Can the OSCE Help Resolve the Russia-Ukraine Crisis?

The flurry of diplomatic meetings dedicated to Moscow’s demands for a new security paradigm in Europe will culminate with discussions at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on January 13. The scheduled talks in Vienna have garnered little attention in comparison to bilateral U.S.-Russian discussions on January 10 and the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on January 12. In truth, few concrete outcomes are likely to result from the final round of discussions, which will take place during a regular session of the OSCE’s Permanent Council. The scope of Russia’s demands and the fundamental questions they pose are far too complex to be considered in a single meeting. Nonetheless, if Russia is willing to engage in diplomatic negotiations about the future of European security—as opposed to insisting on the West’s immediate acceptance of its demands in their entirety—and refrains from using them as a pretext for war, then the potential role of the OSCE in securing a new peace in Europe is worth close consideration.

As a forum for dialogue covering a broad range of regional security issues with an open membership policy, the OSCE arguably is the most appropriate of the aforementioned venues to consider Russia’s maximalist proposals. Yet the organization faces considerable constraints on its ability to serve as a useful platform for dialogue. In this regard, a look at the potential advantages and disadvantages of the OSCE in facilitating a resolution to the crisis is helpful in devising recommendations on how to improve its chances of success in breaking the impasse.

Why the OSCE Is the Right Framework

In many ways, the OSCE is the ideal framework in which to consider Russia’s security demands as well as the reciprocal views of other countries. First and foremost, the OSCE’s membership structure ensures that all countries with a stake in European security are included in the discussion. The OSCE was created as a forum for dialogue between the East and West during the Cold War. By design, it has an inclusive membership policy and comprises 57 participating states spanning from Vancouver to Vladivostok. There are no prerequisites for membership other than geography. The organization operates according to a consensus-based decisionmaking model, ensuring that less powerful states in Europe have just as much of an opportunity to engage in and shape discussions on security issues as their more powerful neighbors. In the context of Russia’s buildup of military forces along Ukraine’s border and its insistence on carving out a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet region, discussions at the OSCE allow the Biden administration to follow through on its pledge not to conclude security agreements with Russia over the heads of the countries that would be most affected by them. Of the many discussions scheduled for mid-January, this is the only one in which Ukraine has a chance to respond directly to Russia’s demands and to do so on an equal footing.

Second, Russia’s proposals take aim at core concepts of regional security that emerged from the OSCE. The OSCE traces its origins to the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, in which contemporary European states unanimously pledged to uphold 10 principles guiding relations between them. These principles, which became known as the Decalogue, include sovereign equality and respect for rights inherent in sovereignty; refraining from the threat or use of force; and the peaceful settlement of disputes. These are precisely the issues that Russia has brought up for debate with its recent proposals for NATO and the United States. If Russia wishes to engage in earnest talks on revising the foundations of European security, then the OSCE—as the forum in which Russia initially agreed to adhere to these principles—is the right venue for this discussion. Russia affirmed its commitment to upholding basic standards of behavior outlined in the Helsinki Final Act and the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe, which adapted the concept of comprehensive security to the post-Communist era, when it signed the 1999 Charter for European Security. It pledged to implement these documents fully and in good faith at the 2010 Astana Summit, which was the most recent high-level summit organized under the auspices of the OSCE. Clearly, there is a need to work though the discrepancies between what Russia agreed to and its recent actions.

Finally, the OSCE has experience supporting negotiations on confidence-building measures that could allay Russia’s stated concerns. Underpinning Russia’s demands for a cordon sanitaire in the post-Soviet space and a restriction on NATO enlargement and its activities in non-member states is a narrative that portrays Russia as a besieged fortress that is surrounded on all sides by enemies. This belief among the top echelons of the Kremlin has metastasized after five waves of NATO enlargement. It is still unclear whether Russia will accept anything short of its demand for a buffer zone in Eastern Europe, but a shift in focus toward mitigating specific capabilities and behaviors that provoke concern in Moscow would put the OSCE in a position to affect a positive outcome. Having hosted talks that led to the adoption of Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) and Open Skies Treaties at the end of the Cold War, and as the organization in charge of the Vienna Document, the OSCE has sufficient experience and technical capacity to lead dialogues on reducing tensions through transparency, improved communication, and reciprocal limitations. More recently, limited progress has been made in the OSCE’s Structured Dialogue on the topic of risk reduction, and this format could be used as a springboard for additional confidence-building measures to rebuild the basic trust that is a prerequisite to talks at the strategic level. 

Why the OSCE Is the Wrong Platform . . . for Now

Despite these indications of the positive role the OSCE could play in resolving the current situation, there are strong counterarguments. The first is that Russia and the West remain too far apart on basic positions to make use of the OSCE’s good offices. As a veteran U.S. diplomat and former OSCE mission head concluded, the organization, like any other multilateral institution, “reflects the state of relations among the nations that make up its membership. When relations are good or most of the member states are like-minded, the organization works well. When relations are bad and there are major disagreements among members, that same organization will not function.” For the OSCE to serve as a useful platform for discussions, Russian officials and Western counterparts will need to come to Vienna with the belief that it is possible to bridge their divergent positions, and they must have an idea of where common ground might be found. It is unclear whether the faint glimmer of optimism after the January 10 bilateral meeting between U.S. and Russian leaders in Geneva will endure. While Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov remarked on the serious and businesslike tone of the meeting, little headway was made to narrow the negotiating margins. The OSCE’s new chair-in-office, Polish foreign minister Zbigniew Rau, who assumed the one-year position at the beginning of the year, has indicated his readiness to hold a dialogue on a revised security paradigm—“provided that countries do not violate existing norms in order to gain a privileged position in such a discussion.” Unless Russia drops its more strident demands, negotiations in the OSCE track will yield the same results as talks in Geneva and Brussels.

A second concern is that disagreement on fundamental principles could lead to a crisis within the organization. In its recent proposals to the United States and NATO, and in statements by top officials, Russia offered far-fetched interpretations of “indivisible security” according to which Ukraine’s right to apply for membership in NATO presents a “legitimate” threat to Russia’s security interests. However, its disregard of the specific commitments outlined in the Decalogue suggests that Moscow is inclined to view comprehensive security as a rhetorical fig leaf rather than a shared principle guiding relations between states. Accordingly, if OSCE participating states were to engage in a deep, formal discussion of these principles, it is unclear whether they would be able to reach consensus on previous shared positions that heretofore were considered the least common denominator. Parallels between the current context and the ill-fated Corfu Process of 2008–2010, which ultimately led to a “near death experience” for the OSCE, will likely prompt several delegations to refrain from convening for a summit to consider existential questions regarding European security.

Finally, Russia has systematically undermined public confidence in the OSCE through disinformation and obstructionism. In recent years, Russia has leveled accusations of bias against the OSCE, particularly its Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM), which was established in 2014 to report objectively on the situation in the country at a time when “little green men” began to appear in Crimea. Russian officials and press outlets frequently accuse the organization of ignoring alleged violations by Ukrainian authorities, but in reality, many of these allegations are hyperbolized or cannot be corroborated according to the mission’s strict reporting standards. Elsewhere, Russia undermined the organization’s long-standing effort to achieve a political resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute by unilaterally brokering a hasty ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, despite serving as a lead facilitator of OSCE peace talks. Further examples abound. The Kremlin’s tendency to undermine the OSCE, cast aspersions on its credibility, and question its competence when it cannot be manipulated to serve Moscow’s aims has taken a toll on the organization’s reputation, particularly in Russia. This makes it more difficult for an OSCE-brokered outcome to be presented to the public or to be respected by officials and military leaders in Russia.

Improving the OSCE’s Ability to Contribute to Peaceful Resolution of the Crisis

The OSCE faces significant obstacles to fulfilling its potential as a platform for meaningful dialogue on Russia’s security demands and the future of European security. There is only so much that can be achieved within the OSCE’s framework if Russia fails to commit to the organization’s basic principles. Nonetheless, the Biden administration—and the leadership of other participating states—might consider the following policy options to enhance the OSCE’s capacity to contribute to a positive outcome.

  • Intensify discussions taking place in the Structured Dialogue. The forum has been useful in developing discrete confidence-building measures amid a broader discussion on how to address the rift between Russia and the West. As the only remaining platform in the OSCE in which the United States and Russia have military-to-military contacts, it can continue to focus on technical issues at a time when mutual trust remains low but serve as a test bed for new ideas when an opening emerges.
  • Put defunct confidence-building mechanisms back on the agenda. Russia has repeatedly stressed its interest in legally binding security guarantees, yet some of its demands were covered under previous agreements that fell apart due to accusations of non-compliance, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. An opportunity to salvage these mechanisms may have appeared when Deputy Secretary Sherman told her Russian counterpart on January 10 that the United States is willing to consider reciprocal measures regarding limitations on weapons deployments and military exercises. The OSCE should promote discussions on what it would take to revive the CFE, INF, and Open Skies Treaties and to modernize the Vienna Document.
  • Increase funding and staffing support for the organization. The OSCE operates on a shoestring budget of $158 million dollars per year, of which more than half is spent on supporting field operations. The chronic budget problems facing the organization undermine morale and distract top officials from focusing on their mission of promoting comprehensive security across the OSCE area and preventing conflict. Moreover, many key positions in the organization are filled through secondments from participating states. Expanding the organization’s ranks—and nominating qualified experts to those positions—would vitalize the institution.

The current crisis has demonstrated the breadth and complexity of disagreements between Russia and the West. While some appear to be military in nature, others rest on more existential, foundational beliefs. As such, none of the existing security fora is the perfect venue for discussion, but the OSCE has many of the characteristics needed to facilitate a resolution to the crisis, provided its participating states are willing to invest in the effort.

Andrew Lohsen is a fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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