Age of mistrust: crisis of co-operative security in Europe


The OSCE was designed to promote a culture of cooperative security in Europe. But in recent years military tensions between Russia and the West have flared up again. Can the OSCE help to defuse these tensions and restore confidence in the Euro-Atlantic area?

Age of mistrust - Photo
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2016 OSCE Mediterranean Conference

The adoption of the Helsinki Final Act and the creation of the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) at the height of the Cold War have demonstrated that dialogue and cooperation is possible even at times of most severe confrontation. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the CSCE transformed into the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to address the needs of a new security environment. Despite its achievements and unique role, the Organization’s importance began to gradually decline. The growth of military tensions along with a resurrection of old narratives between Russia and the West in recent years both call for the revival of this platform for cooperative security. But can the OSCE overcome the challenges it has faced for so many years?

OSCE and Euro-Atlantic Security

The OSCE has been playing an important role in the Euro-Atlantic security architecture since its establishment. Not only because of its comprehensive and cooperative model of security but also because it brings together on equal footing all actors: be it member states of the EU and NATO on the one hand, or CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) and other post-Soviet countries on the other.

However, the OSCE’s importance has been declining in recent years. Most analysts attribute this to three main factors: political competition with other actors, primarily the EU; a growing political paralysis due to the renewed East-West divide after the so-called colour revolutions in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005) as well as the conflict between Georgia and Russia in 2008; and the Organization’s diffuse profile and low degree of visibility.

After the eruption of the conflict in Ukraine in early 2014 and the rapid deployment of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, the Organization has got back to international spotlight, raised its profile, and reconfirmed its continuing political relevance. But the challenges driving the OSCE’s gradual decline have not disappeared. They have been only pushed aside for the time being.

Long-term Challenges

One of the major long-term challenges for the OSCE is her lack of adequate resources. Since the economic crisis of 2008-09, the OSCE’s budget has been gradually declining. The Organization’s approved annual budget for 2018 was only 137.8 million euros, which is very low for the world’s largest regional security organization with 16 field presences across the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian space. This decline has been partially compensated by extra-budgetary funding through voluntary contributions, which in 2018 reached 40.9 million. But even with factoring in this uncertain source of income, the OSCE’s overall financial resources hardly match those of most UN peacekeeping operations. For instance, the annual budget of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan alone is over 1 billion U.S. dollars.

Many insiders agree that the OSCE is a relatively effective and efficient organization, especially when compared to other multilateral institutions. Yet, some of the OSCE participating States have been pursuing the “zero nominal growth” policy that has been pushing the Organization to its limits for several years. If this trend is not reversed, the OSCE slowly but certainly risks losing its operational capabilities, credibility and, in the long term, relevance.

Another major challenge relates to the lack of formally recognized legal status. Although the OSCE participating States agreed already in 1993 that the Organization should be granted full legal personality similar to the United Nations and their bodies, there has been little progress in this regard over the past 25 years. In 2007, a draft convention on legal personality and privileges and immunities was for the OSCE was agreed by an expert group but has not been adopted so far.

While this may seem like a theoretical problem, it has very concrete practical consequences, especially in a crisis situation. For instance, the first monitors in Ukraine had to be deployed without appropriate privileges, immunities, and security guarantees from the host country, and the Mission’s operations were hampered as they were not able to open bank accounts, enter into contracts, and import much-needed equipment. These obstacles were removed only after several weeks when a memorandum of understanding with the host authorities was concluded.

The decentralized nature of the Organization also poses challenges for an effective functioning of the OSCE, its visibility and profile. Compared to other international organizations, the mandate of the OSCE Secretary General is relatively restrictive. The Secretary General functions mainly as a Chief Administrative Officer but a high degree of autonomy in both political and financial matters enjoyed by the Organization’s executive structures, namely its 16 field operations and 3 autonomous institutions is hampering this role. For instance, the heads of the OSCE field operations manage their own budgets, are selected and appointed by the OSCE Chairmanship, and report back to the OSCE Permanent Council. Also, the Secretary General’s political role is very limited. The main responsibility for political guidance lies with the Chairmanship that rotates on an annual basis. Even in a crisis situation, the Secretary General’s powers are very limited; although he/she is mandated to bring to the participating States’ attention any situation of emerging tension or conflict, there are no instruments for early action at his/her disposal, such as dispatching a small fact-finding monitoring or mediation team.

Last but not least, the current form of decision-making within the OSCE based on consensus rule hinders any meaningful progress. The problem with the consensus rule is not its existence but the fact that it has been interpreted in absolute terms for many years. The consensus rule is crucial for inclusiveness and legitimacy of decisions in a political body such as the OSCE. However, if it is taken too literally and applied to all areas, including, for instance, procedural issues such as adopting the agendas of most meetings, it leads to micromanagement and hinders the Organization’s work. It also allows any participating State to hold the Organization “hostage” to its immediate political interests and agenda, which has been clearly visible in the budget negotiations over recent years.

With the growing complexity of security challenges in the 21st century, the OSCE, just like any other international organization, needs to rethink its methods and approaches to remain effective and relevant. It needs to become more responsive, innovative and flexible. But without addressing the underlying challenges that have been hampering its work throughout its existence, it can hardly meet the demands of the new era.

Previous Reform Efforts

The OSCE has been continuously trying to address some of the long-term challenges it has been facing. Already back in 2005, the participating States mandated a “Panel of Eminent Persons on Strengthening the Effectiveness of the OSCE”. Some minor recommendations were implemented over the following years but due to the lack of political will, there was no systematic follow-up.

After the Georgia-Russia conflict, the so-called “Corfu Process” under the 2009 Greek Chairmanship was launched, which culminated in the Astana Summit of 2010. However, the OSCE participating States failed to reach a consensus on a plan of action with a number of concrete reform proposals.

Some of the elements from Astana were taken up by the 2011 Lithuanian Chairmanship within its “V-to-V Dialogue” framework (“V to V” stands for Vancouver to Vladivostok or Vladivostok to Vancouver) and later, with a view to the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act, by the so-called “Helsinki +40 Process”. This process was supposed to determine the future role of the OSCE in the changing security environment and provide strategic guidance for the Organization’s work. However, with the unfolding conflict in Ukraine, the process came to impasse.

After the annexation of Crimea and ensuing fighting in Donbas, the political atmosphere was anything but conducive to any forward-looking discussions. The OSCE Troika, consisting back then of Switzerland, Serbia and Germany, thus mandated a “Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security” to provide external advice. The Panel published two reports, one on lessons learned for the OSCE from its engagement in Ukraine, and one on wider questions of the European security order, but there was no political will for any systematic follow-up.

The Structured Dialogue

The Structured Dialogue (SD) is the latest OSCE initiative aimed at re-building trust in the renewed geopolitical rivalry of the recent years. However, the conflict landscape is much more complex than during the bipolar era as mistrust and confrontation seem to have become more prevalent in the international politics and are not limited anymore to the Euro-Atlantic space.

The way the SD has been evolving demonstrates that there is no single vision anymore as risk perceptions seem to be too diverse. In this sense, the SD has never really pretended to find a unifying vision but has rather been aimed at finding a set of common goals shared by the OSCE participating States that could bring countries back to negotiations.

The SD, or as the OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger calls it, “the flagship dialogue initiative” has been generally recognized as one of the major achievements in terms of confidence- and security-building measures and restarting communication between Russia and the West after the unwinding confrontation that followed the events in Ukraine in 2014.

The SD is the result of former German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s initiative on conventional arms control (CAC) that eventually led to a ministerial declaration in Hamburg, launching a new multilateral process. The new format has been designed to include high-level diplomats and military officials, and aims at reducing tensions, restoring trust and building bridges for cooperation where possible. However, it is the content of the dialogue that draws dividing lines between the participating nations.

The SD can be seen as consisting of several factions of states that have had different motifs since the very beginning of the process. The core is represented by a group of like-minded states supporting a relaunch of CAC in Europe. This includes Germany, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Finland, Bulgaria, Spain, and Sweden. Their position was expressed in the ministerial declaration in 2016 which stated that “a relaunch of conventional arms control is one important path towards a genuine and effective cooperative security allowing for peace and stability on our continent”.

The second group includes the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Poland, Romania and the Baltic states. These countries have never openly rejected SD but on different occasions have expressed reservations. They fear that the SD, in the way it evolved from the Steinmeier initiative, risks becoming just a new way of flirting with Russia and gives Moscow more aces in its geo-strategic pack of cards. They advocate for a different approach that should include discussions on how to preserve international rules and address a wider set of transnational threats, including terrorism, cyber security and migration, thus not limiting it to CAC.

Finally, there is Russia itself. Although Moscow is interested in preserving the SD, it is also fully aware of different opinions and the lack of consensus within the Western club. Hence, Russia is reluctant to be too active in the SD or put any new ideas on the table, collating all that has been proposed by the like-minded states with reactions in Washington that is always very skeptical to any kind of new rapprochement with Russia. Taking into account the current state of relations between Russia and the United States – two countries whose will determines any real progress on CAC – the SD goals remain misty.

Perspectives for the Structured Dialogue

The key question arising from the colorful set of opinions about the SD is how to reconcile the views of the states that support a relaunch of CAC negotiations as a way of engaging Russia in dialogue on the one hand, and a broader vision from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Poland, Romania and the Baltic States who see a return to the rules-based order as a major precondition to turning the page and starting negotiations on CAC on the other hand.

Probably it should be acknowledged that neither inclusive talks on CAC nor a broader discussion on rules of the international order are feasible in the current atmosphere. Instead, the SD should concentrate on smaller-scale goals that are crucial in a situation when all sides constantly raise their stakes, and continue serving as a legitimate dialogue platform, which can be considered its main added value.

In this regard, one example where the SD can prove to be valuable is in terms of discussions on opening channels of communication on military exercises conducted by Russia and NATO. This is one of the main driving forces behind looming images of the real conflict. Russia’s „Zapad“ or NATO’s „Saber Strike“ exercises have been surrounded by dozens of different interpretations, escalation scenarios and myths, most of which were the result of a shown unwillingness to openly communicate.

Another area where the SD should prioritize more military-to-military contacts is managing and avoiding incidents in NATO-Russia contact zones, foremost the Baltic Sea. The recent years have seen a dramatic increase in dangerous encounters of military aircrafts that could not only provoke unwanted escalation but put at risk civilian flight routes.

On a grander scale, the SD could initiate more discussions on shared challenges like terrorism and migration. These talks should be unifying where possible, and at the same time test the ground for the possibility of more sincere discussions on crucial and disconnecting issues such as situation in Ukraine, protracted conflicts in the OSCE area, or disinformation.

The SD should not limit itself to one particular goal or vision but it should be a flexible platform with a number of layers (or baskets) where discussions may develop at different paces. In its current form, the SD could prove to be efficient in decreasing existing military tensions and, at the same time, to further thinking about how to come to a broader consensus on relaunching CAC, and start restoring trust and predictability. In this context, the SD should not limit itself to exchanges between top officials only but also involve experts, particularly from track 2 and 1.5 initiatives, who could bring fresh and innovative ideas into the discussion.

This article elaborates issues discussed at the Young Generation Leadership Network (YGLN) workshop, which took place on 24-25 June 2019 at Heinrich Boell Foundation. The opinions articulated in this article represent the views of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of our foundation or the YGLN. Our common aim is to stimulate a security related dialogue among emerging experts in the Euro-Atlantic area.