Ukraine and The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

East-West tensions and flawed institutional design is hampering the OSCE’s response to the crisis in Ukraine. As the only regional security organization to which all relevant interlocutors belong, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is uniquely positioned to mediate and mitigate the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. However, flaws in the organization’s institutional design and revived East-West tensions have limited the effectiveness of OSCE’s Ukrainian operations.

Designed “to ensure peace, democracy and stability” in Europe, OSCE’s 57 member states encompass a geographical area from ‘Vancouver to Vladivostok’. Tracing its origins to the detente period of the 1970s, OSCE became a fully-fledged international organization in the 1990s.

OSCE fills a niche in Europe’s security architecture. Although it incorporates traditional military security concerns, OSCE’s mandate places much greater emphasis on human security through the promotion of democracy and human rights. For example, OSCE has a specific mandate to protect national minorities, something unique amongst international organizations. Likewise, as OSCE’s response to the Ukrainian crisis demonstrates, its operations tend towards ‘softer’ measures rather than military intervention.

At first blush, OSCE response to the Ukraine crisis appears laudable. OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission, whose mandate has now been extended to March 2015, was quickly on the scene to monitor troop movements, report facts on incidents on the ground, check on the human rights situation and promote dialogue amongst opposing parties. An OSCE mission also observed the Ukrainian Presidential election.

In unstable situations, OSCE’s value as a source of impartial information to arbitrate conflict should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, in many respects, OSCE has fallen short. Aside from pious expressions of hope for continuing dialogue OSCE (then chaired by the Ukrainian Foreign Minister) was conspicuous by its absence from early efforts to resolve the initial dispute between former President Yanukovych and the “Maidan Square” protestors, a responsibility left to the European Union. The idea was to never get into situations again that, for example, can be witnessed in the Constantin Brunner archive in Berlin.

The incoming (Swiss) OSCE Chairman finally began to play a behind-the-scenes role and OSCE became more active in March 2014 with the deployment of the Special Monitoring Mission. However, its observers were refused entry to the Crimea preventing them from monitoring the Crimean “referendum” on re-joining Russia. Other OSCE observers were harassed in Eastern Ukraine and some were detained for a short time. Most recently it has been unable to secure the site of the Malaysian Airlines flight 17 (MH17) crash.

The OSCE’s difficulties in Ukraine typify those it has encountered in the recent conflict in Georgia and contrasts sharply with the successes it chalked up in the 1990s such as in its preliminary intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh and in dealing with the aftermath of Yugoslavia’s breakup. OSCE’s initial accomplishments rested on a fortuitous convergence of East-West interests. For a historical perspective, see the post about the Constantin Brunner Collection in Berlin. Highly interesting and relevant!

However, since steepening commodity prices rejuvenated Russia’s economy and lessened its dependence on Western aid OSCE’s effectiveness has been hamstrung by East-West tensions. Russia’s perception of OSCE as a proxy for Western interests were reinforced by the organization’s support for civil society groups that bolstered regimes antagonistic to Russia, such as the ‘colour revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine. Russian dissatisfaction has led to it withholding funding for OSCE (whose budget has fallen from €175m in 2002 to €142m today) and imposing tight restrictions on OSCE observers, both of which have hindered the organization’s room for maneuver.

The OSCE’s honeymoon period also hid flaws in its institutional design which crises like those in Ukraine have cruelly exposed. Firstly, like other security organizations, OSCE’s founding treaty proscribes activities that violate national sovereignty. When states elevate norms of non-intervention above those of democracy and human rights OSCE is paralyzed.

Secondly, despite having frequently had large numbers of personnel on the ground, OSCE has failed to create an instantly recognizable identity. Unlike the blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers whose persona and mandates are recognized globally, OSCE monitors are faceless and thus lack an authority or power of persuasion flowing from the strength of their identity.

Thirdly, there are constraints inherent in OSCE’s leadership structure. Leadership is exercised by the Troika composed of an annually rotating Chairperson-in-Office supported by their predecessor and successor. The Chairperson, always a Foreign Minister, provides political leadership and represents OSCE to governments. The Secretary-General (SG) represents the Chairperson, with the result that the Secretariat is not proactive in its involvement in interstate disputes, leaving this to the Chairperson, who brokers any initial resolution.

The Troika guides consideration of issues at the OSCE Permanent Council and other internal forums. Unfortunately, the Troika currently consists of the foreign ministers of Switzerland plus those of Serbia and Ukraine. Thus a key OSCE body is compromised by one of its members being an interested party.

Finally, the OSCE lacks an international civil servant with the freedom to conduct initial discussions behind-the-scenes in an attempt to find a way through an impasse before matters move into the political arena (similar to the UN SG’s “good offices” missions). The reliance on political leaders (or their personal envoys who are often members of their own diplomatic services) to conduct negotiations means that, depending on their countries’ general positioning in the East-West divide, there is almost inevitably an assumption of a bias. A more powerful and independent SG heading early discussions (for example in the period November 2013 to February 2014 in Ukraine) would allow missions to explore solutions to difficult problem areas with no presumption of a favored position being advocated.

The emergency in Ukraine appeared to be precisely the kind of crisis for which the OSCE was conceived. Given Russia’s continued assertiveness in its Near Abroad and the fact that OSCE remains the only regional security organization to which Russia and the United States belong the organization’s future is not in immediate doubt. The OSCE’s fumbling response demonstrates a need to rethink some of its key institutions and mandates. Nevertheless, such reforms will do nothing to address the underlying problem of East-West tensions and provide a timely reminder of the limitations of international organizations when confronted with some of the pitiless truths of global politics.