Interview / Global

Getting to Zero

Gareth Evans serves as co-chair of the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Commission, an initiative sponsored by Australia and Japan aimed at providing recommendations for strengthening the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), reinvigorating efforts to halt nuclear nonproliferation, and promoting nuclear disarmament. Evans has held a long career in international security and arms control issues, as Australia's foreign minister during 1988-1996 and as the current president and chief executive officer of the International Crisis Group, a position he has held since 2000. Arms Control Today met with Evans Feb. 12 to discuss the work of the commission and his perspective on the issues it will be addressing.

ACT: Regarding the work of the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Commission, its goal is to "reenergize high-level political discussion about the elimination of nuclear weapons." About 10 years ago, you helped initiate the Canberra Commission, which sought to take the opportunity provided by the end of the Cold War to accomplish a similar goal.[fn]The Australian government established the Canberra Commission in 1995 to provide recommendations for steps toward global nuclear disarmament.Hide Footnote What opportunities do you see today to re-energize this debate 10 years after that commission's work?

Evans: The last 10 years has been a period in which we have been sleepwalking as an international community, with multiple things going rather badly wrong. Obviously, the India-Pakistan breakout, the Iran and North Korea issues, the failure of the 2005 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, the failure of the 2005 World Summit, immobility in the Conference on Disarmament.[fn]The eighth NPT review conference held in 2005 concluded without any substantive agreement on its consideration of the provisions of the treaty and has therefore been widely seen as a failure. The same year, the UN General Assembly held a high-level summit that adopted a final document that excluded any reference to nuclear disarmament, which was contained in earlier drafts. The Conference on Disarmament is a 65-member negotiating body on nonproliferation and disarmament matters. Since 1997, it has been unable to agree on an agenda to begin substantive work.Hide Footnote  It has been a desolate decade.

The opportunity to move things forward is intimately bound up with the new U.S. administration and the sense of confidence and momentum that hopefully that will generate, and is already generating, around the world, combined with the really significant contribution intellectually that has been made by the Gang of Four simply by putting out a hard-hitting case for zero nuclear weapons worldwide. They were not very forthcoming about how the steps are going to be taken,[fn]Former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), sometimes referred to as the Gang of Four, joined to write two op-eds in The Wall Street Journal in 2007 and 2008 calling for steps toward a nuclear weapons-free world. See George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007, p. A15; George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, "Toward a Nuclear-Free World," The Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2008, p. A13. Both essays can be found on the Nuclear Threat Initiative's Web site. See www.nti.org/c_press/c3_opeds.htmlHide Footnote  but getting the actual elimination issue back up in lights, getting the disarmament side of the house back on intellectual track, was hugely important. There is obviously that resonance all around the place, coming into this period in the run-up to the 2010 NPT Review Conference and beyond. But we also have to think beyond that because we do not want to be totally consumed by NPT theology when we have three big elephants outside the room-India, Pakistan and Israel-and no immediate prospect of bringing them into it. That said, nobody can afford another failure with the 2010 NPT conference, a failure to generate new momentum. The next year, as a result, is going to be extremely important, although it is obviously a much longer haul than that to realize our ultimate objective.

ACT: You mentioned the Gang of Four. How do you see the commission's role being different from them and other initiatives, such as Global Zero?[fn]Global Zero is an international civil society campaign launched in 2008 working to promote global nuclear disarmament.Hide Footnote

Evans: I have to preface by saying I do not yet know what the commission is going to recommend, and can only speak personally at this stage. While I think broad directions are reasonably clear, I cannot yet confidently state what we are going to be proposing. I think the critical thing is for this commission to actually add some value to the debate and not just produce another all too familiar wonky laundry list. Each of the earlier panel and commission exercises, and I have participated in some of them myself, have had their own utility in keeping the debate alive and clearly articulating some of the problems. Basically, the last series of reports have involved nuclear priesthood members talking to other nuclear priesthood members, and not really breaking out of the fairly closed circle of aficionados and actually generating resonance in the wider policy community.

The important role for this commission, if we can pull it off, will be to bring together all of the multiple threats that are out there, all the interlocking and intersecting issues- disarmament, proliferation, civil uses-and to articulate an action agenda from that, which is pragmatic and realistic, but at the same time hard-hitting and with an eye very clearly on the ultimate goal we are trying to achieve here, a nuclear weapons-free world. We need to be very tough-minded and pragmatic in the way in which we recognize the political realities that are out there and accordingly, in crafting the issues and recommendations, we need to devise a strategy that will have some resonance with policymakers, and not just be seen as more orchestral violins.

Each one of the exercises that are on foot at the moment has its own place in the firmament and its own utility. Global Zero, which is basically getting the long-term objective up there in the lights, very clearly articulated, and reasonably noisily articulated, is a highly useful contribution to energizing and maintaining the sense of importance of getting there, and energizing a global constituency to do so. I see it as wholly complementary to the other exercises that are in train. At the other end of the spectrum, you have a much more cautious step-by-step approach: "let's identify the first few foothills as we work our way up the mountain but we will not be too ambitious about giant strides because it is all a complex universe out there." That is a useful combination of the idealism and the pragmatism, and has an important constituency in the United States in particular. But what we have to try to do is energize a global constituency, bringing all of the key policymakers into the game and trying to map a way through this that is actually going to get some results.

ACT: You mentioned two different approaches: the approach promoted by Global Zero, as well as Indian leaders in the past, favoring the notion of some sort of deadline for achieving nuclear disarmament on the one hand, and the incremental steps promoted by others.[fn]In 1988, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi called for an international convention banning nuclear weapons as an effort outside the NPT. Since then, Indian leaders and officials have often repeated this call. New Delhi has refused to join the NPT, which it characterizes as "flawed and discriminatory" due to the division of nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states.Hide Footnote  Do you find either of these approaches more compelling?

Evans: I cannot speak for the commissioners, but I hope where we will end up is articulating a pretty clear two-phase approach to this. Phase one will be getting to a minimalist vantage point. This would involve de-alerting, and nondeployment, or nonactive deployment, maybe involving significant separation of warheads from delivery systems. It would also involve having very massively reduced numbers, down to at least the low hundreds. It would involve an accompanying doctrinal commitment to no-first-use-whether that is enforceable, of course, is another issue. I think you could talk in terms of a timetable for getting to that kind of hugely improved universe. Maybe by 2025. Maybe that is too ambitious. It depends on what your vision of the final low numbers actually are and how you manage the business of juggling multiple players, but I think that is doable.

Phase two is getting from there to absolute zero. It does not seem to be really useful talking here in terms of a date certain because what you are really talking about to get from the minimum to the zero is satisfying a bunch of other conditions that have a lot to do with perceptions of conventional arms imbalances, with neighborhood security issues, and with the perceptions of where the tectonic plates are colliding in terms of larger global strategic relationships. [There are] a whole bunch of conditions which are going to have to be satisfied before people are going to be confident enough to move this far. There are also the technical conditions, effective verification strategies and other things on which people are now working assiduously. It is going to be very hard to get there, and it may be a little counterproductive, in terms of getting to a successful conclusion of phase one, to talk too much in terms of zero and not enough in terms of steps to zero.

What I'm thinking of is an approach to this which is really quite detailed and articulate in terms of describing the steps by which you can credibly get down to the minimalist vantage point, but also articulate about the degree of difficulty and the sort of things that are going to have to happen before you can get to actual zero and recognizing the kind of political constraints that are going to weigh heavily on that. Some people regard this as being a bit too nervously cautious: "let's just go for broke and do not even talk about anything else other than a steady continuum where everything will logically follow everything else." My perception at the moment is that that is not where policymakers' heads are at. We are going to need a hell of a lot more persuasion before getting to actual zero, but it is perfectly possible to persuade them that their security and regional and global security will be very effectively guaranteed by massively reduced arsenals and in effect taking these things out of capable use.

ACT: Going from the long-term vision to the much more immediate vision, is your report geared toward the NPT review conference of 2010?

Evans: If you are thinking in terms of phases, the short term is more like 2012 than 2010. Some of the things that need to be done with the short-term focus are not going to be able to be done in time for the 2010 NPT Review Conference, and there are some other things that are going to have to be done outside that framework anyway.

ACT: Are you thinking of doing anything for the Preparatory Committee (Prep Com) this year?

Evans: There really needs to be a massive amount of emphasis on the disarmament side. We all know what the agenda is on the nonproliferation side. The United States, including previous administrations, have been very articulate about that. There is a very wide constituency of support for universalizing the 1997 Model Additional Protocol and getting some more serious compliance and enforcement constraints operating for those who shelter under the NPT umbrella while doing things they should not and then walking away from it.[fn]The IAEA Board of Governors adopted the Model Additional Protocol in 1997 to address concerns that states may carry out undeclared nuclear activities in an effort to develop nuclear weapons. States that adopt an additional protocol to their IAEA safeguards agreements provide the agency with greater legal authority to monitor all nuclear activities carried out in that country.Hide Footnote All of that stuff we sknow about. Plus the efforts to move forward on fuel banks and other ways of internationalizing or multilateralizing the fuel cycle, as difficult as all those things are. I think that sort of agenda is clear and needs to continue to be assiduously pursued.

But it is not going to begin to be achieved unless there is very serious movement on the other side of the house. Accordingly, what we will be saying to the administration here, over the next couple days, and what the commission has agreed is that these five points are the key stories we want to tell the administration. For a start, there are a couple of crucial building blocks relevant both to the disarmament and nonproliferation side on which we have to see movement. First, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is preeminently up there in the lights; that has to be almost priority number one for the administration.[fn]The 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty prohibits all nuclear explosions and will formally enter into force after 44 designated "nuclear-capable states" have ratified the treaty, including the United States. As of March 2009, 35 of those countries have done so. The United States maintains a nuclear testing moratorium, but the U.S. Senate declined to give its advice and consent to ratify the CTBT in 1999.Hide Footnote It would be hugely significant if its ratification can be achieved before the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

Secondly, the other building block is a fissile material cutoff treaty or at least a fissile material initiative of some kind; not necessarily the exact FMCT we have been talking about-there are other options in play.[fn]In 1993 the United States called for a multilateral convention banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear explosives, often called a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). The Conference on Disarmament (CD) agreed on a mandate to negotiate such a treaty in 1995, but the CD has failed to reach agreement to begin negotiations on such a measure. Following a U.S. policy review of the proposed FMCT, in 2004 the Bush administration determined that the treaty was not effectively verifiable and indicated that it would not support the inclusion of verification provisions in the treaty. The Obama administration has indicated that it would reverse that position.Hide Footnote  If the United States makes very clear, as it has already, its withdrawal of the reservations on the verification side and actually puts its shoulder to the diplomatic wheel to get those negotiations started, that would be another hugely significant move in the right direction.

The third thing that clearly has to happen is trying to bring to a conclusion the resumption of the START-SORT arms control negotiations, accompanied by really obviously deep reductions.[fn]The United States and Soviet Union signed the START in 1991 to limit the number of strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems each state would deploy by December 2001. The treaty expires in December 2009 but may be subject to five-year extensions or superseded by another agreement.Hide Footnote There are a lot of side issues in play that are going to complicate these negotiations like missile defense, substrategic missiles, conventional imbalances, and all the rest of it. But I would have thought prima facie that there is potential momentum there to get to deep reductions. That is hugely important, and that will feed into the NPT process in a very useful way.

Combined with that, a fourth thing is the United States has to get started on some serious strategic dialogue both with Russia and with China on the associated issues I just mentioned. You have to get started now talking to them about transparency, confidence-building issues, and China's own willingness to come aboard on the CTBT if the Americans take the lead on that, plus the larger issues of how you multilateralize the disarmament process. If there are visible conversations of that kind going on, not only will that have significance in terms of beginning to untangle U.S.-China and Russia relationships, but again it will feed very well into the NPT dynamic.

ACT: Is there a willingness on China's part to do that?

Evans: That remains to be explored. China is engaged in fairly enthusiastic modernization and expansion at the moment.

ACT: The Bush administration tried to have some sort of dialogue...

Evans: Yes, but it was not the best environment if there was ever going to be achievement on that front. It partially depends on the continuation of a reasonably sane and stable atmosphere across the Taiwan Strait, and that is the part of the puzzle that appears to be for the moment locked away. Also, the India relationship is fairly key to this; not that I think China feels itself threatened in any way by India. (I am not sure India really feels itself threatened by China either, for that matter, although that has always been part of the Indian story.) That triangular dynamic is very much going to be in play. But I would have thought prima facie that there is every reason to believe that at least an exploratory dialogue could be started. With the Russians, by contrast, you have an immediate objective: by the end of this year, you have got to cover the hiatus with START and to get something really seriously done with verification to follow through on the Moscow Treaty.[fn]The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), or Moscow Treaty, was concluded by the United States and the Russian Federation in 2002 to limit each country to 1,700-2,200 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads. The deadline for implementation and expiration date for the treaty is December 31, 2012.Hide Footnote  While you have that very sharp and precise agenda with Russia, it is very much less well defined with China. But it is important that the agenda with China get started.

Just to finish the litany, the fifth thing that is important for the Americans to do is on the doctrinal issue, the nuclear posture review and everything feeding into it. Even if we cannot get America to come up with a no-first-use commitment, at the very least it would be important to get something out there at the presidential level saying that the U.S. perception is that the sole role of nuclear weapons is to deter others from using them [and] to get away from the present almost impossible position of keeping open the nuclear option to respond to chemical, biological, or terrorist acts, whether by states or by nonstate actors.

ACT: In your view, what impact would a doctrinal shift regarding the role of nuclear weapons by the United States have on the nonproliferation and disarmament efforts you have been describing? As a follow-up, one of the things some states and commentators have said is that there is a role for nuclear weapons in deterring assistance by states to terrorist groups to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Do you find this claim credible?

Evans: It is important that there be disincentives to state support of terrorist activity, but you do not need to dangle nuclear weapons over their heads for that purpose. Our conventional capability is enough to spook any halfway rational failed, failing, or rogue state. Nuclear weapons are just not a necessary part of the repertoire. That is the view I take on extended deterrence and as to all the other things that make a number of the allied countries very nervous about giving away nukes. Of course, countries like Japan and South Korea are going to want confidence that they will be covered against any security contingency. But why on earth nuclear weapons even need to be part of that equation, I do not know.

It is particularly implausible on the question of terrorism. I am not understating the anxiety about terrorism or the risk of a terrorist incident involving nuclear weapons. You do not to have to invoke the whole Graham Allison approach to nonetheless be really quite spooked by the potential for doing damage with the amount of loose material lying around and the battlefield weapons that are being insufficiently protected.[fn]Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, estimated in his 2004 book Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe that the chance of a terrorist attack involving nuclear weapons occurring by 2014 is a greater than 50 percent.Hide Footnote  It is an entirely serious and legitimate concern, and one of the reasons why we have to get our nonproliferation act together is to reduce that potential. But the notion of needing nuclear weapons for that purpose is really bizarre.

As far as a doctrinal shift, it would be pretty significant for the United States to say that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter other people from using them. It would play very much into global perceptions that the United States is really getting serious about winding back the centrality and salience of nuclear weapons. That would be relevant in terms of getting buy-in by others on the disarmament side of the house, but also to the nonproliferation side. At the end of the day, the real significance of all this is in terms of the psychological shift it would represent in America and the psychological shift that that should in turn engender in others.

ACT: You mentioned extended deterrence earlier. Your country is said to benefit from an extended deterrence relationship. How do U.S. allies participating in this extended deterrence relationship reconcile that with calls for nuclear disarmament?

Evans: Well, again it is having confidence in the conventional capability of your big-guy ally. That is what it is all about. That is what an alliance relationship means, that you are going to be rescued against any conceivable contingency. I do not think Australia has too much to worry about. We are not in a particularly dangerous part of the universe. Even for those countries that do feel continuingly edgy about this, all the protections in the world they need are available with present conventional capability. I see them as being completely separate aims that have become tangled together.

You have some interesting dilemmas that have been much written about, in that some of the countries that are the strongest in their enthusiasm for nuclear disarmament are also the most nervous about actually getting to zero. I am very conscious of that in the context of this commission. But you just cannot play games on this issue. If you are talking about getting to zero, you have to recognize the continued salience of the mutual deterrence argument. There is no sentiment for unilateralism in any way that I can discern. But this is a completely separate argument from that about needing nukes for a variety of other security purposes.

Of course there are other problems that then start flowing from this emphasis on conventional superiority. We all know the irony of the Russian position. In the Cold War years, everybody in the West was spooked by perceived Russian conventional superiority on the European continent and needed nukes as the balance, but now the Russians are spooked by western European-American conventional superiority and want to hang on to nukes as the balancer. This is always going to be a complicating factor.

But in terms of the basic dynamics of things like posture reviews and what the United States ought to be able or willing to do right now, all these five points are significant because they represent changes from the previous administration. The nonproliferation side represents continuity. The disarmament side, and the FMCT and CTBT, represent discontinuity and forward movement. If you can get something visible happening with the CTBT, FMCT, obviously the bilateral stuff with the Russians, plus the strategic dialogue with the Russians and Chinese, plus something on the doctrine stuff-and they're all things that are being foreshadowed in one way or another by this administration-that would be a really major leap forward.

The question is, will there be the energy? Will there be the organization? Will there be the capacity to allocate priority time to get all these things moving in this sort of time frame? Will the domestic political environment, the Senate, everything else, sustain this much activity? These are difficult questions to answer. But in terms of what I think the rest of the world ought to be asking of the United States, this is a pretty relevant agenda.

ACT: You have spoken in the past about the need to bring the three non-NPT members into the global nonproliferation disarmament regime. How do you think the international community can best achieve that goal?

Evans: You have three logical options. One, which is not really an option at all, is to get them to sign up for the NPT itself, wearing either a nuclear-weapon-state hat or a non-nuclear-weapon-state hat, either of which seem to be totally implausible notwithstanding the endless numbers of speeches that continue to be made to this effect. The rituals of First Committees and NPT PrepComs and review conferences do seem to be in need of a bump along.[fn]The UN General Assembly First Committee meets annually to address disarmament and international security issues. NPT states-parties hold conferences every five years to review the treaty and preparatory committees (PrepComs) for those review conference each year for three years preceding those review conferences.Hide Footnote

The second approach is to say, let's have a new whiz-bang nuclear weapons convention which basically starts from the beginning and brings together all the good things that are in the NPT, and the FMCT, and the CTBT, and creates a new universe from scratch-that has a place for these guys in it. There is a tactical question whether there is still some utility in trying to start an Ottawa or Oslo kind of process just to energize the grass roots for that sort of campaign.[fn]The Ottawa and Olso processes were arms control negotiations on anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, respectively, conducted outside the formal, established disarmament negotiating fora. The efforts were pursued following a lack of agreement in negotiating fora such as the CD about whether and how to limit the use of such weapons. Both negotiations resulted in treaties prohibiting the use of specific classes of arms.Hide Footnote  In terms of getting real world results in the short to medium term, I think that is difficult to imagine happening.

So this leaves you with the third option, which is to somehow find other forms of discipline: new regimes, new strategies-bilateral, plurilateral, multilateral-that can subject these guys to global disciplines both on the nonproliferation and on the disarmament side. In that context, we have now the India-U.S. nuclear deal. The good thing you can say about it is that it does demonstrate that there are ways out there, institutionally, of subjecting nuclear-armed states presently outside the NPT to various disciplines that will be important in the long run. The fact that the Indians have to safeguard at least some of their facilities is an important step forward. But the trouble is that it is not nearly as good a deal as it should have been. Clearly it is a very weak discipline to which India is being exposed-with basically no inhibitions on fissile material production, not even on the issue of testing. It is not a model to be emulated, but it does point the way forward. We do have to somehow create parallel structures, parallel processes, parallel forms of discipline, and gradually bring people aboard on them.

ACT: In pragmatic terms, in the aftermath of the so-called India nuclear deal, what specific things do you think could exert that discipline as you describe it, and how can those be accomplished diplomatically in the years ahead?

Evans: That will be a central theme for this commission, and I do not have a clear sense of where we might come out at this stage. The NPT and the NPT Review Conference, as crucially important as they are, should not be seen as the be-all and end-all of our arms control efforts. It will be hugely important to get strong outcomes from the review conference, including by regenerating the 13 steps in some way, maybe producing some new consensus document into which others can ultimately buy in.[fn]As part of the 2000 NPT Review Conference Final Document, the states-parties agreed on a list of 13 "practical steps" aimed at "systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI" of the NPT. The Bush administration opposed a number of the 13 steps, including the early entry into force of the CTBT and refused to reference the 2000 NPT Review Conference Final Document in the agenda of the NPT review conference in 2005.Hide Footnote  But the NPT by itself is not going to get us there.

We need to have other kinds of strategies moving, such as how you bring into a multilateral disarmament process not only Russia and the United States, not only China, and not only France and the United Kingdom, but India and Pakistan as well. Sooner rather than later we have got to start that kind of strategic dialogue. George Perkovich's idea of trying to encourage every nuclear-armed state to start doing the kind of studies and analyses of the national interests involved, and just what are the constraints and limitations of the moving-into-a-multilateral-force-reduction sort of framework, is a very useful one. We have to find ways of putting the heat on countries to sign up to the Model Additional Protocol, or variations on all these themes. Obviously, the CTBT and the FMCT are not NPT constrained; they have their own momentum, and it is important to generate momentum in relation to countries that are outside the NPT framework as well as within it.

Although my commission was originally billed by the two prime ministers as primarily about feeding ideas and momentum into the NPT Review Conference process, and while we are targeting a major report to be completed by the end of this year, which will have very direct resonance for that conference, it has always had a larger remit than just that. That is one of the reasons why the commission is going to continue its life at least until the middle of 2010, to survey the broader landscape as it then exists.

Another reason for giving the commission a reasonable life is some parts of its remit will take some time to explore. In terms of the peaceful-uses side, and the nuclear renaissance whether that happens or not, there are major roles and responsibilities for the civil nuclear industry in terms of developing and applying proliferation-resistant technology, and in relation to other proliferation-relevant areas. I think we will get started on generating some momentum and meeting with the industry people in Moscow in midyear. But in terms of actually getting deliverable results, I cannot see too much of that happening before the NPT Review Conference next May. One option for the commission is to host a conference bringing together the industry players with the government players. That is something that could well postdate the review conference.

ACT: One of the conversations taking place is what to do about the nuclear fuel cycle. There are ongoing considerations in that respect about the criteria that should be used to determine which states have access to any established international fuel bank, including whether or not non-NPT members should have access. What criteria do you think are appropriate for such an initiative?

Evans: I have not thought through specifically fuel bank supplies to non-NPT members, but the full range of safeguards including at the [Model] Additional Protocol level would not be a bad start. Australia, for one, has adopted a very tough view about that even though we went along with the Nuclear Suppliers Group exercise and to that extent supported the India-U.S. nuclear deal. We have remained extremely cautious committing ourselves to supplying Australian uranium.

There is a real utility in having some guaranteed nuclear fuel supply for all potential users. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei's vision of a single multilateralized facility under international control as a producer is very attractive indeed. But it is a vision that is going to take a long time to realize given what we know about the existing fissile material producers and their willingness to be brought under some sort of international umbrella. It is also a matter about making a judgment about whether there is going to be real demand for enough of this stuff in the future to justify the creation of new institutions, or whether the main emphasis ought to be on trying to change the role of the existing producers. It is a really complicated issue, and I and the commission are just beginning to get our heads around what the options are. It will be a major issue for this commission to wrestle with to see if we can take a little bit further the work the IAEA and others have been doing.

ACT: Moving back to the nonproliferation regime, the issues of Iran and North Korea are two of the key state challenges. There is concern that failure to deal with these challenges early on may serve to unravel or begin to unravel the nonproliferation regime. What steps do you think can be done to make sure that those challenges do not threaten the regime as a whole?

Evans: As far as the North Korea issue is concerned, it seems likely that there is going to be more of the same process with the six-party talks [with] "two steps forward, one step back" being the name of the game maybe in perpetuity. But at least the situation is now stabilized. There is no particular evidence that any more bomb material is being made. Whether anything is happening on the highly enriched uranium side, as distinct from plutonium side, remains a matter of speculation.[fn]The United States has accused North Korea of maintaining an undeclared effort to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) in addition to its plutonium-based nuclear weapons program. The extent of any such North Korean HEU effort remains unclear, but Pyongyang is known to have imported materials of relevance to a gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment program.Hide Footnote  It is an unsatisfactory process. It is a limping process. But it beats the hell out of the non-process we had before.

Iran is rather more difficult, and on this one, I have my own views. Whether they will prove to be the commission's views I do not know. My view is that there is a doable deal there to be done right now with the Iranians, but it will require a deep breath on the part of the West-and that is accepting the reality of Iranian fissile material production. By all means, spread out over time the achievement of industrial-scale capacity, and by all means try to multilateralize the process to some extent with the kind of consortium arrangements that the Iranians themselves still seem prepared to sign up to.[fn]Iranian officials have proposed that other countries participate in Iran's nuclear activities, including its uranium-enrichment effort, as part of a multinational consortium.Hide Footnote  But let's not pretend that any form of pressure at all-given the pride and all the other domestic and international political factors that are in play-is going to persuade the Iranians to go back to zero or even to stop where they are now. What I believe is doable is drawing the red line that really matters, that against weaponization.

I have had a sustained dialogue with the Iranians about this. As recently as last weekend, I had 45 minutes with Speaker of the Iranian Parliament and former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani in Munich, and I was in Tehran last year talking to Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and many other key players. On the other side, I've talked to key U.S. players; Under secretary of State for Policy Bill Burns and others in the previous administration, plus with the Europeans, [including] EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, his adviser Robert Cooper the EU director-general for external and politico-military affairs, and various ministers. So I have a pretty clear idea of what is going on and a sense of what options are in people's heads.

The way through this is for Europe and North America to recognize the reality on the fissile material side of it, but to draw an absolute red line against weaponization which I think would be sustainable. There are a whole bunch of reasons why the Iranians should in fact have made the cost-benefit judgment that it would do them much more harm than good to actually acquire a nuclear weapon But that is distinct from having a perceived breakout capability, the capacity to produce one. They want that very much. That is non-negotiable, I think. But having got that much, I think they would be content with it.

The issue is of course, verification: trust but verify. The Iranians should have to sign up to a highly intensive, highly discriminatory monitoring and verification regime. That, at the very least, would have to be the Model Additional Protocol and all the bells and whistles that go with that-but probably a special Additional Protocol-plus regime to enable the West to have a little more confidence, not only on the fissile material side but also concerning physical weaponization and missile delivery systems. The Iranians are not very happy about anything that constitutes further "discrimination" since their whole argument is they have been discriminated against in exercising their rights under the NPT. But, as I say to them: you guys have had a program,- maybe not committing you to weaponization but certainly to exploring the options-which everybody is concerned about. And with your president spooking a lot of people internationally with his public statements, and with the kind of existential threat that even the possession of just one or two weapons would represent and be perceived to represent to the Israelis, you have to recognize that very stringent verification indeed will be required.

I think there is a deal to be made where the West makes a big concession, the Iranians make a big concession, and then you just juggle it out on the basis of incentives and disincentives. You keep, very obviously, the military option should they step across that red line [which is] the 800-pound gorilla in the background. You also have lots of incentives in the form of normalization of relations and progressive relaxation of sanctions, all of which would create an environment under which we could fairly rapidly achieve some serious normalization of relations in the region and very much play into a much more constructive Iranian approach on Syria, Lebanon, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I think the nuclear issue is the key to resolving all those others. You are just not going to begin to make progress on them unless you can resolve this one.

Larijani's speech at Munich last week was fairly fierce. Ninety percent of it was pitched to a domestic hard-line constituency, but as to 10 percent of it, the doors and windows were wide open. Similarly with Vice President Joe Biden's speech and what has come out of the administration so far the doors and windows are open. The trick will be to manage the process now and find ways of exploring the kind of deal in essence that I'm describing, to get each side past the initial barriers of mistrust that are inhibiting any serious discussion. I could go into much more detail about why I think the Iranians do not actually feel themselves committed to a nuclear weapon, on the contrary, but that is another story.

ACT: The world is grappling with a number of challenges right now. How do we make sure efforts to lead to nuclear disarmament are given the momentum and attention they deserve

Evans: That is a good question and one that has really troubled me. How do you energize a political constituency that basically, apart from the terror issue and the concern about nonstate actors getting hold of nukes, just does not really instinctively grasp the risks that are involved out there [and] which thinks that it's a Cold War problem and we've moved on. How do you move a public that is just not really energized or even interested in this issue at all and regards it all as just hairy-socks-and-sandals-placard-waving stuff from the sixties? Our own commission, and all of the other initiatives that are presently going on, have to find ways of demonstrating the nature and scale of the risks that are out there.

Telling some of the Cold War stories about how close we came during this allegedly sane and stable period may be helpful. The more information that comes out, the more disconcerting it is. Understanding the extent of the insecurity that is out there at the moment is also important. It helps to get those stories about the Air Force losing half a dozen strategic missiles for days on end. Similarly with stories about how much more work needs to be done to secure weapons stockpiles, particularly the small battlefield stuff, which is easily transportable, plus fissile material. Similarly to get the story out loud and clear about just how much damage these things can do. I do not think we have spent enough time getting city-impact diagrams out there about the damage that a Hiroshima-sized bomb would do, as compared say with the 9/11 attacks, and then of course what a strategic weapon could do. In all of this it is a matter of getting the information into the heads of the senior policymakers, and it is a matter also of energizing something bottom-up with the civil society constituency.

ACT: How do you do that without the sort of scare tactic we have seen in the recent commission report that says in the next five years there's a 50 percent chance of an attack with weapons of mass destruction?[fn]A December 2008 report by the congressionally created Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism concluded that "it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."Hide Footnote

Evans: You harness the scare tactics to the extent the data and analysis will support them. Some people like Graham Allison are saying that there is a 10 per cent chance in the next 10 years of a major nuclear incident in a major city in the world. For example nonstate terrorist actors taking a boat into New York harbor and bolting together some sort of gun-type device, not just a radiological or dirty bomb but a real nuclear bomb.[fn]A gun-type nuclear device is the simpler of two forms of nuclear explosive mechanisms. It entails firing one piece of weapons-usable fissile material into another in order to achieve a critical mass and produce a nuclear chain reaction. It can achieve a desired nuclear explosive effect without the need for nuclear testing.Hide Footnote  If that figure is defensible, nobody in the universe would think a similar level of risk, a 10 per cent chance in 10 years , is acceptable in building, for example, a nuclear reactor power plant.

The risk of something going very badly wrong with nukes, and the catastrophic implications of this for the whole world, are right up there with the level of risk involved with the present economic meltdown and the climate change story. The nuclear threat really is one of the big three in terms of the sheer scale of the damage that could be done by getting it wrong.

There is also the story about how readily available the relevant technology is, not only through the help of Mr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, but via the internet. This is very much more real, and dangerous, than it was 15-20 years ago in terms of what is doable by the malignly disposed. Then if you get more players in the proliferation game, it gets worse. The United States and Russia had a pretty well-orchestrated set of minuets that they danced in terms of the control arrangements, hotlines and the rest. But elsewhere things are more problematic. I was in Pakistan just three weeks ago and a senior official told me privately, "You know we put in place so-called hotline arrangements between ourselves and India after some of the earlier scares to try and minimize the risk of anything untoward happening. But with all the tension we've had since Mumbai, lasting many weeks now, that telephone line has not been used and there has basically been no direct senior-level communication at all." I know from being in both Indian and Pakistani capitals how high the level of tension was. It has been a classic situation with great potential for miscalculations and escalation. Yet those mechanisms, rudimentary as they are, are just not being used.

All of these stories have to be told and in a way that has resonance for policymakers. You are not going to get them to make any of the changes we want just by making the moral case or the technical case-the verifiability issue, and the argument that military uses are negligible and probably counterproductive. You have somehow to make a political case, talking about the cost of weapons possession, the downside risks associated with it, and somehow change the parameters of the political debate. The best chance of doing that is with the new administration here in the United States that is seriously committed to thinking and talking in those terms. Your presidential bully pulpit is infinitely more significant than any commission, or anything that any nongovernmental organization can do.

ACT: Thank you.

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

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