Consequences of the ‘Temporary Evacuation’ of the OSCE from Ukraine

Amid the flow of information related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is easy to miss the announcement from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that it will temporarily evacuate its international staff working in Ukraine. This appears to include members of the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine; the Office of the Project Coordinator, which supports a number of capacity-building projects supporting Ukrainian human rights, media, and rule of law institutions; and the special representative of the OSCE chairperson-in-office in Ukraine and in the Trilateral Contact Group, which has been working since 2014 to facilitate a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The evacuation of the SMM’s 850 international members, in particular, leaves a void. While the SMM is mandated to fulfill several tasks in Ukraine, at its core, it is a reporting mission that specializes in establishing facts related to security incidents and verifying reports of civilian casualties and damage to public infrastructure in areas affected by conflict. Because the mission was established by a consensus decision of all 57 participating states of the OSCE, including Russia, its reports are generally considered to be an objective record of the security, human rights, and humanitarian situation in Ukraine, particularly in areas near the contact line between government- and separatist-controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. This makes the SMM an important actor in dispelling rumors and countering disinformation, which have intensified in recent days following Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine. Information gathered by the SMM also has underpinned claims against Russia in international courts, making it an indirect contributor to efforts to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable.

With the SMM’s indefinite departure, Ukrainian diplomats and Western leaders lose an important resource to counter the false narratives that the Kremlin uses to justify Russia’s aggressive campaign against Ukraine and mischaracterize the activities of its forces. While representatives of Putin’s government may dismiss Western and Ukrainian media outlets reporting on the situation on the grounds that they are supposedly biased against Russia, they lose credibility when making similar arguments about information shared by a monitoring mission that they have approved.

The departure of the SMM also means that the international community loses awareness of what is happening in separatist-controlled areas, where local media is tightly controlled by Russian proxy forces and Ukrainian and Western journalists face a “virtual prohibition on reporting.” The SMM’s access to these areas—which self-appointed authorities formally agree to respect but which is challenged on a near-daily basis—heretofore enabled it to follow up on important but unverified developments related to the conflict. Without the mission, it becomes much more difficult to obtain verified information about what is happening on the ground in those areas, including, for example, recent reports that separatist forces are press-ganging local men to enlist in fighting units.

Despite the language framing the departure of OSCE staff as a temporary measure, it seems doubtful that the SMM will return to Ukraine. President Putin recently declared that the Minsk agreements “are non-existent now,” and Russia has little need for a reporting mission in a country it is subjecting to naked aggression. The change in circumstances means that Russia’s permanent representative to the OSCE may vote against the renewal of the SMM’s mandate next month, which would result in the immediate termination of the mission. The loss would be offset, to a degree, by the efforts of UN agencies that have been active in Ukraine since 2014 to report on human rights issues and humanitarian conditions. However, it is unclear whether the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine and relevant teams from the UN Refugee Agency and International Organization for Migration will remain in place to gather, corroborate, and report information on conditions on the ground following Russia’s multipronged invasion. (According to a recent statement from a UN spokesperson, the organization is relocating “non-essential” personnel in Ukraine, but it has not specified what capacities it considers to be essential, apart from the provision and coordination of humanitarian assistance.)

Notwithstanding its departure from Ukraine, the OSCE can play an important role in the near term. Its good offices should remain available to broker ceasefires, facilitate the creation of humanitarian corridors, and support other activities to prevent or alleviate the suffering of civilians trapped in hazardous areas. However, Russia’s actions in Ukraine so flagrantly violate the founding principles of the OSCE that they generate broader uncertainty about the future of the organization and the European security order that it helped to create. As one observer of the OSCE noted, “the basis on which the organization has been functioning has been largely taken away.”

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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