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Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Briefing

Tomorrow (14 March), the Security Council is expected to convene for a briefing on the activities of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Zbigniew Rau, the OSCE Chairman-in-Office (CiO), and Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo are expected to brief. Ukraine is expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.

The chair of the OSCE rotates yearly, and on 1 January, Poland succeeded Sweden in this function. Tomorrow’s briefing will give Rau an opportunity to inform the Council about Poland’s main priorities as chair and discuss possible avenues for UN-OSCE cooperation. While the situation in Ukraine is not the only focus of tomorrow’s briefing, developments on the issue are likely to dominate the discussions.

The OSCE has been the most prominent regional organisation operating in Ukraine since March 2014. Responsible for monitoring the 2015 Minsk II agreement, which outlined steps for ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine through a political settlement, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) had gathered daily information related to ceasefire violations and the withdrawal of heavy weapons in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Following Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine on 24 February, the SMM evacuated its international monitoring staff from its area of operations on 7 March and suspended its reporting activities.

On 3 March, a group of 45 OSCE participating states submitted a letter to the director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Matteo Mecacci, invoking the Moscow Mechanism—a tool for establishing a short-term fact-finding mission to address specific human rights concerns in the OSCE region. This is the seventh time that the Moscow Mechanism has been invoked since its adoption in 1991. The move follows decisions by other international institutions, including the ICC and the UN Human Rights Council, to investigate possible war crimes in Ukraine.

At tomorrow’s briefing, Council members may be interested in hearing about the OSCE’s possible role in facilitating a peaceful settlement to the conflict in Ukraine. The OSCE participates in the work of the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG)—consisting of the OSCE, Russia and Ukraine—which has served as the main forum for addressing the implementation of various aspects of the Minsk agreements. TCG negotiations held prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine centred on Moscow’s security demands, which include binding guarantees that Ukraine will not be offered NATO membership, a call for NATO to withdraw its troops and weapons from former Soviet countries that joined the alliance after 1997, and a call for the US remove nuclear weapons positioned in Europe.

At the heart of Russia’s arguments for its security demands lies the principle of “indivisible security”, as set out in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. Russian President Vladimir Putin has long argued that the enlargement of NATO poses an existential threat to Russia. In a 1 February letter addressed to Canada, the US, and several European countries, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov criticised OSCE participating states for selectively interpreting the principle of indivisible security, noting that “either there is security for all or there is no security for anyone”. Western countries and former Soviet satellite states have typically associated the principle of indivisible security with the right of sovereign states to determine their own security alliances.

In an opinion piece published on 5 January, Rau indicated a readiness to hold a dialogue on a revised European security arrangement to address Russia’s concerns. On 8 February, Rau launched the OSCE’s Renewed European Security Dialogue initiative, stating that “it is imperative that through diplomacy and dialogue we shall find a way to de-escalate, and to begin rebuilding trust, transparency and cooperation”. The initiative was suspended following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

At tomorrow’s briefing, Rau and DiCarlo are likely to call on Russia to cease its hostilities and engage in diplomacy. In this regard, they may offer their respective organisations’ good offices to facilitate a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Rau may reiterate his willingness to establish a consultation process within the OSCE to consider ways to strengthen the European security architecture that takes Moscow’s concerns into account. While the SMM is no longer present in Ukraine, Rau is expected to emphasise that the OSCE has retained its facilities and assets there in anticipation of a return to operations.

The briefers are also expected to call on all parties to ensure unhindered humanitarian access in Ukraine and the safe evacuation of civilians. DiCarlo is likely to update the Council on humanitarian developments. The ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine has resulted in significant disruptions to basic services. According to OCHA, as at 11 March, water shortages on both sides of the contact line—dividing the Donbas region into areas under, and outside, Ukrainian government control—are affecting roughly 2.2 million people, while 650,000 have no access to water at all. In addition, over 100,000 people are in critical need of humanitarian supplies such as food and medicine. In this regard, DiCarlo may also provide an update on the UN’s efforts to establish humanitarian notification systems—a mechanism that serves to inform parties to the armed conflict of movements of humanitarian staff and supplies.

Several Council members are expected to condemn Russia for violating international law and contravening the OSCE’s foundational principles derived from the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. These members may emphasise that the Helsinki principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, and refraining from the threat or use of force remain the only basis for a Euro-Atlantic and Euro-Asian security arrangement. In this regard, they may call on Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine and pursue a peaceful settlement to the conflict.

Russia is expected to reiterate the position that its military operation is being carried out for the purposes of the denazification and demilitarisation of Ukraine. It is also likely to criticise OSCE participating states for what it views as the bloc’s failure to compel Ukraine to implement the Minsk II agreement. Moscow may also express doubts regarding the OSCE’s ability to facilitate a dialogue on ways to address Russia’s security concerns. Speaking at the 28th meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council on 2 December 2021, Lavrov said that the OSCE has reached “a depressing state” and has become “hostage to the bloc-based discipline within the European Union and NATO”.

Some Council members, including China, may urge Russia and OSCE participating states to reengage in diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful settlement to the conflict that takes the security concerns of all parties into account. In its explanation of vote on the 2 March General Assembly resolution titled “Aggression Against Ukraine”, China stressed the importance of giving full attention and respect to the “legitimate security concerns” of all countries and, in this regard, called on all relevant parties to conduct negotiations to set in place a “balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism”. Moreover, following the 25 February vote on a Security Council resolution on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, which failed to be adopted because of a veto cast by Russia, China said in its explanation of vote that “against the backdrop of five successive rounds of NATO expansion, Russia’s legitimate security aspirations should receive attention and be addressed properly”.

In addition to the situation in Ukraine, the briefers and Council members may address other conflict situations in the OSCE’s area of operations. The OSCE plays a role in international efforts regarding frozen conflicts in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transdniestria. Given that these conflicts are not regularly discussed by the Council, some members might want to use the briefing to hear more about the OSCE’s mediation efforts in these situations.

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