Will Russia Kill the OSCE?

Nine months after Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed his brutal war against Ukraine, Russia has launched another destructive offensive, this time on the diplomatic front.

Western diplomats in Vienna have been warning for the past eight months that Russia is undermining the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the world’s largest regional security organization.

The Vienna-based OSCE has its origins in the Cold War when it served as the only platform for dialogue between the East and West. Since then, it has played an important role in a wide variety of conflict prevention and management efforts in Europe, including in Ukraine and Georgia as well as in the breakaway regions of Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria.

But Russia is now blocking decisions on the OSCE’s annual budget and the 2024 OSCE chairmanship that are crucial for the bloc’s normal functioning, leading to an existential crisis for the organization.

Russia has also refused to prolong the mandates of the OSCE’s field operations in Ukraine, leading to their complete closure this year. For Moscow, it’s an easy game because in the OSCE, all decisions have to be adopted by consensus of the 57 participating states, which gives Russia plenty of opportunities to take the decision-making process hostage.

The OSCE is the only security institution that brings together the United States; Canada; all European states; and all states of the former Soviet Union, including Russia, on an equal footing.

It is based on a comprehensive approach to security, which includes not only military security aspects but also human rights and economic and environmental issues that are vital for Euro-Atlantic security.

The organization is also spearheading activities to support democratic reforms, human rights, a free media, rights of national minorities, and anti-corruption policies. In addition, it supports arms control measures as well as military confidence- and security-building measures. And it is very well known for its elections observation missions in the 57 OSCE member states, including in the United States.

All of these activities are now seriously threatened given Russia’s intransigence.

Russia has been accusing Western OSCE states since the early 2000s of being too focused on human rights, media freedom, and election observation within the OSCE context instead of working more on military, economic, and environmental aspects of security.

Moscow also feels that the respective OSCE institutions working on human rights and media freedom are “biased and one-sided” in favor of the Western narrative. This Russian belief has intensified considerably since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Russia also accused the special monitoring mission—the OSCE’s former flagship field operation in Ukraine that had to close down because of Russian pressure—of having released politically biased reports and of having ignored the problems of the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine. Moscow therefore refused to agree to extending the mission’s mandate in March.

Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine even went so far as to declare the OSCE special monitoring mission illegal and blamed individual OSCE mission members of having collaborated with U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence services. Russian proxies in Luhansk are keeping three OSCE mission members in jail and have sentenced two of them to lengthy prison terms on bogus charges.

One of the most serious dangers for the organization is the ongoing logjam in budget discussions. Over the past 12 months, Russia has refused to agree to the 2022 budget proposal of roughly 138 million euros ($143 million)—a level unchanged for at least the past 10 years.

A few other OSCE member states, including Armenia and Azerbaijan, are also blocking the approval—most likely to harm each other—in line with Russia’s actions.

Russia is using the budget as a political tool to erode the activities of vital OSCE institutions, such as the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights as well as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. The two OSCE institutions have long been a thorn in Russia’s side.

Without an agreed budget, the OSCE has managed to operate in a limited mode over the past months based on provisional monthly allotments. According to the OSCE’s financial regulations, the OSCE is not allowed to implement new projects or launch fresh activities during this time. It can also not enter into new contracts with other organizations.

Financial starvation effectively means that the OSCE is paralyzed and unable to react to geopolitical crises or a further deterioration in the overall security environment because the organization’s financial rules prohibit it from implementing new programs. It can only continue to do what has been agreed to in the previous year’s budget.

The only way around this is for OSCE participating states to make so-called extra budgetary contributions to specific OSCE projects that are financed outside the OSCE’s core budget. But this is at best an interim solution.

Any modification of the OSCE’s rules of procedure would require another consensus decision, which currently would again likely be blocked by Russia—but maybe also by Western states that prefer to keep the OSCE as a forum among equals.

One other aspect that is causing trouble to the OSCE is the fact that the current Polish OSCE chairmanship has not been able to forge consensus on a leadership candidate for 2024, and Russia is not helping. (Poland is in charge until Dec. 31, North Macedonia takes over in 2023, Finland will take the helm in 2025—but 2024 remains up in the air.)

In the OSCE, every year a different country takes over the political leadership of the organization. There is no alphabetical rotation like in the Council of Europe. Instead, the process of applying for the OSCE chair and eventually being chosen for that role is highly political. The decision is adopted by consensus among all 57 states, usually one or two years in advance, after a consultation process.

Two years ago, Estonia launched a bid to take the helm of the OSCE in 2024. At the time, many states supported this application, but now Russia is completely opposed.

If there is no decision on the 2024 chair by the end of this year, then the OSCE will be left without a functioning Troika, a body consisting of the current, previous, and incoming chair. The Troika usually provides important continuity to OSCE activities and is a way for the current chair to receive support from the other two Troika members.

That risks a political leadership vacuum. This could cause major problems because the foreign minister of the country chairing the OSCE usually takes over a variety of key political functions, first and foremost in helping to shape consensus and hosting the annual OSCE ministerial council that charts the way forward. The chair in office also travels to crisis hotspots and meets with political leaders, helping to initiate OSCE peace and conflict prevention activities.

In 2014, for example, when the Ukraine crisis first erupted, Switzerland was at the helm of the OSCE. It played a vital role in negotiating the mandate of the OSCE special monitoring mission to Ukraine and in launching a dialogue with all conflict parties in the form of the OSCE trilateral contact group.

As chair, Warsaw has ensured a “no business as usual” approach, adding Russia’s war against Ukraine as a topic to every major OSCE event. Poland also made sure that important OSCE conferences were held despite Russia’s opposition. For example, Poland held a major human rights conference in Warsaw with more than 1,000 participants this autumn and marketed it as its own chairmanship conference, thus avoiding a necessary consensus decision on the conference agenda, which would have been blocked by Russia and made holding the event impossible.

In a most recent move, the Polish OSCE chair decided to ban Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov from entering Poland to attend the upcoming OSCE ministerial council to be held in Lodz, Poland, on Dec. 1 and 2. Russia blasted this decision, calling it a violation of the OSCE’s rules of procedure. But Poland and the majority of OSCE participating states argue that Russia has violated all principles of the OSCE’s founding document, the Helsinki Final Act, and therefore, the Russian foreign minister should not be granted a seat at the ministerial table.

Several OSCE diplomats who spoke to Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity said they believed North Macedonia—the country that will take over the OSCE chairmanship next year from Poland—will have to initiate negotiations quickly to form consensus around a 2024 chairmanship candidate other than Estonia to avert a leadership crisis.

There are a few names floating around the diplomatic corridors of Vienna, including Kazakhstan, Spain and Turkey.

But for such negotiations to even begin, Estonia would have to withdraw its candidacy, which it may not want to do. Some Western states may also not want to give in to Russian pressure and may therefore stick to supporting the Estonian 2024 candidacy.

Such a dynamic could potentially lead to a complete deadlock in the decision-making process and a leadership vacuum with serious consequences for the OSCE’s ability to effectively respond to security threats in its region.

Time is running out because any candidate for 2024 will need enough time (a minimum of 12 months) to prepare for this complex task. Political decisions have to be taken about the priorities during the time in office, and financial and human resources have to be allocated.

The OSCE’s activities in the field have also taken a hit since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The organization has had to close its flagship operation in Ukraine, the special monitoring mission, as well as its project coordinator office in Kyiv because Russia opposed the extension of their respective mission mandates.

The special monitoring mission, first deployed in 2014, served as the eyes and ears of the international community on the ground in Ukraine. It was by far the OSCE’s largest field mission with roughly 690 international monitors who observed the fragile cease-fire in the east after the signature of the Minsk accords and regularly advocated for prisoner exchanges and safe passage for civilians across the front line.

With OSCE field operations in Ukraine all gone, OSCE officials like to point out that the organization still maintains 13 other field missions, including in Southeastern Europe, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. Yet virtually all of those mission mandates expire on Dec. 31.

Without a timely extension, more closures could follow, which would deprive the OSCE of its valuable field work in support of countries such as Albania, Moldova, Kazakhstan, or Tajikistan.

OSCE diplomats said it is too early to determine Moscow’s exact intentions and whether Russia will agree on renewing the remaining OSCE field operations or not. There is a general belief that Russia does support the OSCE missions in Central Asia and Kosovo.

But nothing is certain. As a result, the OSCE is heading toward a year-end showdown, when Russia will have to put its cards on the table.

If Western OSCE states decide to pursue an all-or-nothing approach, meaning that they will only agree to extending the full package of all expiring OSCE mission mandates, and if Russia at the same time insists on renewing just a handful, all the dominos could fall at once. Such power games are not new in the OSCE context. They have occurred in the past with extremely damaging consequences.

Most recently, in 2020, squabbling among OSCE states led to a leadership vacuum in the organization, with all four top OSCE posts, including the OSCE secretary-general, being left vacant for almost six months.

Depending on how Moscow and the major Western states, including the United States and the European states, play their cards this time, the OSCE is in for a rough ride—or a slow death.

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