The Laws of War: Under Siege or Gaining Ground?
The Laws of War: Under Siege or Gaining Ground?
Speech / Global

The Laws of War: Under Siege or Gaining Ground?

Speech by Louise Arbour, President & CEO of the International Crisis Group, on the occasion of the Kirby Lecture at the Australian National University, Canberra, 23 June 2011.

I am delighted to have been invited to deliver this lecture, named in honour of Michael Kirby, a great jurist, judge, humanitarian, human rights defender, friend, and, in the judicial parlance that we once shared, I could have said brother.[fn]I wish to thank Jon Shephard for his research assistance and insights in the preparation of this paper.Hide Footnote I am also particularly happy to be doing so in the presence of the distinguished Chancellor of The Australian National University, a great politician, policy guru, trail blazer, lawyer malgré lui, my friend Gareth Evans. The fact that I am here, connected to both of them, allows me to use my favourite word in the English language, a word that has no real French equivalent: serendipity.

My connection to Michael brings me back to our years on the bench, geographically far apart, but I like to think united by a shared vision of the law and the judicial function. Empowered by a judicial mandate anchored in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I lived in an era denounced by some as having encouraged the legalisation of politics, celebrated by others as having allowed the rule of law to truly flourish. Either way, where I come from, the law mattered.

My connection to Gareth reflects the latest chapter of my entry into the world of armed conflict. Not surprisingly, I came to it from a legal perspective, but under his influence I broadened my horizons to embrace the murkier waters of political analysis, particularly after I took over from him the direction of International Crisis Group. So it is today through this mostly political lens that I want to share with you a few observations on the relevance, or lack thereof, of the law of armed conflict. It is with no false modesty that I disclaim any sophisticated expertise in the current state of that body of law. What I once knew is dated, and after a few years away, I don’t even trust the skills I once had to figure it out. But I am interested not so much in the state of the law as in its role and impact in the prevention, management and resolution of armed conflict.

Allow me then to start with a recent statement by one who can claim to have some insight into the politics of it all. The laws of war are increasingly outdated, and threaten to “handcuff all states fighting terrorism”.[fn]‘PM Netanyahu addresses the Saban Forum’, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 15 November 2009.Hide Footnote  So claimed Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu shortly after the publication of the Goldstone Report, which sharply criticised Israel for alleged violations of humanitarian law. Netanyahu is not alone in his criticism. In May of this year, Sri Lanka’s representative to the UN told the Security Council that the “one-size-fits-all” approach to humanitarian law fails to take into account the changed nature of today’s conflicts and imposes unfair burdens on states struggling to rid themselves of terror and insurgency.[fn]Security Council meeting 6531, 10 May 2011, p. 31.Hide Footnote  This in the wake of the bloody end to Sri Lanka’s civil war, which saw an estimated 40,000 civilians killed, many by government forces, in just a few months.

Israel and Sri Lanka are far from being the only critics of humanitarian law. In recent years, a growing number of voices have questioned the contemporary applicability of the laws of war. Citing, amongst other things, the failure of terrorist and insurgent groups to abide by the Geneva and Hague Conventions, the increasingly unclear line between civilians and combatants and the use of what has been termed “lawfare” to challenge states’ military options, they have called for a radical rethink. Another group of critics has taken the opposite line: far from tying states’ hands, they argue, the lex specialis of humanitarian law paves the way for states to inflict huge civilian casualties with impunity. Moreover, they suggest, even those aspects of the law that could provide some protection regularly go unheeded, and violators go unpunished.

The debate has been largely fuelled and mediatised by the politics of the War on Terror. But it is also rooted in the renewed relevancy of a body of law that, until the mid 1990s, was largely unimplemented, invisible, and the preserve solely of normative discussions amongst specialists. The growth of international criminal law, first in the launch of the ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, then in the daring moves of national magistrates operating under the framework of universal jurisdiction, and finally in the creation of the International Criminal Court, have made Milošević, Pinochet and Bashir if not household names, at least the recognisable faces of international crime. In my view, the recent criticisms mounted against the laws of war reflect less their inadequacy than their increased effectiveness. And, in addressing below the emerging concept of lawfare, I will further suggest that implementation comes as much from compliance as from coercion, and that this is as it should be.

There are undoubtedly gaps and ambiguities in humanitarian law which need to be addressed; this much even the International Committee of the Red Cross has recognised. But the Geneva Conventions remains sound, and should not be too quickly dismissed. Critics allege that international law fails to take into account many issues pertinent to today’s conflicts; in fact, however, many of these issues are expressly addressed – just not in the way critics would like.

Current criticisms of the laws of war come in the context of significant changes in the conduct of conflict. Most humanitarian law was designed at a time when armed conflict usually meant a declared war between two or more states with identified territories and armed forces; today, such conflict is the exception, rather than the rule. Today’s conflicts are usually internal, and often involve one or more amorphous non-state actors. These changes have provoked a number of intersecting and cross-cutting criticisms, which go both to the scope and the substance of humanitarian law. The common thread of these is that the laws of war, at least as currently constituted, are no longer valid. I will attempt to address, very summarily, the core criticisms. They relate, largely, to the definition of armed conflict, the fundamental principles of distinction and proportionality, the issue of lawfare and, to a lesser extent, the notion of reciprocity.

Armed Conflict

International humanitarian law is a specialised body of rules and principles activated only when there is an armed conflict. When it does apply, it imposes a framework that is at the same time both more permissive for, and, some suggest, more constraining on state action. I think it is important to first test this premise. In the current context, the debate is essentially focussed on the question of protection of civilians. The body of law we are interested in offers, essentially, a quid pro quo: it requires the protection of civilians as an exception to a granted right to kill. In contrast, domestic criminal law, if compliant with international human rights standards, would prohibit extra judicial executions and restrict the right of law enforcement officers to kill only in self-defence, or in the reasonable use of force in performing an arrest, for instance.

Simply put, the law of armed conflict contains exceptions to the right to kill, while domestic law enforcement contains exceptions to the right to life. However, both are governed by non-excluded laws of general application, such as the prohibition of genocide or the absolute prohibition of torture. This point is important because the arguments about the special needs of the war on terror often seem to assume that it can only operate in a legal black hole; it is not only IHL that is seen as too constraining, but also a large part of international human rights law, including the Torture Convention and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, for example, which imposes a special regime for the treatment of child soldiers, not to mention a good part of domestic criminal law.

With that understood, the question still arises as to when there is an armed conflict sufficient to activate the laws of war. For international armed conflicts, the situation is relatively clear. The issue is more complex, however, in relation to non-international – or, more accurately, non-interstate – armed conflict. Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, which governs such conflicts, has a high threshold for application: parties must have, inter alia, territorial control, formal organisation and responsible command.[fn]Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, Article 1(1).Hide Footnote  Even Common Article 3 to the four Geneva Conventions, which is designed to apply as broadly as possible, requires, according to the influential Pictet Commentary, elements of formal structure and territorial control. Perhaps the most useful guidance on this issue is found in the ICTY’s Tadić decision, in which it suggested that the two operative conditions for determining the existence of an armed conflict are (i) the intensity of the conflict and (ii) the organisation of the parties.[fn]Tadić jurisdiction decision, ICTY Case No. IT-94-1-T, 1995, paragraph 70.Hide Footnote  But even this leaves much room for dispute.

Ultimately, no overarching determination as to whether the laws of war should apply to fights against rebels, terrorists or insurgents will ever be possible: a case-by-case approach will always be necessary. Certain episodes in the ‘war on terror’, for example, might reach the level of armed conflict, as might the repression of new illegal armed groups in Columbia or the military action undertaken by the government of Mexico against organised criminal gangs, despite the warning in the Tadić decision that “banditry, unorganised and short-lived insurrections, or terrorist activities … are not subject to international humanitarian law”.[fn]Tadić trial judgment, ICTY Case No. IT-94-1-T, 1997, paragraph 562.Hide Footnote

One must be wary of calls for an expansion of the application of the laws of war. As indicated before, the rules applicable during armed conflicts are far more permissive than those applicable during times of peace – some stringent human rights standards are displaced by the far less strict provisions of humanitarian law.

The laws of war are a compromise, designed to offer a minimum level of protection to non-combatants, and to combatants who have laid down their arms, in terrible circumstances. The price for the protections offered is the recognition of a circumscribed right for states to kill, to wound, to imprison without trial and so on. To extend this waiver to all situations where violence is used would be to distort both the spirit and the letter of the law. On the other hand, when a true situation of armed conflict exists, as it clearly did in the last few months of the battle between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE in early 2009, to characterise it instead as an internal campaign against terror in an attempt to escape the requirements of distinction and proportionality in the law of armed conflict is, at its core, a call for lawlessness.

Regardless of the justification for war in the first place (jus ad bellum), the laws of war (jus in bello) require that states respect the rights of enemy combatants, limit the damage inflicted by their forces and take steps to preserve the lives of civilians, even as their opponents flout those same rules to gain a military advantage. This lack of reciprocity, in particular, is often advanced as an argument for rejecting the applicability of this body of law. This argument must be rejected. Non-state actors are bound by legal rules, whether under domestic law or, arguably, under international customary law. And humanitarian obligations undertaken by states by treaty are not dependent on reciprocity, as they would otherwise be eviscerated. If one violates legal obligations, the answer is in the enforcement of the law – through personal criminal responsibility for example – not in the lifting of all rules for all sides. I will come back to this idea under my discussion of the concept of “lawfare”.

At the heart of current criticisms lies the issue of civilian protection, governed by the principles of distinction and proportionality. In modern conflicts, critics argue, these principles are simply untenable.

Let me now turn briefly to these two legal requirements.


Essentially, the law permits belligerents to attack each other, but not civilians. Article 51 of the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions states that “ … the civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack … ” The rule also applies to non-international armed-conflicts, by virtue of Article 13(2) of the Second Additional Protocol. Under the terms of the Protocols, civilians are those persons who are not members of State armed forces or of organised armed groups belonging to a party to an armed conflict. Such civilians are protected against direct attack unless and until they “directly participate” in hostilities. The issue becomes even more complex under the principle of proportionality which expands the protection of civilians beyond the prohibition against direct attacks, as we will see below.

Detractors argue that the line between civilians and combatants is increasingly blurred, as civilians lend their support to insurgents and rebels on the one hand, whilst states make increasing use of civilian and military contractors on the other.[fn]See, for example, Gross, M, Moral Dilemmas of Modern War: Torture, Blackmail and Assassination in an Age of Asymmetric Conflict (CUP, 2009: Cambridge), Ch. VII.Hide Footnote  The formulaic approach of the Geneva Conventions – which envisages a clear distinction between members of standing armies or militias and civilians – is, they argue, anachronistic and confusing. Today’s conflicts involve a spectrum of actors from ‘civilians’ to ‘combatants’, by way of terrorists, insurgents, political sympathisers, supporters and private contractors. This complexity means that it is increasingly difficult for parties to conflict to determine who may, or may not, be legitimately targeted.

In particular, tactics adopted by guerrilla and terrorist groups – using human shields, dressing as civilians, blending into the general population – have driven some states to claim that the principle of distinction unfairly benefits non-state groups. As a result, some have sought to expand the category of legitimate targets to include civilians even when not directly participating in hostilities. During the 2009 Gaza War, for example, an IDF spokesman declared that “[o]ur definition is that anyone who is involved with terrorism within Hamas is a valid target,” a clear departure from the current standard based on direct participation on hostilities.[fn]‘Gaza conflict: Who is a civilian?’, BBC, 5 January 2009.Hide Footnote

Criticism of the current system undoubtedly carries some weight. The approach to determining rights and obligations under Convention law places too much weight on considerations of status and group membership, and not enough on a functional test focussing on the activities of the individuals or groups involved. The formal requirements for combatant status laid out in Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention – which include openly bearing arms and wearing a uniform – are simply no longer appropriate to today’s conflicts. But this does not justify abandoning the principle of distinction.

The law recognises that anyone who is directly participating in hostilities is a legitimate target for attack, regardless of their broader status. The ICRC has recently produced guidance on this issue, which holds that an individual is so participating whenever their actions are “likely to adversely affect … military operations”, where there is a direct causal link between their actions and the resulting harm, and where the harm is intentional.[fn]Nils Melzer, Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities Under International Humanitarian Law (ICRC, 2009: Geneva), p. 16.Hide Footnote  As a result, insurgents and terrorists are not protected as civilians when they are preparing for, carrying out, or returning from attacks. The fact that such actors recover their protection as civilians when they are no longer participating in hostilities does not mean that action cannot be taken against them through usual law enforcement methods.

Undoubtedly, debate will continue as to who really warrants protection as a civilian. This is very welcome: discussion and argument are the best ways to develop our understanding of the law. Guidance from NGOs, academics and international tribunals will help to develop and refine our understanding over time. But the fundamental principle of distinction remains valid. The current formulation does allow for the targeting of ‘civilian combatants’ when they are engaged in hostilities. To expand humanitarian law to allow the targeting of those civilians not directly involved in hostilities would be a dangerous step, and would entirely undermine the rationale of civilian protection.

I should add, in passing, that the expression “innocent” civilians confuses the debate. There is no requirement of innocence in the determination of status or function. But the use of the expression is revealing. When fighting rebels or insurgents, for example, it is very tempting for states to expand their view of the enemy to not only enemy combatants but also to political sympathisers or passive supporters or even, ultimately, to all members of the community that the combatants purport to represent. It is in that sense that the state would not consider these civilians “innocent” civilians, and would therefore prefer that they be denied protection.


Proportionality is the second vexing question in the law of modern internal armed conflict. Proportionality has two distinct aspects. The first belongs to the jus ad bellum. It requires that even when acting in self-defence, a state should use a measured, proportionate military response. It is the second aspect that concerns us, as it relates to the conduct of hostilities (jus in bello). Under Article 51 of the First Additional Protocol, an otherwise legitimate target may not be attacked where harm to civilians would be “excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” Whilst no equivalent provision exists for non-international armed conflicts, relevant authorities all hold that the principle nonetheless applies, as it forms part of customary law.

There is great scope for argument as to what constitutes an “excessive” number of civilian casualties in any given situation. On the one hand, one can argue that the standard is purely a proportional one: civilian casualties could be, theoretically, unlimited, provided that the military advantage was suitably important. Sir Christopher Greenwood, for example, argues that

“the crucial question is whether other weapons or methods of warfare available at the time would have achieved the same military goal as effectively while causing less suffering or injury.”[fn]Greenwood, C, Command and the Laws of Armed Conflict (SCSI, 1993: Camberley), p. 24.Hide Footnote

On the other hand, the reference to “excessive” casualties might be taken to impose an absolute limit, regardless of the value of the military target. This is the view taken by Pictet Commentary, which holds that “incidental losses and damages should never be extensive.”[fn]ICRC Commentary to the Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, p. 626.Hide Footnote  Both of these approaches have some merit, and discussion as to the correct standard will long continue.

A troubling trend in recent years, however, has been the proliferation of more extreme views regarding the requirement of proportionality. At one end of the spectrum are those who argue that any sort of proportionality is overly restrictive and should be done away with. In the aftermath of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, Israeli former general and current National Security Adviser Yaa’kov Amidror proclaimed that

“[n]ow those around Israel understand that Israel has certain red lines and that if these lines are crossed, Israel’s retaliation will be intentionally disproportionate. As a small country, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of reacting proportionally.”[fn]Amidror, Y, ‘Lebanon II – the Fallout’, Jerusalem Post, 17 January 2007.Hide Footnote

The defeat of the LTTE in Sri Lanka – with its extraordinarily high civilian cost – is perhaps the most appalling example of what happens when states abandon proportionality. The killing of 40,000 civilians in the last few months of the Sri Lankan conflict shows what can happen when all thoughts of proportionality are abandoned. Whatever definition of “excessive” one adopts, it is beyond question that slaughter on this scale, inflicted through the indiscriminate shelling of supposed safe zones, the targeting of hospitals and the post defeat execution of prisoners, is out of all proportion to any potential military gain. And yet the Sri Lankan approach is touted by some as the future of anti-rebel operations. Troublingly, Sri Lanka hosted a conference at the start of this month entitled “Defeating Terrorism – the Sri Lankan Experience”, at which the Minister of External Affairs claimed that “the entire body of international law must be revisited,” presumably to be more favourable to the Sri Lankan approach to conflict.[fn]‘Sri Lanka seeks new international laws to fight terrorism’, Reuters, 31 May 2011.Hide Footnote

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who believe that the idea of “collateral damage” actually legitimises civilian deaths, and allows parties to conflict to slaughter civilians with impunity. Marc Herold writes:

“civilian casualties are not accidents or mistakes. They result from careful calculation by … commanders and military attorneys who decide upon the benefits of an air strike versus the costs in innocent civilian lives lost.”[fn]Herold, M, ‘Truth as Collateral Damage’, Guardian, 22 October 2008.Hide Footnote

The implication is that, by making allowances for civilian deaths, humanitarian law allows states to be lax in their targeting decisions. Herold and others therefore suggest that the standard should become far stricter, closer to the human rights standard of the inviolability of life. This view has its own difficulties: calls for a far stricter standard are unrealistic, and risk alienating states and fostering further resistance to the entire humanitarian regime.

Debate as to what humanitarian law truly requires in this regard will undoubtedly continue. Like all jurisprudential norms, clearer standards will evolve on a case-by-case basis. Ideas of proportionality, excessiveness, reasonableness, fairness, forseeability, recklessness, negligence, actual or constructive knowledge and the like are not foreign to other areas of legal thinking. They are applied daily in courtrooms as well as in the day-to-day management of human affairs. They are perfectly suitable standards by which a proper balance can be achieved between military and humanitarian imperatives. As with many other aspects of humanitarian law, the development of jurisprudence and other guidance will provide greater clarity over time.


A final issue relates to the recent growth in so-called ‘lawfare’. The term has been used, over the last decade or so, to mean the use or abuse of the laws of war as a military tool. In short, it means “the use of law as a weapon of war”.[fn]Dunlap, C, ‘Law and Military Interventions: Preserving Humanitarian Values in 21st Century Conflicts, Working Paper (Boston: Harvard Kennedy School, 2001), p. 5.Hide Footnote  This can manifest itself in two ways: either through threatening the prosecution of senior figures allegedly involved in violations – U.S. and Israeli officials have most often been targeted in this way – or by highlighting abuses in the court of public opinion. In that sense it is akin to propaganda as a military tool, or as others might put it, a form of ‘hearts and minds’ initiative.

Lawfare is, in and of itself, neither good nor bad. If violations have been committed, then it is both right and proper that they should be exposed and that attempts be made to address them, through whatever forum is available. If they have not, the law provides a means by which to rebut the accusations. When they have acted in accordance with the law, states should not be afraid to justify their actions. Of course, lawfare can have a negative impact. Spurious or outright false claims threaten to bring the entire concept of humanitarian law into disrepute, and can create the erroneous perception that it is the law itself – and not its deliberate misapplication – which is at fault. But crying “lawfare!” in an attempt to discredit those who make accusations creates the appearance that the accused cannot justify their actions, and simply compounds the negative impac

The emergence of this concept of lawfare is reminiscent, for me, of the claims of legalisation of politics and the denunciation of judicial activism that were prevalent in the early days of my judicial career, and which will be familiar to Michael Kirby. The resistance to constitutionalism and implementation of fundamental legal norms, particularly in the field of human rights, expressed itself in attacks against the legal and judicial system itself, just as the claims of obsolescence of the laws of war mask the discomfort with its more robust recent implementation. Yet the reality is that international humanitarian law today reflects the best of international law, and of law generally, in that it fosters increased compliance with a minimum of coercion. The relevance, and the potency, of the law of armed conflict, was best expressed by Charles J Dunlap Jr, Deputy Judge Advocate General, Headquarters US Air force who said, in a 2009 article:

“If anyone doubts the role of law in 21st century conflicts, one need only pose the following questions: what was the US military’s most serious setback since 9/11? Few knowledgeable experts would say anything other than the detainee abuse scandal known as “Abu Ghraib”. That this strategic military disaster did not involve force of arms, but rather centred on illegalities, indicates how law has evolved to become a decisive element – and sometimes the decisive element – of contemporary conflicts.”[fn]Dunlap, C, ‘Lawfare: A Decisive Element of 21st-Century Conflicts?’, Joint Forces Quarterly 54 (2009), p. 34.Hide Footnote

Later in the same article, the author claims that lawfare “has emerged as the principal effects-based air defence methodology employed by America’s adversaries today”, referring in particular to the demonization of air strikes “through the manipulation of the civilian casualties” they can produce.[fn]Ibid., p. 36.Hide Footnote

Whilst we should always be wary, therefore, of attempts to manipulate and misuse the law, we should also embrace its potential to foster greater compliance.


This need for modernisation and clarification is not unique to the laws of war. It is a natural part of any legal system. It will come from greater public awareness, greater compliance and greater enforcement. Ultimately, however, any interpretation of the Geneva Conventions must take into account those Conventions’ prime objective: the protection of non-combatants.

The humanitarian objective of civilian protection has become so central to the management of armed conflict in the last decade that it has in fact become itself a casus belli. Resolution 1973 of the UN Security Council has authorised “all necessary measures”, including military action but excluding occupation, to protect civilians in Libya. Not only, therefore, must civilians be protected in war; they may also be protected by war.

With this in mind, any ‘re-interpretation’ of the laws of war that seeks to limit civilian protection seems absurd. Radical solutions – which might involve granting states more leeway when fighting terrorists, or making a distinction between aggressors and defenders so as to give greater scope of attacks to the “good side” – should not be considered. In fact, I suspect, calls for these sorts of revisions stem more from the desire of certain states to legitimise their recent violations of humanitarian law than from any real concern with bringing the law up to date.

Despite some progress in compliance and in enforcement, allegations of serious violations continue to surface regularly, and even the most shocking often remain unaddressed. Defiance knows no limits, a point perhaps best illustrated by Sri Lanka’s recent assertion that “ensuring zero civilian casualties was an overriding priority” in its conflict with the LTTE.[fn]‘Military conference to share methods of war’, BBC, 1 June 2011.Hide Footnote  But the momentum has already shifted against violators. The challenge now is to put in place a universal mechanism of enforcement. The reach of the International Criminal Court is expanding, but is unlikely to become universal any time soon. And its jurisdiction remains ex post facto, addressing only the most serious violations. Calls have been made for a universal monitoring body. The current push for investigations is always ad hoc, and not always successful.

As Charli Carpenter has pointed out, other international regimes have well-established observation mechanisms: the IAEA for non-proliferation, the WHO for international medical standards and the WTO for the rules of free trade. She concludes that,

“[w]ithout an independent monitoring mechanism capable of making informed, systematic, nonpartisan claims about what has happened on the ground, it is all too easy for countries to exploit the gray areas in humanitarian law.”[fn]Carpenter, C, ‘War crimes reporting after Goldstone’, Foreign Affairs, 9 May 2011.Hide Footnote

Developing such a mechanism could serve to provide empirical data on humanitarian abuses, to make it more difficult for states to brush off claims of abuses and provide the global public with a stronger basis for action.

In the end, if the laws of war are under siege, the siege has only served to highlight their continued relevance and the need for their stronger implementation. The reduction in the number of armed conflicts since the end of the cold war is in part a reflection of increased international involvement in the prevention of conflict, including through the work of organisations like International Crisis Group. The reduction of civilian casualties in armed conflict is due, in large part to the moral, political and operational impact of the law. And it’s gaining ground. 

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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