. The events of that day, and subsequent terrorist attacks, made devastatingly clear just how dangerous failed states such as Afghanistan could be, not only to their own people, but to communities around the world.

Afghanistan and the neighboring tribal areas of Pakistan continue to demonstrate the threat posed by ungoverned areas to their citizens, their neighbors and the broader international community. Somalia has been a failed state since the nineties, and has recaptured the international community’s attention in recent years – not because of the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in the country, but because it has become a base and haven for pirates preying on international shipping. And an unsuccessful bomber who probably received training in Yemen has been the catalyst for a surge of international interest in that fragile state.

So what is a fragile state? There’s now a substantial body of literature on such states. And every academic or agency appears to have their own descriptor – so apart from fragile statues, you also have states that are “weak,” “failing,” “failed,” “collapsed,” “at risk,” “precarious”, “vulnerable” or “recovering”. Some of these are alternate descriptions to “fragile” and some are encompassed within it. Even the term “fragile state” has come under criticism in recent years. Some scholars now consider the term both pejorative and analytically imprecise. They claim that fragility is not an either/or concept but rather exists along a continuum, and that it is highly context-specific and comes in a variety of economic, political, and social forms. But regardless of the specific conceptual formulation, these descriptors and analyses all point to some type of significant state failure or dysfunction.

The World Bank provides a good working definition, observing such states “share a common fragility, in two particular respects: State policies and institutions are weak in these countries: making them vulnerable in their capacity to deliver services to their citizens, to control corruption, or to provide for sufficient voice and accountability. They face risks of conflict and political instability.”

Predicting conflict in fragile states

One consistent theme is the strong correlation between state fragility and conflict. Not all states experiencing conflict are fragile (India is a good example, with a number of internal conflicts, and the conflict in Kashmir), but most of them are; and not all fragile states are experiencing conflict, but almost all of them of them are or recently have. The World Bank identifies 37 fragile situations in 2010 – and all bar a small handful are post conflict or conflict affected.

It shouldn’t be surprising that there is such a strong correlation. Many of the indicators for conflict are indicators for state weakness.  Low and declining growth are widely recognised indicators for conflict - and low income and weak growth typically translate into lack of state capacity. A lack of state capacity usually results in an inability to mediate between competing interests. Low income also lowers the cost of rebellion, making it more attractive to would-be rebels.

And the converse is also true. Conflict invariably has a negative impact on economic growth. Resources directed to conflict are diverted from development. Conflict destroys the infrastructure needed for economic activity. And without security, development efforts are unlikely to take hold and have the desired effects.

While the link between fragility and conflict is by now widely accepted there is certainly no similar consensus about how this link plays out in practice. Much academic work is now devoted to mapping the various causal flows between fragility and conflict. And it’s the kind of academic work that has direct relevance to policymakers, particularly when it comes to prevention and its necessary accompaniment, prediction.

Policymakers focus on the linkages in their efforts to obtain early warning of fragile states that may slip into conflict, and in an effort to ensure timely and cost-effective responses.

There is no shortage of early warning in this age of proliferating NGOs, instant and widespread internet and satellite communications, and an awareness of the threat posed by failing states. In fact, there may be too much of it – the challenge for policymakers can be to determine which of the barrage of warning they receive is credible, and requires action, and which can be ignored. The related challenge is to tie early warning to effective early action -  early action here means policy response by governments and international and regional organisations. Analytical and advocacy NGOs have the luxury, and the frustration, of being able to warn, but not being able to respond.

So what kind of early warning do policymakers have access to?

Very broadly, there are two types of early warning – qualitative and quantitative warning.

The early warning produced by my organization, the International Crisis Group, is a good example of qualitative early warning.  The task of our analysts is to find out what is happening and why. They identify the underlying political, social and economic factors creating the conditions for conflict as well as the more immediate causes of tension. Our role is to warn, as early and effectively as possible, those who are able to influence a situation where the risk of new or renewed conflict has reached a dangerous threshold.

Crisis Group’s particular value-added in this respect is that all our reporting and analysis is field-based.  At last count we had people on the ground from 50 different nationalities, speaking between them 49 different languages. They are steeped in local language and culture, getting dust on their boots, engaged in endless interaction with locals and internationals on the scene, and operating from 9 regional offices and 17 other locations in the field.

Crisis Group also produces the monthly CrisisWatch bulletin which summarises developments dur­ing the previous month in some 70 situations of current or potential conflict, assessing for each whether the overall situation has significantly deteriorated, improved, or on balance remained more or less unchanged. This is one of the few examples of very short term early warning in the public domain.

The challenge that this kind of qualitative early warning poses for policymakers is that its credibility and hence usability relies to a significant extent on the reputation of the external provider of such analysis. It is difficult, though not impossible, for governments to make big resource allocation decisions (ie whether to intervene to seek to prevent a looming conflict) on the basis of independent, non government, analysis. Of course, governments have their own analysts, but these often they won’t have the expertise, or the institutional freedom, of their non-governmental peers. There are ways to incorporate independent qualitative analysis into governments’ own analysis and planning, but the constraints will usually act to inhibit governments from using such external analysis as the predominant basis for their early response decision making.

This is where quantitative early warning comes into the picture.  The advantage (in theory) behind quantitative analysis is that it relies on verifiable data, and hence provides an independent and transparent basis for making resource allocation decisions.

That’s the theory. The reality is more complex. Quantitative warning, relying as it does on statistical analysis, requires a model of conflict with quantifiable factors that can be measured, compared and analysed. But this conflict modelling is still more of an art than a science, despite rapid advances in the field over the last decade or so. The other challenge with quantitative warning is the timeframe of its predictive ability. It is much better adapted to highlight worrying trends than to identify with great specificity a likely tipping point into violence.  

Quantitative theories used to be broadly, if simplistically divided into two camps – that of greed versus grievance – with the greed camp holding that economic factors were largely responsible for conflict, and the grievance camp blaming on inequality and political, ethnic and religious grievances.

The debate has been refined in recent years - concurrent with big improvements in the data - and now is more usefully characterized as one between feasibility and regime type, with the proponents of the feasibility thesis focusing on the conditions that determine the economic viability of rebellion, whereas the regime type proponents conclude that it is political institutions and not economic conditions that are the most powerful predictor of instability.

The doyen on the feasibility side of the debate is Oxford academic Paul Collier. His models have been developed and refined over the years, but the essence of his analysis is that the defining feature of civil war is the emergence and durability of a private rebel army, and under most conditions such organizations are likely to be neither financially nor militarily feasible.  Civil war will only occur if a rebel organisation can build and sustain a private army.  He and his co-authors go on to argue that “where insurrection is feasible it will occur, with the actual agenda of the rebel movement being indeterminate.” Their research shows that three factors in particular are important in demonstrating feasibility of conflict - namely low per capita income, slow economic growth, and large exports of natural resources. Further variables have been recently added to the model, namely whether a country is under the implicit French security umbrella and the proportion of its population who are males in the age range 15-29, and a weaker variable that mountainous countries are more conflict prone  (see “Beyond Greed and Grievance: Feasibility and Civil War”, Paul Collier, Anke Hoeffler and  Dominic Rohner, May 2008).

Low per capita income points to the incapacity of the state to maintain effective control over its territory. Both low income and slow growth can be interpreted as lowering the recruitment cost of rebel troops, and natural resources can provide rebel organizations with finance.

The attractiveness of this theory of conflict is that most of these factors can be quantified. And many civil conflicts over the past couple of decades can be readily explained by it – for example, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, Congo, Sudan, Aceh, Niger Delta, and Cote d’Ivoire – but does not provide a robust explanation for all civil conflicts or for the lack of conflict in some states.

Collier has more recently looked at the links between democracy, development and conflict. He has argued that income level is the key factor in preventing violence during transitions to democracy. He believes that while the international community often favours promoting democracy as a solution to overcoming violent conflict, democracy also constrains the technical possibilities of government repression, and that this makes rebellion easier. Although the net effect of democracy is therefore ambiguous, he suggests that the higher is income the more likely is it to be favourable. He finds that whereas in rich countries democracy makes countries safer, below an income threshold democracy increases proneness to political violence.

The regime type advocates take a different approach. The most sophisticated and sustained research on factors influencing motivation has been done by the Political Instability Task Force (formerly known as the State Failure Task Force), a panel of scholars that has worked since 1994 to collect and analyze data on political regimes and conflict around the world. Its work has focused particularly on regime type and quality.

The Task Force’s research postulates that regime type is overwhelmingly the dominant factor behind revolutions, ethnic wars, and adverse regime changes. However, the effect of regime type is not a simple function of the degree of democracy or autocracy. The starting point is that strong autocracies are rarely prone to conflict. Strong democracies are also not prone to conflict. It is certain kinds of partial autocracies and partial democracies that are much more vulnerable than other regime types, with the vulnerability depending on the patterns of executive recruitment and political participation under those regimes. A particularly strong contributor to instability is that of factionalism within the political process.

The taskforce model has four independent variables: regime type, infant mortality (as a proxy for poverty), a “bad neighborhood” indicator flagging cases with four or more bordering states embroiled in armed civil or ethnic conflict, and the presence or absence of state-led discrimination. They claim for this model an 80% success rate in identifying likely instability within a period of two years.

Interesting recent research has also looked at the linkage between climate and conflict.  Studies by scholars such as Edward Miguel at Berkeley attempt to establish clear causal links between climate factors and conflict. While most studies claim that poverty (which can be intensified or induced by climate change) has suffered from questions of reverse causality – namely, whether conflict leads to poverty or vice versa - Miguel finds that drops in rainfall in Africa, clearly an exogenous factor not affected by conflict, produce drops in income, increasing the likelihood of conflict the following year by nearly half. He recommends pre-empting violence by targeting foreign aid to shore up incomes in regions where livelihood is affected by rainfall, thereby removing a short term trigger of violence.    

The latest work in this field has moved beyond precipitation to looking at warming and finds strong historical linkages between civil war and temperature in Africa, with warmer years leading to significant increases in the likelihood of war. One recent research paper suggested a roughly 54% increase in armed conflict incidence by 2030 if current climate model projections are correct.

So that is a very quick run through of the current models for predicting conflict and instability. As mentioned earlier, the effectiveness of this type of quantitative analysis depends on the robustness of the models, and the quality of the data – and these are both continuing to evolve.

For policymakers seeking to establishes processes in which early response is less ad hoc and more systematic, perhaps the best course of action is to use quantitative analysis to identify a small group of fragile states at risk of violent conflict within a two year timeframe, and then incorporate external qualitative analysis to refine that list and determine the most appropriate intervention.

Policy approaches to fragile states

Another difference between quantitative and qualitative analysis is that while the former may tell policymakers when to intervene, it doesn’t give them much guidance on how. Good qualitative analysis is much better geared to inform policymakers’ interventions in particular fragile states.

So how should policymakers engage with such states?  Given the variations between states, their problems, the tools available to interveners, the political will to intervene and all the other permutations, I won’t attempt to set out a menu of policy options here. However there are a number of guidelines that could usefully inform interventions in all fragile states.

1. Understand the problem.

This is perhaps a statement of the obvious – but it is salutary to understand how often the obvious is ignored when the international community intervenes. Far too often lessons painfully learned in earlier interventions are forgotten or ignored.

There is no checklist of appropriate policies for fragile states. What may have worked in Iraq for instance – such as international support for tribally based militias - is unlikely to work in Afghanistan. In fact in the latter country, the last five years have seen failed incarnations of the same policy on militias – first in the form of arbakai (tribal militias), then the Afghan National Auxiliary Police, then the Afghan Public Protection Force, and now the Coalition appears determined to repeat the failures of those initiatives with its latest effort, the Local Defense Initiative. So perhaps an exhortation to understand the problem is not quite as obvious as it seems.

Policies have to be evidence-based. They have to build on a field-based understanding of the history, culture, political dynamics and region. This is where the work of organizations like Crisis Group is so important. We produced field-based policy reports. Our analysts are stationed in or near the countries they cover. They are steeped in an understanding of the country, its culture, politics, and the interests of the key players. They can and do travel around countries much more freely than embassy staff can. They usually have better access too. All of which is reflected in our analysis.

2. Recognise that prevention is better than cure, and that prevention does work.

There was an excellent report published in 2005 – the Human Security Report – which documented the trends in conflicts since the Second World War.  (The 2009 issue of this report is forthcoming.)

Its headline statistic is an encouraging one, and perhaps counterintuitive – namely that there has been a 40% reduction in the number of state-based armed conflicts since the early 1990s.  And, while there has been a small uptick in the number of state-based conflicts since 2003, when non-state conflicts are included (i.e. conflicts in which all both parties are non-state actors, such as rebel groups) there has been a continuing decline in the overall number of conflicts since 2003. There has also been a longer term trend decline in battle deaths (ie military personal and civilians killed in fighting.) There were only some 12,000 reported battle deaths in 2005 – less than any year since 1946.

Why has there been a decline in conflict, and what lessons can we learn from these trends? The Human Security Report posits a number of causes, such as end of the Cold War leading to a reduction in proxy conflicts, and the growth in the number of democracies. But it attributes much of the reduction to a surge in international conflict prevention and resolution activities in the 1990s, led by a reinvigorated United Nations. Between 1987 and 2008, the number of Special Representatives of the Secretary- General increased six-fold. UN peacekeeping missions – which play a key role in preventing renewed conflict - increased from four in 1990 to 15 currently.[v]  The international financial institutions and donor governments and civil society have played a significant role with their efforts to address the root causes of conflict. The key message is that conflict prevention efforts, for all their failings and inadequacies, can make a real difference.

There are some examples of where these advances – seen, for example, in the rise in resources devoted to peacekeeping and conflict prevention work among national governments, stronger regional peace and security response mechanisms, the evolution of vibrant civil society engagement in conflict resolution and reconciliation initiatives, and advances at the level of international law – have paid dividends. In some cases, coordinated international engagement has been instrumental in shifting states affected by devastating civil wars onto the fragile road to transition. Countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi and Nepal continue to face considerable challenges, in economic development, institution building and professionalization of their public services in the wake of devastating civil wars. The painful and long-term task of reconciling societies damaged by war will remain relevant for some years. But these states also managed to execute a transition to post-war recovery that would have seemed inconceivable in the early 2000s.

Concerted efforts by regional organisations, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have also played a decisive role in preventing violent outbreak in fragile states and in bringing states back to the fold. We saw some encouraging evidence of the impact of coordinated regional and international engagement in Guinea over the past few months. Effective regional and international actions in response to 2009’s military takeover have been instrumental in encouraging the country’s shift back to civilian rule from January this year.

Of course, there is no room for complacency. Climate change, the fallout from the global economic crisis  (including falling commodity prices and reduced remittances from diasporas), the aftermath of recent fuel and food price shocks, and a likely fall in the aid and development budgets of rich countries are all likely to increase the likelihood of conflict in fragile states in the coming years.

Given this outlook, policymakers need to develop smarter and more cost effective interventions.  And that being the case, we need to recognise that prevention is not only more effective than intervention after the bullets have started flying – but (and this should be music to policymakers’ ears) it is also much cheaper.

A 2004 study estimated that on average one euro spent on conflict prevention generates over 4 euros in savings to the international community.[vi] As with all such studies, there are a number of heroic assumptions involved - but not so heroic to render the key finding redundant, namely that the cost of properly targeted prevention is a lot less than the cost of conflict.

To give some concrete figures, though again, very much context specific: the former UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has estimated that the small preventive military deployment in Macedonia, stopping the slide to war there, cost the British taxpayer £14 million (24 m euros), while fighting the war in Kosovo, by contrast, cost Britain £200 million (350 m euros), and in Bosnia over £1.5 billion (2.6 billion euros). And those are just the military costs, not the costs of reconstruction.

3. Understand the regional context

Fragile state policies are generally geared towards individual states, and too often ignore the regional context. But as the experience of Africa and the Balkans and South Asia have amply demonstrated -- conflict and state-failure usually have very strong regional dynamics.

Neighboring states can contribute to conflict in a number of ways. The most obvious is by being a party to the conflict. They can be active participants, for instance by being at war with the state in question, but more usually they are indirect participants, preferring to support proxy militias or fund rebel groups. Rwanda and Uganda were both in the Congo. Neighboring states can also provide a safe haven for rebels or spoilers, as Pakistan is doing with the Taliban, and Chad and Sudan are doing for each other’s rebels. They can funnel arms and supplies to governments or rebels (as some 11 countries are alleged to have been doing in Somalia, many of them being neighboring countries); or they can be more subtle in their destabilisation – as one could perhaps characterise Ethiopia’s role in Somalia, as it pulled its troops after its intervention, leaving a security vacuum and likely ensuring Somalia remains a failed state for many years yet.

As noted above, the Political Instability Task Force has identified “bad neighborhood” as a statistically significant risk factor for conflict, with bad neighborhood here being defined as four or more bordering states embroiled in armed civil or ethnic conflict.

So when it comes to strengthening or rebuilding fragile states, failing to address these regional dynamics will probably consign even the best-designed and most well-intentioned peacekeeping mission or development assistance package to failure as soon as the troops leave or the donor community’s generosity runs dry.

4. Commit the necessary political, financial and security resources

The key political resource is a commitment to stay the course. It takes many years to rebuild a state, and premature disengagement can very quickly destroy all the progress and the billions invested in rebuilding. Just look at Timor Leste, where premature disengagement allowed that country to fall back into conflict, with the result that in 2006 it was almost back to where it started after its violent rebirth in 1999.

Doubt among Afghans about the international community’s commitment to stay feeds insecurity there, and feeds patronage-based politics, and a willingness to do deals with the insurgent leadership - driven in part by their fear that the internationals will abandon them, as they have done in the past.

The sad fact is that the international community isn’t good at staying the course. Too often we adopt a formulaic approach – particularly to those states requiring large scale international intervention. The standard response is a four or five year commitment, in the form of largish peacekeeping missions to back up internationally mediated peace agreements or Security Council resolutions, some DDR (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of combatants) and SSR (security system reform) followed by a rush of indigestible aid dollars, a flurry of institution building, and premature elections – followed too often and too soon by a withdrawal of peacekeeping troops and a drying up of aid money just when it is most needed and the absorptive capacity is able to beginning coping with it.

A rush to early elections can be particularly problematic.  Holding elections – although good for political show business (and, in post-conflict  peacebuilding contexts,  much loved as an exit benchmark for governments anxious to meet their commitments and go home) -  quite often has nothing much to do with democracy. Crisis Group was one of the first organisations to really make this point loudly and clearly, opposing as we did a rush to an early election in Bosnia in 1996  because we feared this would consolidate ethnic divisions which hadn’t had the chance to be counterbalanced by the development national secular political forces, or at least strong civil society institutions. The recent presidential election in Afghanistan, held when there evidently wasn’t the domestic institutional capacity to manage a credible and legitimate process, is another example.

We know that the period of transition to democracy is in many ways one of the most dangerous and fragile of all. This doesn’t mean that we should retreat from democratisation, but that we should rethink  our priorities in the way we pursue it. The most important of all things to prioritise is the rule of law –  often a very difficult challenge, but essential if democratic institutions are to take root and flourish.

When it comes to financial resources – the temptation is to do it on the cheap. This is the ultimate false economy. Conflict imposes horrendous financial costs, not to mention the devastating human toll. And failure to get it right after conflict significantly increases the risk of a return to conflict.

It has been estimated (in 2004) that civil war in a low-income country costs that country and its neighbors on average 42 billion euros in direct and indirect costs. That is for a single conflict. To put that figure in perspective, the worldwide aid budget in 2004 was 60 billion euros.

So we should properly fund effective prevention, and thereby reduce the costs spent on peacebuilding post-conflict reconstruction. And when we do have to fund peacebuilding, we shouldn’t do it on the cheap – as the likelihood is that this will increase the risk of the country falling back into conflict, thereby requiring yet further expenditure on peacekeeping and stabilisation forces and the follow-up peacebuilding.

Finally there are the security resources. A secure environment is a necessary but not sufficient condition to strengthening a fragile state. It’s sobering to realise that rebel groups and militias responsible for terrorizing a country or large parts of it are often very weak and brittle. They often survive and prosper because there are no capable forces to oppose them. When confronted with effective forces, they will often collapse – as happened with the rebels in Sierra Leone (confronted first by the mercenaries of Executive Outcomes, and subsequently routed by a few hundred British special forces); militias in Bunia, DRC (confronted by EU/French forces in Operation Artemis); or rebelling soldiers recently in Timor Leste (confronted by Australian troops and police).

More importantly, security guarantees can be critical in deterring future spoilers. The ability to rapidly deploy an effective military force can be sufficient to ensure that the need to deploy will not arise. The commitment can be an over-the-horizon one – as the UK provided to Sierra Leone – but it needs to be real and credible.

But sometimes a small security commitment will not be sufficient, and large scale sustained commitments are required. Even then, an effective and timely commitment may repay the investment many fold in terms of the avoidance of future costs. Such commitments are expensive and politically difficult – particularly where there is a likelihood of casualties – but as always the cost of failing has to be weighed against the cost of the commitment.   Back in March 2002, when there were some 4,500 NATO peacekeepers stationed in Kabul, Crisis Group called for the peacekeeping force to be expanded to 25,000-30,000 and deployed around the country – a call subject to much criticism and ridicule from some Coalition governments, and NATO itself, as being greatly in excess of what was needed or feasible.  Some eight years later, NATO is on track to have 150,000 troops deployed by September 2010.

Conclusion

Fragile states need lots of security and lots of development if they are to become viable and effective states in future. And it’s important to remember that in a globalised world, it’s not just capital and trade that travel the world – terrorism and extremism can also be exported, or nurtured in fragile states, and ill-gotten funds laundered by them.

But while that provides an incentive for international engagement, it’s important that it not become the sole justification for engagement. Fragile states inflict untold misery on their citizens and on neighboring countries.

When it comes to addressing state fragility we increasingly understand what works and what doesn’t – even if we are a long way from having all the answers yet. We certainly know enough to know that we aren’t doing enough to assist such states. Earlier and better targeted assistance to fragile states would dramatically improve the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people, which makes it a tremendously worthy goal in its own right.

Flags of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are pictured outside their headquarters in Vienna, Austria February 15, 2022.
Flags of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are pictured outside their headquarters in Vienna, Austria February 15, 2022. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
Special Briefing 9 / Global

Seven Priorities for Preserving the OSCE in a Time of War

Russia’s war in Ukraine has roiled the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Yet, disruptions notwithstanding, it remains a valuable forum for dialogue between Moscow and the West. Participating states should help it keep playing its important roles, including managing conflict risks.

What’s new? In December, foreign ministers will gather in Poland for the OSCE Ministerial Council’s annual meeting – the organisation’s first high-level gathering of this kind since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. The war has hurt the OSCE, upending its Ukrainian operations and compromising its decision-making ability.

Why does it matter? At the Ministerial Council, and throughout 2023, states will face a series of decisions that will bear on whether the OSCE continues to be a functioning multilateral platform able to manage regional security issues – or whether it declines in relevance and capacity.

What should be done? The OSCE remains a useful forum for bringing Russia and the West together to meet regional security challenges and prevent conflict. Participating states should work to preserve its viability amid the Ukraine war, while sustaining conflict prevention efforts in Moldova, the Western Balkans, the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

I. Overview

Russia’s massive 24 February attack on Ukraine has put tremendous strain on the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The invasion is a glaring violation of the OSCE’s foundational principles: it calls into question the viability of an organisation set up to promote cooperative security arrangements involving Russia and the West. The war has reinforced political blockages in the OSCE and led to the closure of its monitoring mission in Ukraine, which deployed in 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea and began backing separatists in eastern Ukraine. These are hard times for an organisation that had helped safeguard regional security in the post-Cold War era, and continues to help maintain stability in Moldova, the Western Balkans, the South Caucasus and Central Asia. With key decisions approaching in late 2022 and throughout 2023, participating states should work to sustain the OSCE, for the sake of both its current work and the vital tasks it may be able to take on if and when tensions over the Ukraine war diminish.

With roots that date back to the 1970s, the OSCE has done much valuable work since then. Seeing its travails amid the war in Ukraine, some observers have predicted the OSCE’s demise, saying it is no longer able to promote security in Europe. But the organisation still functions, and it remains the only multilateral space outside the UN where Russia and the West can pursue a dialogue on security matters.

The war in Ukraine has certainly disrupted the OSCE’s work, however. Outrage about Russian aggression has led the organisation’s 2022 chair, Poland, and senior officials to denounce Moscow’s actions. Theirs was an appropriate response to Russia’s conduct but a departure from organisational norms of circumspection, and Moscow has responded in kind. Antagonism between Russia and Western participating states has obstructed normal business, upended the organisation’s operations in Ukraine and contributed to a standoff over the organisation’s budget. With field mission mandates and the top four executive positions coming up for renewal, diplomats in Vienna are worried that the organisation’s core operations could be in jeopardy.

Part of the challenge facing the OSCE at present is that the organisation takes major political decisions by consensus, meaning that Russia (like every other participating state) has effective veto power. It has used this power to block the extension of the OSCE’s field operations in Ukraine. More obstruction is surely coming. While there are some exceptions to the consensus rule, if the organisation were to begin systematically bending the requirement, Moscow might well choose to leave. But to drive Russia out would be counterproductive. Particularly in the countries on Russia’s borders – for example in Central Asia and the South Caucasus – its cooperation is essential to achieving the organisation’s objectives.

Difficult as it may be to keep the OSCE on its feet against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, it is worth the effort.

Difficult as it may be to keep the OSCE on its feet against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, it is worth the effort. For one thing, the OSCE’s work, which in many places has been shaped but not derailed by the war, helps manage tensions from Moldova to Georgia to Central Asia. Its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is an important resource for promoting human rights and free and fair elections throughout the region, and its High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) helps to prevent inter-ethnic conflict by engaging in quiet diplomacy to facilitate the political and cultural integration of minorities into states within the OSCE area. The OSCE also makes a contribution to formal arms control, notably through the Vienna Document on Confidence and Security Measures in Europe, which enables participating states to observe one another’s military exercises and activities, among other things.

For another thing, preserving the OSCE will allow it to play a useful role in the future. If and when Russia and Ukraine reach a political settlement – a scenario that unfortunately seems far off right now – the OSCE would be a strong candidate to help monitor follow-through on the agreements that bring an end to the war. More broadly, Russia and the West will have to find ways to co-exist regardless of how the conflict in Ukraine is resolved. It seems short-sighted at best to let the broadest standing regional forum where they can work through matters of European and Eurasian security fall into disuse.

Yet absent a concerted effort the OSCE could well drift into irrelevance or disintegrate altogether. Participating states need to make a determined push in Vienna, the organisation’s seat, and in their own capitals to help address several pressing challenges confronting it in the coming months. The top priority in 2023 is to keep the organisation functional, making sure it has the funds to operate, extending the mandate of its field operations, finding a chair for 2024 and avoiding a leadership vacuum, with the terms of the Secretary General and the heads of the OSCE’s autonomous institutions, including ODIHR and HCNM, set to expire. To assist the 2023 chair, North Macedonia, in negotiating these contentious issues, foreign ministers of states committed to defending the OSCE could form an ad hoc group of supporters. This group should be geographically and politically balanced, with countries such as Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan included in it.

The organisation should also look for new ways to play a helpful role on the ground. In Ukraine, it could provide civilian monitors to oversee interim agreements between Kyiv and Moscow on issues such as nuclear safety. The organisation should continue efforts to maintain stability and prevent conflict in Moldova and Georgia, and it could step up efforts at reducing tensions between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The OSCE could also help implement a possible future settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Despite its troubles following the invasion, the OSCE remains an organisation of unique value to European and Eurasian security, helping to promote dialogue, forge consensus and manage conflict risks. Participating states would be well advised to assist the OSCE in meeting its impending challenges so that it can keep making important contributions to regional peace and security in the years ahead.

II. The OSCE and the War 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. Its 57 participating states include a wide range of actors that have a stake in European and Eurasian security, from Russia and Ukraine to the countries of Central Asia, the South Caucasus and the Western Balkans to the entire memberships of the European Union (EU) and NATO, and others like Switzerland to boot.[1] The organisation runs thirteen field operations that perform a variety of tasks, from monitoring conflict situations and running violence prevention programs to promoting governance reform.

Like other international bodies, the organisation has been roiled by the massive military campaign against Ukraine that Russia launched on 24 February. Both the attack and Russia’s reported atrocities in the ensuing hostilities are blatant transgressions of the OSCE’s foundational principles, enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975.[2] Under those principles, participating states committed to refrain from the use of force, settle disputes peacefully, uphold human rights, and respect one another’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The unfolding war has poisoned the atmosphere at the organisation’s headquarters in Vienna. It has also further compromised the OSCE’s ability to take decisions on important matters.


[1] The OSCE has “participating” rather than “member” states, a reference to its origins as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), established in 1973 during the détente period of the Cold War. In the early 1990s, the Conference evolved into a full-fledged organisation with executive structures, which, in 1994, led states to change its name to the OSCE. A list of the OSCE’s participating states is available on its website.

[2] See Michael Cotey Morgan, The Final Act: The Helsinki Accords and the Transformation of the Cold War (Princeton, 2020).

A. Reverberations in Vienna

Defying its normal circumspection, the organisation’s leadership has spoken out against Russia’s invasion from the outset. On 24 February, the OSCE’s Chairperson-in-Office, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, and its Secretary General Helga Schmid issued the following statement: “We strongly condemn Russia’s military action against Ukraine. This attack on Ukraine puts the lives of millions of people at grave risk and is a gross breach of international law and Russia’s commitments. We call for the immediate cessation of all military activities”.[1]

While these words were appropriate in the face of an act of naked aggression against a participating state and a threat to European security, it was nevertheless unusual for the OSCE’s leadership to criticise one of the organisation’s constituents in such strong terms.[2] Its reluctance to do so is rooted in the organisation’s consensus rule, which bestows effective veto rights on all participating states, allowing each of them to block its decisions.[3] Russia reacted harshly to the statement, accusing Poland of abusing its role as chair.[4]

The fallout from the invasion has dominated discussions in the OSCE ever since. Meetings of the Permanent Council – the main political organ that meets weekly in Vienna and takes decisions on matters ranging from the annual budget to field operation mandates – featured high-pitched accusatory exchanges that often found their way into diplomats’ social media accounts. In the weeks after the invasion, the Polish chair insisted that there could be “no business as usual”. The OSCE suspended deliberations on matters other than the war in the Permanent Council, the Forum for Security Cooperation (where states talk about military cooperation and arms control) and technical-level committees, including the one where diplomats negotiate the annual budget. Western states staged walkouts when Russia or Belarus, Moscow’s prime supporter at the OSCE, took the floor. For its part, Russia essentially boycotted the body’s meetings by sending junior diplomats as representatives.[5]


[1] The chair of the OSCE rotates annually and is held by a participating state, with its foreign minister acting as chairperson-in-office. The statement was published on the OSCE’s website.

[2] In 2014, the OSCE chairperson-in-office, Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, called the annexation of Crimea “illegal” but was otherwise restrained in condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, focusing on deploying a monitoring mission and setting up a political process to negotiate a settlement. See, eg, “OSCE Chairperson calls for diplomacy to overcome the crisis”, OSCE, 18 March 2014.

[3] The consensus rule was established in the CSCE’s rules of procedure in 1973. Although the rule does not derive from a binding treaty, it has governed decision-making in the CSCE, and later the OSCE, from the outset. As per OSCE practice, consensus is obtained when no participating state expresses objection to a tabled decision.

[4] For example, on 14 March, the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, said in response to Chairperson-in-Office Rau’s briefing at the UN Security Council that the “OSCE must … embrace the role as honest broker. Instead, the Polish chairmanship failed in such a role and instead initiated actions against a single signatory State”. In the same meeting, Rau had likened Russia’s actions in Ukraine to “state terrorism”.

[5] Crisis Group correspondence, OSCE officials, March 2022.

Relations between Russia and other participating states hit their lowest point to date in early March.

Relations between Russia and other participating states hit their lowest point to date in early March. At that time, 45 participating states mandated an expert fact-finding group to collect information about violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed during the war – which a special mechanism allows members to do even in the absence of consensus.[1] But in the Permanent Council, Russia blocked all decisions on Ukraine. Frustrated, Western diplomats contemplated using the “consensus minus one” rule, which states had invoked in the early 1990s to temporarily exclude the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from the OSCE’s predecessor group on the grounds of massive human rights violations. In late March, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki published his “ten-point plan to save Ukraine”, which included a call to “exclude Russia from all international organisations”.[2] While Morawiecki did not mention the OSCE by name, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba did, repeatedly calling on participating states to kick Russia out of the body.[3]

Russia, in turn, hinted that it might pull out of the OSCE. On 3 March, after the expert fact-finding group was formed, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said: “Moscow is not yet considering withdrawing from the OSCE, or suspending membership, but [its] patience is not unlimited”.[4] But Moscow did not follow through, as the effort to suspend Russia failed to gain momentum in Vienna. The “consensus minus one” rule was unlikely to be a useful workaround for taking peace and security decisions Moscow disapproved of, as Russia’s close supporters, foremost among them Belarus, would have continued to block decisions about Ukraine. In any case, many Vienna-based diplomats (as well as Crisis Group) argued against invoking the rule, as Russia’s exclusion would have deprived the OSCE of a major asset – its ability to provide a platform for pragmatic cooperation between the West and Russia in security affairs – and jeopardised its conflict mitigation role.[5]


[1] The fact-finding expert group was created via the Moscow Mechanism, which allows participating states to initiate an investigation into human rights violations over the opposition of the state under scrutiny. A minimum of ten states are needed to invoke the Moscow Mechanism. On 3 March, 45 states invoked it to “address the human rights and humanitarian impacts of the Russian Federation’s invasion and acts of war, supported by Belarus, on the people of Ukraine, within Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders and territorial waters”. On 2 June, after the expert group had presented its conclusions, the same 45 states ordered a follow-up investigation, and, on 28 July, 38 of them initiated a second fact-finding group “to examine alleged human rights violations in the Russian Federation”.

[2] Mateus Morawiecki, “Poland’s 10-point plan to save Ukraine”, Politico, 25 March 2022.

[3] At the OSCE Annual Security Review Conference in June, for example, Kuleba said: “It is common sense that after all Russia has done, it should not be present at this table. People say OSCE lacks appropriate suspension mechanisms. Well, then, there needs to be a precedent. Set up a procedure and get them out”. “Statement by H.E. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the OSCE Annual Security Review Conference”, OSCE, 28 June 2022.

[4] “Russia is not considering leaving the OSCE”, TASS, 3 March 2022 (Russian).

[5] Crisis Group interviews, OSCE diplomats, Vienna, October 2022. See also Stephanie Liechtenstein, “Ukraine calls for suspending Russia from the OSCE”, Security and Human Rights Monitor, 30 June 2022; and David Lanz and Olesya Vartanyan, “Preserving the OSCE at a Time of War”, Crisis Group Commentary, 21 March 2022.

B. Impact on the Ground

In addition to the acrimony it caused in Vienna, Russia’s 2022 military campaign has had an impact on both the OSCE’s field missions and its mediation activities, albeit to varying degrees.

1.    Ukraine activities

The OSCE field missions in Ukraine, the organisation’s most prominent before Russia’s February invasion, have been hardest hit. In 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea and backed the separatists asserting control over parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine, the OSCE mounted a far-reaching response. With agreement from Kyiv and Moscow, it deployed a monitoring mission – the largest field operation in its history – to serve as its eyes and ears on the ground and help reduce violence along the line of contact between government-controlled Ukraine and the self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk.[1]

When the February invasion began, however, the mission was suddenly in peril. The OSCE scrambled to evacuate the close to 500 remaining international monitors on the ground. The evacuation was difficult: fighting was escalating, and the mission had no plan in place for getting so many people out quickly. Even so, all the mission’s international staff left Ukraine within two weeks. The OSCE also sought to facilitate the evacuation or relocation of its Ukrainian staff, although some preferred to stay behind with their families, while logistical challenges and local laws hampered the departure of others.[2] In April, pro-Russian forces arrested six Ukrainian mission staff in Donetsk and Luhansk; three were later released, one awaits trial and two were sentenced to thirteen years in jail on almost certainly fabricated espionage charges.[3]

With its mandate expiring on 30 March, the OSCE Secretariat proposed “hibernating” the mission.[4] Hibernation would have paused operations, but preserved the mission as a legal entity, making it possible to quickly start it up in the future. But Russia opposed the proposal, forcing the mission to close. The same happened to the OSCE’s second, much smaller field operation in Ukraine – an office in Kyiv with 50 mostly national staff who were assisting the Ukrainian government with demining, environmental protection and election projects. This office’s mandate ran out on 30 June, and Russia again opposed extending the mission. Some of its projects will continue, however, under the support program for Ukraine launched on 1 November.[5] Creating this program did not require a consensus decision of the participating states as it consists of “extrabudgetary” projects managed by the OSCE Secretariat – similar to the projects the OSCE runs in Armenia and Azerbaijan.


[1] See “A Peaceful Presence – The First Five Years of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine”, OSCE, 29 June 2021.

[2] Reasons for staying in Ukraine varied. Some did so because of poor communication on the part of those responsible for the evacuation; others because the war restricted their mobility; and still others because they met the conditions to be drafted into the Ukrainian armed forces and were prohibited from leaving. Crisis Group interviews, OSCE officials, Vienna and by telephone, March, June and October 2022. See also Christopher Miller and Stephanie Liechtenstein, “Inside the OSCE’s botched withdrawal from Ukraine”, Politico, 10 June 2022.

[3] “Russian separatists in Luhansk convict ex-OSCE staff of treason”, Al Jazeera, 19 September 2022.

[4] Crisis Group correspondence, OSCE officials, March 2022. Crisis Group supported the proposal to hibernate the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. Lanz and Vartanyan, “Preserving the OSCE at a Time of War”, op. cit.

[5] New Donor-funded Support Programme for Ukraine”, OSCE, 1 November 2022. The program consists of 23 projects that require €28.7 million in voluntary contributions for the period August 2022 to July 2025. See Stephanie Liechtenstein, “Exclusive: OSCE to invest 28.7 million euros in support program in Ukraine”, Security and Human Rights Monitor, 27 October 2022.

The OSCE ... acted as a mediator in Ukraine.

Before 24 February, the OSCE also acted as a mediator in Ukraine, bringing together representatives from Moscow, Kyiv and the separatist entities in the Trilateral Contact Group. This group negotiated implementation of the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements, which set the terms for what was to be the reintegration of the separatist-controlled entities in Donetsk and Luhansk into Ukraine before Russia’s all-out invasion and subsequent events rendered these provisions moot. While OSCE-sponsored negotiations did not settle the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the organisation did help to broker truces during the pre-2022 period, for example in July 2020, leading to a marked reduction in hostilities. The OSCE talks also helped improve the situation of the civilian population in conflict-affected areas. For example, they yielded arrangements enabling civilians to cross the line of separation, at least until crossings significantly decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic.[1]

The OSCE’s mediation role did not survive the turn of events in 2022, however. The Minsk agreements became defunct in February, when Russia recognised the separatist-controlled entities’ independence; reintegration was henceforth off the table as far as the Kremlin was concerned, in effect dismantling the framework within which the OSCE had been working. The framework’s lapsed relevance was confirmed in September, when Russia proclaimed it was annexing the entirety of Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.

After the Trilateral Contact Group’s collapse deprived the OSCE’s special representative for Ukraine, Mikko Kinnunen, of his main function, which was to mediate talks within this format, he might nevertheless have used his good offices in other ways. For example, he could have facilitated humanitarian access or prisoner exchanges, drawing on the experience and contacts the OSCE has built up since 2014. But Poland, as OSCE chair, did not want Kinnunen to engage in this way. Nor did it attempt to position the OSCE in talks between Kyiv and Moscow in Istanbul at the end of March or the negotiations that led to the Black Sea grain deal in July.[2]


[1] Crisis Group Europe Report 260, Peace in Ukraine (II): A New Approach to Disengagement, 3 August 2020.

[2] Crisis Group interviews, OSCE officials and diplomats, Vienna, Geneva and by telephone, March, June and October 2022.

2.    Other activities

Russia’s February attack and its aftermath also affected the organisation’s conflict management efforts outside Ukraine, though in most cases not as fundamentally.

In Moldova, where the OSCE acts as mediator between the government in Chisinau and de facto authorities in Tiraspol, the seat of separatist Transdniestria, the 2022 surge in hostilities in Ukraine curtailed parts of the settlement process but did not stop its work entirely. At the international level, the process has taken place in the so-called 5+2 format. The “5” in this equation comprises the OSCE, Russia and Ukraine as “co-mediators” and the U.S. and EU as “observers”. The “2” represents the conflict parties – the Moldovan government and the Transdniestrian de facto authorities. At the national level, the settlement process has encompassed regular meetings between the Moldovan and Transdniestrian chief negotiators (sometimes called the 1+1 format) as well as working group meetings where representatives from Chisinau and Tiraspol would negotiate specific cooperation schemes (for example, in the area of trade and transport) with the support of the OSCE field mission in Moldova.

While the invasion’s aftermath saw an interruption in the high-level 5+2 format meetings, it did not end the 1+1 meetings or the working groups’ efforts. Indeed, Chisinau and Tiraspol have intensified meetings in both formats thanks to OSCE facilitation, helping to prevent the Ukraine war from spilling over into Moldova – an interest the two sides share, notwithstanding their continued conflict and Russia’s support for Transdniestria. The OSCE mission has also continued to help maintain stability by monitoring the situation on the ground and following up with the parties after incidents, for example, in April when explosions of unknown provenance destroyed a radio tower in Transdniestria.[1]


[1] Crisis Group interview, OSCE official, Vienna, October 2022.

Since the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, the OSCE has acted as one of three international mediators, along with the EU and UN.

The war in Ukraine has had less of an impact on the OSCE’s work on conflict containment in Georgia and its two breakaway regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – which Russia recognises 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 UN. The trio is responsible for organising the Geneva International Discussions, a negotiating format that brings together Georgia, the de facto entities, Russia and the U.S.

The intensified war in Ukraine strained this format but fortunately has not led to its collapse. In March, the mediators had to postpone a round of talks in Geneva. But, to the surprise of diplomats in Vienna who did not think senior Russian, U.S. and EU representatives would be able to meet as the war raged, discussions went forward in October.[1] The results were meagre, but holding the talks was significant in itself. It sent a signal that all sides are interested in preventing relapse into conflict in Georgia, and it helped ensure support among senior officials in Georgia and Russia (as well as de facto South Ossetian officials) for OSCE and EU conflict prevention efforts at the line of separation between Georgia proper and South Ossetia.[2]

Finally, Russia’s campaign in Ukraine has changed the dynamics in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh but has not significantly altered the OSCE’s role. The OSCE Minsk Group – whose co-chairs are Russia, the U.S. and France – has acted as a mediator in this conflict since 1995. But it has failed to deliver durable results, and its influence has decreased. Indeed, in November 2020, it was Moscow rather than the Minsk Group that brokered the ceasefire ending the six-week war in which Baku reclaimed parts of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as seven adjacent areas.

The agreement Moscow brokered, and the Russian peacekeepers deployed to oversee the ceasefire, kept fighting in check until early 2022.[3] But from late February onward, as Russia increasingly appeared distracted and weakened by its botched invasion, Baku began to challenge the status quo. In March, Azerbaijani forces seized territory within the peacekeepers’ patrolling area, leading the EU to arrange two meetings between the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders in Brussels in April and May.[4] Tensions rose again over the summer, culminating in fighting along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in September.[5] More diplomacy ensued, with the EU, France and the U.S. convening several high-level meetings in September and October. Russia, in turn, brought together Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders in Sochi at the end of October.

The flurry of non-OSCE initiatives laid bare the lack of cooperation between Russia and the West in managing the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as the failure of the Minsk Group (which has not, as a body, coordinated any effort to advance settlement negotiations since February) to meet the moment. Russia has accused the West of “cancelling” the Minsk Group, seeing the EU’s move to step up separate engagement as a challenge to its role as a mediator.[6] French and U.S. officials, for their part, describe making repeated and, so far, futile attempts to connect with Russian counterparts to better synchronise diplomatic efforts around the talks between Baku and Yerevan.[7]

The OSCE maintains some operations in Armenia and Azerbaijan, running projects to promote economic ties, among other things, but its capacity is limited as it no longer has field offices in Baku and Yerevan.[8] The chairperson-in-office’s personal representative, Andrzej Kasprzyk, has tried to keep communication channels between Baku and Yerevan open by proposing confidence-building measures, but the sides, Azerbaijan in particular, have not been receptive to these efforts.[9]


[1] Tbilisi was the driving force behind restoration of the Geneva International Discussions, as it was loath to lose a platform it considers useful for engaging with the breakaway regions and preventing incidents at the lines of separation. The U.S. was reluctant to participate in talks at first, as it was pushing for Russia’s diplomatic isolation. Washington changed its position due to Tbilisi’s insistence and after Philip Reeker started work as the State Department’s Senior Advisor for Caucasus negotiations in August, which led to more proactive U.S. engagement in the region. Crisis Group interviews, Georgian and EU policymakers, Tbilisi and Brussels, spring and summer 2022.

[2] Olesya Vartanyan, “In Ukraine, Georgia Sees Powerful and Worrying Parallels”, Crisis Group Commentary, 4 March 2022.

[3] Crisis Group Europe Briefing 93, Nagorno-Karabakh: Seeking a Path to Peace in the Ukraine War’s Shadow, 22 April 2022.

[4] Crisis Group Commentary, “New Opportunities for Mediation in Nagorno-Karabakh”, 25 May 2022.

[5] Crisis Group Commentary, “Upholding the Ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia”, 28 September 2022.

[6] “Fate of OSCE Minsk Group in question after US, France cancel ‘troika’ format”, Caspian News, 11 April 2022.

[7] Crisis Group interviews, French and U.S. diplomats, Yerevan and Washington DC, October and November 2022.

[8] Absent the Azerbaijani government’s support, the OSCE closed its field office in Baku at the end of 2015. The OSCE office in Yerevan followed suit and closed in 2017.

[9] Crisis Group interviews, OSCE official and diplomats, Vienna, October and November 2022.

C. Three Scenarios

In the summer of 2022, as the war in Ukraine continued, much of the normal diplomacy that occurs at the OSCE’s seat in Vienna continued to be blocked, but the atmosphere improved somewhat. The Polish chair relaxed its “no business as usual” policy to a degree, for example allowing the heads of the OSCE’s field operations to give their annual presentations at the Permanent Council. Western diplomats largely ceased their walkouts. Moscow, in turn, did not object to holding the OSCE Annual Security Review Conference, where states meet to discuss global security challenges, even though it was clear that many delegations would use the event as a platform to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine and beyond.

But whatever mutual good-will these modest steps generated was quickly forgotten when President Vladimir Putin proclaimed that Russia would annex four regions in eastern and south-eastern Ukraine on 30 September – a move the OSCE’s chairperson-in-office and secretary general appropriately condemned for violating the OSCE’s core principles.[1] Further complications came when Poland announced it would not grant visas to members of the Russian Duma to attend the OSCE parliamentary assembly in Warsaw at the end of November or to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to attend the Ministerial Council meeting in Lodz in December. Moscow denounced Warsaw’s move as “unprecedented and inflammatory”.[2]

While the escalated war in Ukraine has sown discord in Vienna and affected some of the OSCE’s activities, its enduring structural impact has so far been limited.

While the escalated war in Ukraine has sown discord in Vienna and affected some of the OSCE’s activities, its enduring structural impact has so far been limited. One reason is that participating states have been confronted with few decisions of lasting consequence for the organisation since 24 February. That will soon change, however, as the organisation will be required to take a number of major decisions over the course of the coming year. The first round will come in the weeks after the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in December, when mandates for the majority of the OSCE’s field operations are up for their annual renewals. The appointments to the OSCE’s top four leadership positions, including its secretary general, are approaching in 2023. The organisation also needs to agree upon which country will take the chair in 2024, after North Macedonia’s turn in 2023. Decisions on these matters represent inflection points, even if the outcome of the war in Ukraine and Moscow’s attitude toward security cooperation with the West remain the decisive factors for the OSCE’s future.

There are three main scenarios for the OSCE as these decisions approach. In the first, Moscow might systematically block consensus, which would paralyse the organisation, severely obstruct the work of the OSCE’s autonomous institutions and force the closure of field operations. At risk are field operations in Central Asia, as well as the organisation’s human rights and democracy body, ODIHR, which is based in Warsaw, and has been a particular target of Russia’s ire. These steps would severely compromise the OSCE’s ability to act, rendering it less and less relevant, and depending on their extent might build pressure on Western states to find a way to suspend Moscow’s participation.

In the second scenario, Western states would join together in an effort to side-line Russia. Participating states opposed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would appropriate the organisation for themselves, circumventing or ignoring the consensus rule by taking decisions that go beyond the established non-consensus mechanisms.[1] They could, for example, mandate field operations or appoint a chair over the objections of Moscow and its allies. In this scenario it is likely that Russia would withdraw from the OSCE.

Finally, in a third, more optimistic scenario, participating states would find ways to reach a sufficient number of compromises to preserve the OSCE as a multilateral platform. In this scenario, the organisation would be impaired as long as the war in Ukraine went on, but it could continue to perform its functions in promoting regional security during a difficult period, maintain its integrity and prepare to step up its engagement when the situation improves. It is this last scenario that participating states should work toward, both to safeguard the OSCE’s existing contributions and to preserve the organisation’s ability to play a useful role in the future.


[1] Established non-consensus measures are those firmly anchored in the OSCE’s institutional framework and in many cases based on Ministerial Council decisions. They include, among others, diplomatic activities, public statements and appointments by the chairperson-in-office; the implementation of extrabudgetary projects by OSCE field operations, the Secretariat and institutions; and a range of actions the secretary general can take to promote the OSCE’s mandate across the “conflict cycle”, including early warning, mediation support and post-conflict rehabilitation; as well as fact-finding missions and investigation teams that a certain number of participating states can establish, for example via the Moscow Mechanism (see footnote 8).

III. Seven Priorities for Preserving the OSCE

Despite the pressures the OSCE faces as war rages in Europe, no participating state has openly questioned whether the organisation should continue to exist. Diplomats in Vienna almost uniformly see the value in preserving it, arguing that it offers a useful diplomatic platform and contributes to preventing and managing conflicts on the ground.[1] But given the political friction generated by Russia’s war in Ukraine, preserving the OSCE will require a determined effort. There are significant risks of paralysis and disintegration, which states can mitigate only if they step up efforts. Against this backdrop, the OSCE’s supporters should focus on the following priorities as they navigate the thicket of challenges facing them in the coming period.


[1] Crisis Group interviews, OSCE diplomats, Vienna, Geneva and by telephone, September and October 2022.

1.          Mobilise political support for compromise

Because of the OSCE’s consensus rule, the organisation is especially dependent on compromise among its participating states in order to operate as an institution. Normally, the OSCE’s active diplomatic scene, centred around the Hofburg palace in Vienna, is where compromise happens. But given the Ukraine war’s fallout, diplomatic efforts in Vienna are increasingly failing to deliver results. The organisation’s proponents therefore will need to find a way to mobilise high-level attention and, in particular, more effective political support for compromise. December’s Ministerial Council meeting in Lodz offers an opportunity for high-level engagement. But Council meetings are highly scripted, offering little space and time for negotiations among ministers.

One way to give these efforts a lasting boost might be to form an ad hoc group of countries that would commit to defending the OSCE and supporting North Macedonia, which will be the 2023 chair, as well as future chairs, in negotiating contentious points. Such a group should be geographically and politically balanced. In addition to North Macedonia and Finland (which has already been selected chair for 2025), it could include Austria and Switzerland – both non-NATO Western countries that have long supported the OSCE.[1] As balances to the Western representatives, the group could also include Kazakhstan, which is likewise a non-NATO country and strong OSCE backer (having hosted its last summit in 2010), and Uzbekistan, which has a history of seeking a balanced foreign policy and shown a surge of interest in the OSCE in recent years. After a launch at a meeting of foreign ministers, the group could reach out to other states, urging them to work together to preserve the OSCE, and offering to propose solutions for critical issues, for example the appointment of a 2024 chair.


[1] Along with Sweden, Germany and Poland, Austria and Switzerland are the only countries that have chaired the OSCE twice: Austria in 2000 and 2017, and Switzerland in 1996 and 2014.

2.          Keep Russia in the organisation

An important dilemma for the OSCE in the coming months is how to deal with Russia. As noted, Moscow’s war of aggression in Ukraine constitutes a flagrant violation of the OSCE’s core principles and the fallout is curtailing the organisation’s ability to act. By far the biggest contribution to the OSCE’s survival at this point would be for Russia to call off its war in Ukraine, withdraw its forces and reverse its claims of having annexed parts of the country.

But this scenario does not seem realistic at present, unfortunately, and having Russia among the participating states is still key to the OSCE’s usefulness as a body, including for Western countries. In places where Russia remains influential, the OSCE offers a platform for coming up with security arrangements that enjoy broad acceptance. The OSCE’s mediation in Moldova, where it regularly engages with de facto authorities in Transdniestria, and in Georgia, where it maintains contacts between Tbilisi and the de facto authorities in South Ossetia, would not be possible were it not for Russia’s buy-in. The same was true of the now defunct OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine, which operated in the separatist-run portions of Donetsk and Luhansk, albeit with restrictions.

Moscow has valued the OSCE for its pan-European reach ... [but] criticises what it characterises as anti-Russian bias.

While keeping Russia in is therefore critical to the OSCE’s continued relevance, it is equally important to prevent the organisation’s paralysis. Balancing these two aims is a challenge, foremost for the country chairing the OSCE. That balancing requires pragmatism as well as attention to debates inside Russia, which has long been ambivalent about the OSCE. On one hand, Moscow has valued the OSCE for its pan-European reach and the platform it offers to speak as equals with the U.S. and European powers. On the other, Moscow criticises what it characterises as anti-Russian bias, an excessive focus on security in states formerly part of the Soviet Union and the West’s instrumental use of the OSCE’s human rights mechanisms.[1] While parts of the security services and presidential administration have advocated for Russia’s withdrawal, the foreign ministry has countered them, arguing that Russia has little to gain from exiting the OSCE and should stay inside.[2]

Against this backdrop, the question that will confront participating states is how far they can go without causing Russia’s withdrawal from the OSCE. Diplomats in Vienna say it is difficult to know the answer, given the unpredictability of decision-making in Moscow.[3] But there are certain potential red lines that, if crossed, could well lead the Kremlin to pull out.

Four potential triggers merit particular attention. One would be invocation of the “consensus minus one” rule to suspend Russia’s participation in OSCE decision-making. This step would almost certainly lead to withdrawal, as it did at the outset of the Ukraine invasion, when Russia pulled out of the Council of Europe, pre-empting an expected expulsion.[4] Another possible tripwire would be for the OSCE parliamentary assembly to exclude members of the Russian Duma. The assembly has no legislative power but enables contact among parliamentarians of participating states. Though of little practical consequence, the Duma members’ exclusion could amplify Russian voices wanting to pull out of the OSCE and convince the Kremlin to go down that path.[5] A third red line might be crossed if the OSCE, through the projects the Secretariat helps run in Kyiv, were to provide direct support to the Ukrainian war effort. A fourth scenario might arise if Western states were to use unprecedented means of pushing through decisions on matters that have traditionally been subject to the consensus rule, for example appointing a chair or mandating a field operation.

If Russia were to escalate the war in Ukraine dramatically, for example by using nuclear weapons, Russia’s suspension from the OSCE would be inevitable. Unless and until that happens, however, the participating states should steer clear of these actions.


[1] Crisis Group telephone interview, Russian OSCE expert, October 2022. See also Andrey Kortunov, “To stay or not to stay? Seven concerns Russia has about the OSCE”, Russian International Affairs Council, 19 May 2021.

[2] Crisis Group telephone interview, Russian OSCE expert, October 2022.

[3] Crisis Group interviews, OSCE diplomats, Vienna, October 2022.

[4] “Russia quits Council of Europe rights watchdog”, Reuters, 15 March 2022.

[5] Crisis Group telephone interview, Russian OSCE expert, October 2022.

3.          Keep operations authorised and funded

To keep the OSCE functioning smoothly, it is important that participating states agree on the 2023 budget before the end of the year. The organisation has limped along in 2022 without a budget owing to a rift between Armenia and Azerbaijan over funding for the activities of the Minsk Group co-chairs, as well as Russia’s reluctance to fund ODIHR.[1] With no approved yearly budget, the OSCE has been compelled to operate with monthly allotments based on the last approved budget, that of 2021.[2] This makeshift approach poses many problems. The OSCE is unable to adapt to new developments, allocate funds to new activities or create new staff positions. With rising inflation, OSCE staff face a net salary loss, which is particularly onerous in countries hosting field operations where price increases have been especially sharp; in Moldova, for example, the burden has already led key staff to resign.[3]

There are several moves that participating states can make to end this dysfunctional status quo. Capitals need to focus on this problem, redoubling efforts to find a solution on the budget and putting pressure on the states that are preventing a compromise. The proposed ad hoc supporters’ group could help make this push. If consensus continues to be elusive, states could proceed with funding the budget’s non-programmatic components – for example, infrastructure costs and inflation adjustments to salaries – while continuing to use monthly allotments based on the 2021 budget for the rest of the OSCE’s operations.[4] In the long run, to avoid similar delays, states should consider reforming the budget cycle, for example introducing multi-year budgets.[5]

Beyond the budget, the other logjam that requires immediate attention is mandate renewal for the OSCE’s field missions. Participating states place high value on these missions, and extending their mandates at year’s end is usually a formality.[6] But diplomats worry that some missions – for example, the OSCE office in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, which has a difficult relationship with the government, or the missions in Moldova and Bosnia, which are headed by U.S. diplomats (whose work Moscow might wish to impede) – could come under pressure.[7] It is important for participating states, anticipating these dynamics, to train their sights on achieving a timely extension of the field operations’ mandates as they are now. A decision to extend current mandates would send a strong signal that states do not want the fallout from the war in Ukraine to jeopardise the OSCE’s operations elsewhere.

[1] Crisis Group interviews, OSCE diplomats and officials, Vienna, October 2022.

[2] The 2021 total budget of the OSCE amounted to €138.2 million. This figure does not include voluntary contributions to extrabudgetary projects.

[3] Crisis Group interview, OSCE official, Vienna, October 2022.

[4] Crisis Group interviews, OSCE diplomats, Vienna, Geneva and by telephone, October 2022. Germany also hinted at this option in a June 2022 non-paper (on file with Crisis Group), in which it proposed measures to keep the OSCE functional.

[5] The OSCE’s secretary general from 2017 to 2020, Thomas Greminger, made this and other suggestions for reforming the budgetary cycle in a publication evaluating his own tenure. “Multilateralism in Transition: Challenges and Opportunities for the OSCE”, Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich, 2021, pp. 36-37.

[6] Ten of the OSCE’s thirteen field operations require mandate extension at the end of the year. Exceptions are the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, whose mandate participating states have extended on a monthly basis; the OSCE Centre in Ashgabat (Turkmenistan), which has an open-ended mandate; and the chair’s personal representative dealing with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, who is appointed by the chairperson-in-office outside of consensus procedures. See “Survey of OSCE Field Operations”, OSCE, 13 September 2021.

[7] Crisis Group interviews, OSCE diplomats and officials, Vienna and Geneva, October 2022.

4.          Avoid a leadership crisis

Another risk in the coming years is a leadership crisis at the political and executive levels. The OSCE’s political leadership in two of the next three years is clear: North Macedonia will act as chair in 2023, while Finland will take over in 2025. For 2024, Estonia had declared its interest in chairing but, in contrast to Finland for 2025, failed to obtain consensus at the December 2021 Ministerial Council meeting in Stockholm, due to Russia’s opposition. Tallinn has, however, maintained its candidacy, which would make any other contender entering the race look like a competitor with Estonia. Such jockeying is unusual in the OSCE, and it would be out of the question for Estonia’s fellow EU countries in this instance.[1] The decision about the 2024 chair therefore remains pending.


[1] Crisis Group interviews, EU member state diplomats, Vienna and Geneva, September and October 2022.

The failure to identify a chair [for the OSCE] would reinforce perceptions of institutional decline.

The vacancy will become a problem in 2023, as the incoming chair is supposed to join the Troika – a group that includes the previous, current and incoming chairs – as well as lead negotiations on adopting the 2024 budget.[1] Foreign ministries also need time to prepare for assuming the chair, setting up suitable structures in Vienna and their own capitals. Finally, the failure to identify a chair would reinforce perceptions of institutional decline. Should the chair remain empty, North Macedonia would have to extend its tenure, either by a year, or by six months, with Finland taking over mid-year in 2024.[2] This scenario would be highly unusual, setting a poor precedent and sapping confidence in the organisation’s capacity to govern itself.

For all these reasons, it is important to find a chair for 2024 as soon as possible, if not at December’s Ministerial Council meeting in Lodz, then in an extraordinary meeting of the same body in early 2023. Given the likelihood of stalemate, Estonia might postpone its candidacy for the time being so that a solution can be identified. Western states may be able to help by supporting Estonia in assuming another high-level role in the OSCE or in the EU in the near future. As for other candidates, Spain has indicated it would be ready to take over in 2024, as has Kazakhstan. Türkiye also appears to be interested.[3] Putting Ankara in the chair could help pave the way for the OSCE to play a part in future negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow, given Ankara’s current mediation role. Countries with which Türkiye has strained relations – in particular Armenia, Greece and Cyprus – might baulk at Ankara leading the OSCE, but the idea is worth exploring, nonetheless.

The organisation will also soon need to fill its top four executive positions – the Secretary General and the heads of the OSCE’s three autonomous institutions – whose mandates all expire in December 2023.[4] Participating states decide on the OSCE’s executive leadership by consensus, and they usually negotiate these appointments as a package. This practice has the disadvantage that if a state challenges any one of the four individuals, the whole deal collapses. A package fell apart in 2020, leaving the OSCE leaderless for five months.[5] Diplomats in Vienna fear a similar scenario in 2023.[6] They expect negotiations to be even more difficult than in 2020, as Moscow and other states with autocratic leanings could attempt to renegotiate the mandate of the institution that they most dislike – ODIHR – limiting the independence of OSCE election and human rights monitoring efforts.

North Macedonia, the incoming chair, can help avoid a full-blown leadership crisis. With assistance from the suggested ad hoc supporters’ group, it should focus on this issue from the beginning of its tenure, trying to get the individuals who now hold the top four positions reappointed. Only if reappointment proves impossible should a new package with different candidates be considered. In any case, however, filling the top four positions should be a priority.


[1] The role of the Troika varies, depending on the chair’s preferences. In some years, for example in 2015 when Serbia was chair, with Switzerland and Germany as the previous and incoming chairs, the Troika held weekly consultations with key ambassadors and helped find compromises among participating states.

[2] Crisis Group interviews, OSCE diplomats and officials, October 2022. In the absence of a 2024 chair, OSCE Secretary General Schmid has suggested adding Finland to the Troika in 2023 to ensure leadership continuity.

[3] Crisis Group interviews, OSCE diplomats and officials, September and October 2022.

[4] The three autonomous OSCE institutions are ODIHR, HCNM and the Representative for the Freedom of the Media.

[5] In July 2020, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan objected to the reappointment of Harlem Désir as the Representative for the Freedom of the Media, which prevented reappointment of the other three leaders, including Secretary General Greminger. Participating states agreed to a new leadership package, which included the current secretary general, Schmid, only that December.

[6] Crisis Group interviews, OSCE diplomats, Vienna, October 2022.

5.          Explore new ways to be helpful in Ukraine

The OSCE is largely absent from deliberations about Ukraine. As noted, the Trilateral Contact Group’s mediation efforts and the monitoring mission ended because of Russia’s invasion, which also led the project office in Kyiv to close. Consequently, the OSCE has played no significant role in trying to end the major hostilities from 24 February on. Instead, it has focused its efforts on specific dimensions of the conflict, deploying mechanisms that do not require consensus: it has mandated three fact-finding groups; ODIHR has provided an assessment of the human rights situation in Ukraine; and the OSCE Secretariat has started projects in Ukraine to support demining and address wartime environmental damage. But these measures, while useful, do not deploy the OSCE’s vast experience in conflict management to best use. Ideally the organisation would be working to encourage de-escalation and preparing to do its part, at the appropriate time, to bring the war to a conclusion.

Whether the OSCE can play a useful role depends on circumstances, such as battlefield dynamics, openings for negotiations and the belligerent parties’ preferences. But a proactive attitude from the chair, with support from others, could position the OSCE to make a greater contribution. It is unlikely that the OSCE will emerge as the main mediator between Russia and Ukraine, given the established roles of Türkiye and the UN, not to mention the taint of association with the now defunct Minsk agreements, which are highly unpopular among Ukrainians.[1] But the organisation could keep an eye on the progress of agreements that aim to lessen the war’s effects on civilians – for example, deals to ensure the safety of nuclear or hydropower plants. This role would be new, drawing on the organisation’s extensive experience in monitoring fulfilment of accords and facilitating dialogue between conflict parties on the ground. The OSCE also has at its disposal a pool of hundreds of qualified monitors, many of whom have worked in Ukraine before.

Looking out at the horizon, in the event of a ceasefire or a broader settlement between Russia and Ukraine, there could conceivably be a role for the OSCE in deploying a field mission. Even though this scenario is highly speculative at present, as neither party seems ready to sit down at the negotiating table, participating states should ensure preparedness, and North Macedonia as the 2023 chair should task the OSCE Secretariat to develop plans for different scenarios. One option is a joint peace operation with the UN.[2] The Conflict Prevention Centre – the division within the OSCE Secretariat responsible for field missions – could develop plans for the OSCE element of a joint operation, working together with counterparts in the UN Secretariat, which has also not done detailed contingency planning for a possible mission in Ukraine.[3]


[1] According to a survey published before the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, 63 per cent of Ukrainians said their country should review the Minsk agreements, and only 11 per cent believed Ukraine should adhere to all their provisions. “The majority of Ukrainians believe that the Minsk agreements should be reviewed and new ones signed – survey”, Zerkalo Tyzhdnya, 16 February 2022 (Ukrainian).

[2] Crisis Group has previously explored various possibilities for peace operations in Ukraine, including the option of a joint UN-OSCE mission. Richard Gowan, “A Tentative First Look at Options for Peace Operations in Ukraine”, Crisis Group Commentary, 24 March 2022.

[3] Crisis Group telephone interview, UN officials, October 2022.

6.          Continue to monitor and address crises outside Ukraine

Beyond Ukraine, OSCE officials should closely watch other places that face a risk of violence in the coming years, drawing from its conflict management toolbox as necessary.

Tensions are growing more pronounced in parts of Central Asia, where recent years have seen violent protest, inter-ethnic conflict and border clashes between state armed forces.[1] The OSCE has field operations in five Central Asian states, but they have limited political mandates and, in some cases, tenuous relations with host governments, which for the most part precludes proactive mediation. The chairperson-in-office could, however, nominate a personal envoy or special representative for high-level diplomatic engagement, possibly with a focus on managing water resources to prevent conflict. One goal might be to try to prevent renewed clashes along the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where competition for resources and an undemarcated border have contributed to surges of violence.


[1] See Crisis Group, “Police, Protests and Populism in Central Asia”, War & Peace (podcast), 16 February 2021; and Alina Dalbaeva, “End the Weaponisation of Water in Central Asia”, Crisis Group Commentary, 15 March 2018.

In the event of a settlement between Baku and Yerevan, the OSCE could help implement an agreement.

In the South Caucasus, the OSCE is unlikely to lead the settlement negotiations between Baku and Yerevan, but it could work toward creating a framework for Russian, EU and U.S. efforts in that direction to cohere. It might, for example, offer to hold a conference under its auspices with all the major actors – either in the framework of the existing Minsk Group or in a new format. In the event of a settlement between Baku and Yerevan, the OSCE could help implement an agreement, for example participating in ceasefire monitoring and promoting post-conflict rehabilitation through programs to promote economic cooperation in the region.

As for Georgia, the OSCE should maintain a regular rhythm of talks in Geneva and ensure continued contacts between Tbilisi and the breakaway region South Ossetia, in hopes of paving the way for increased cooperation on issues such as trade across the line of separation, water infrastructure and missing persons.

In Moldova, the OSCE mission should continue its efforts to mediate between the government and separatist Transdniestria but also address other issues necessary for stability in the country. It should especially focus on the autonomous region of Gagauzia, where officials had reacted negatively to the EU granting Moldova candidate status in June, accusing Chisinau of failing to consult them. Working with private mediation organisations and with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, which have engaged in Gagauzia for many years, the OSCE mission should work to help heal the rift between the government in Chisinau and authorities in Comrat.

The OSCE should also closely monitor the situation in the Western Balkans, where it runs six field operations, stepping up its efforts if necessary. Through its mission in Kosovo, the OSCE’s largest since the monitoring mission in Ukraine closed, the OSCE has excellent access to municipalities in the north inhabited by a majority of Kosovo Serbs. The OSCE’s access in northern Kosovo is due to the mission’s status-neutral posture, as not all participating states have recognised Kosovo as an independent state.

7.          Prepare for Helsinki+50

The OSCE is rooted in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, a key achievement of détente during the Cold War. The decalogue of principles enshrined in the Act, while not legally binding, forms the organisation’s normative core. Before Russia’s 24 February attack on Ukraine, ideas abounded for how to make best use of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Helsinki accords. A common proposal was holding a summit in 2025, echoing the OSCE Panel of Eminent Persons’ recommendation “to launch a diplomatic process to rebuild the foundation of European security”.[1] Finnish President Sauli Niniistö went a step further, proposing a high-level meeting in Helsinki in 2025 where world powers would commit to shared security principles.[2] These ideas ring hollow with the war in Ukraine grinding on. But the question remains what the OSCE, and Finland as the 2025 chair, will make of the Final Act’s 50th anniversary.

The first step is to manage expectations: the most likely situation in 2025 is that tensions between Russia and the West persist, whether or not the war in Ukraine is still under way. Unless all participating states are present, it would be wise not to hold a special high-level event in Helsinki. A non-inclusive event would be unlikely to advance regional security, and it would sit uncomfortably with the Final Act’s legacy of promoting dialogue and compromise.

If tensions persist, Finland could organise a meeting with foreign ministers and explore space for a narrow political declaration. Such a document would not break new ground but focus on reaffirming the relevance of the Helsinki principles and of the OSCE as its guardian.[3] In parallel, Finland could hold a conference with broad participation from scholars and civil society, celebrating the Helsinki accords’ historic achievements and exploring topics relating to the OSCE’s role in the next 25 years, including how the organisation might support a future European security architecture.


[1] “Back to Diplomacy”, OSCE Panel of Eminent Persons, November 2015.

[2] Sauli Niniistö, “It’s time to revive the Helsinki spirit”, Foreign Policy, 8 July 2021. A component of Niniistö’s idea was to apply the Helsinki model – states committing to a set of security principles and to regular dialogue with one another – to other parts of the world. Crisis Group has supported this idea, advocating, for example, for establishing a regional dialogue platform in the Gulf subregion. See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°212, The Middle East between Collective Security and Collective Breakdown, 27 April 2020.

[3] The declaration to commemorate the UN’s 75th anniversary could serve as inspiration. That document was relatively narrow but proved useful in reaffirming the UN Charter and providing a foundation for Secretary-General António Guterres to launch a number of reform measures.

An unlikely, but highly desirable scenario would be to organise a summit with heads of state to encourage a renaissance of the European security architecture.

An unlikely, but highly desirable scenario would be to organise a summit with heads of state to encourage a renaissance of the European security architecture, with attendant discussions of conventional arms control measures. This scenario presupposes a settlement between Ukraine and Russia as well as, under most imaginable scenarios, a variety of agreements between Russia and the West delineating at the least exercise and weapon-deployment limits.[1] Whether this happens in time for the Final Act’s 50th anniversary or not, there could hardly be a better place than Helsinki to hold such a summit. Given Helsinki’s role during the Cold War, such an event would symbolise the advent of a new area as states recommit to common security principles and to cooperation in the OSCE framework.


[1] See Gabriela Iveliz Rosa-Hernandez and Olga Oliker, “The Art of the Possible: Minimizing Risks as a New European Order Takes Shape”, Foreign Policy Research Institute, November 2022.

IV. Conclusion

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had far-reaching repercussions for the OSCE, and the most difficult challenges are likely still ahead. While there are limits to what the organisation can achieve with one of its most powerful participating states pursuing a war of aggression, it would be a mistake to allow the organisation to lapse into irrelevance. Approaching the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act, the OSCE continues to do useful work in preventing and mitigating the effects of deadly conflict, and it is poised to do more. It could form an important part of the European security architecture that emerges from the war in Ukraine. Its future will be circumscribed, however, without a concerted push today to preserve the organisation as a functional multilateral platform, protecting the useful work it is still able to do and preserving its capacity to realise its full potential when the situation improves.

Brussels, 29 November 2022

Contributors

Former President & CEO
Mohamed Sahnoun
Former Special Adviser on Africa to the UN Secretary-General

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