1.1. Challenges to European Security and the Role of OSCE Mediation

Chair: Anna Hess Sargsyan

Panellists: Amb. Heidi Grau; Mr Alexei Arbatov; Amb. Philip Remler; Amb. Fred Tanner

Rapporteur: Benno Zogg, Center for Security Studies

The precarious situation in the greater Eurasian region renders the OSCE’s role in guaranteeing peace and stability evermore necessary. Given the increased geopolitical tensions between OSCE participating states however, there seems to be limited space for such an organisation to come to a consensus related to its conflict settlement work.

Switzerland held the OSCE chairmanship in 2014 during the height of the Ukraine Crisis, which brought to the forefront both the potential but also the limitations of the OSCE. The organisation is based on strong foundation through the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris. Despite the institutional and geopolitical challenges, the OSCE under the Swiss chairmanship managed to tap into its conflict settlement toolbox and set up multilateral mediation structures and processes both on political but also on operational levels. In Eastern Ukraine, the OSCE set up the Special Monitoring Mission to observe the situation on the ground, while the Trilateral Working Group was created to lead the political negotiations. In times of geopolitical tensions, the Swiss chairmanship managed to deescalate the Ukraine Crisis with a creative, inclusive and risk-taking approach as well as its quiet diplomacy. Many of leading Swiss diplomats at the time had a mediation background. However, the recent budget restraints, the limited mandate of the Secretary General, and the nature of rotating chairmanships challenge the organisation’s work in moving from “early warning to early reaction”. As a consensus-based organisation, the OSCE is as strong as its participating states want it to be. 

The Russian perspective on the OSCE and its actions in the Ukraine Crisis is not homogenous, reflecting the split in Russian society on the crisis. The crisis represents the largest challenge to European security and global order since the end of the Cold War, with worrying levels of military build-ups and arms race. The Minsk Agreements are deadlocked and have been violated by both sides of the conflict, and there is a lack of implementation mechanisms. A panelist suggested that only an armed OSCE peacekeeping mission, supported by both parties and manned with troops from the Russian as well as the Western camp, could effectively separate the warring factions in Ukraine and allow for the resumption of control of borders. OSCE, however, does not have the in-house knowledge for police operations and planning. Narratives of the Ukrainian conflict are diverging in the West and in Russia, with Russia feeling threatened by EU and NATO expansion, while the West sees Russia as challenging the Helsinki Aquis and acting based on its ‘fortress mentality’ in its sphere of influence. To varying degrees, the Ukraine Crisis has had its impact on the dynamics and the settlement of the protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and, less so, Nagorno Karabakh. With Abkhazia and South Ossetia signing closer integration agreements with Russia, essentially putting the leadership of these de facto entities in Russian hands, the West speaks of this as a case of “crypto-annexation”. Given the complexity of these protracted conflicts and the growing rift between Russia and the West, prospects of OSCE mediation here remain rather bleak. It was suggested that joint work on common European security issues should allow progress both on the Ukraine conflict settlement but also beyond.

A Panel of Eminent Persons for European Security as a Common Project put forward recommendations for OSCE’s role in conflict prevention and touched upon related challenges in implementing those recommendations. The panel produced two reports in 2015, an Interim Report and a Final Report. Interestingly, the panel still exists and held two conferences on ‘connectivity’ and ‘conflict cycles’ in 2016 to implement the ideas the reports had produced. Another issue is whether the ‘Normandy Group’, comprising Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine, will lose all importance once the German chairmanship comes to an end.

Panelists agreed that the role of the OSCE is as important as ever in these times of crisis and geopolitical tensions in Europe. The principle of consensus is both its strength and weakness. The situation remains challenging for the current German chairmanship, and there is clear need to maintain and strengthen the OSCE, and even to rebuild it as a platform for dialogue and a common security project. All panelists agreed that the conflict in Ukraine is of high importance and will not be solved by itself.