The OSCE is deeply divided between Russia and the West, making its dialogue platform key to maintaining security and managing conflict. At issue are the principles supporting European order.
Germany ends its Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) chairmanship in 2016 at a time when its 57 member states are faced with a host of traditional and unconventional security threats that have given it renewed relevance as a platform for dialogue and conflict management.
As German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at the OSCE Ministerial meeting in Hamburg, in stormy seas the OSCE can act as a "lighthouse" to provide direction. However, the consensus-based OSCE is deeply divided along a fault line between Russia and the West, centered on the conflict and crisis in Ukraine.
"The core of disagreement between the West and Russia is over the future of the European order,” said Barbara Kunz, a research fellow at the French Institute of International Relations. "The only remaining forum to address this is the OSCE."
The OSCE's main objective is to prevent violent conflict and reach solutions to existing conflicts. The Cold War-era body designed to enhance formal and informal dialogue between East and West has struggled to find its place since the collapse of communism.
Its predecessor, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), helped to put civil society and human rights on the agenda in the Soviet Union through the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and contributed to the Soviet bloc's ultimate peaceful demise.
Even as the OSCE worked to consolidate human rights, civil society and democracy in the post-Soviet sphere, the EU and NATO led the political and security consolidation in Europe as it expanded into Eastern Europe, the Baltic states and the Balkans.
A view from Moscow
From Russia's perspective, the Maidan revolution ousting Ukraine's Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych and the push to move Kyiv closer to the EU and NATO constituted not only a threat in its self-declared sphere of influence, but also a direct challenge to President Vladimir Putin's authoritarian-nationalist project at home.
Russia's annexation of Crimea and fueling of hybrid warfare in eastern Ukraine broke a fundamental tenet of the OSCE – respect for the territorial integrity of its members
"The OSCE has established rules and Russia broke them quite dramatically," said Christian Nünlist, an expert on the OSCE at the Center of Security Studies at ETH Zurich. But, at the same time, the Ukraine crisis opened a growing chasm between the West and Russia reminiscent of the Cold War, Nünlist said it has paradoxically breathed new life into the OSCE as a venue for dialogue and conflict management.
OSCE and Minsk
With multiple channels of communication cut between the West and Russia in the wake of the Ukraine conflict, in particular those in NATO, the OSCE is one of the few security organizations providing a chance to discuss differing perceptions and maintain dialogue. "To have a dialogue with Russia does not mean there is appeasement," Nünlist said, adding that the EU, NATO, or UN, could not play the same role in the Ukraine crisis.
The Minsk agreements and continued dialogue have helped establish a roadmap for peace and given the international community through the 700 person strong OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine eyes and ears on the ground.
Ukraine conflict on brink of deteriorating
Alexander Hug, Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, told DW that nearly a thousand ceasefire violations a day and the presence of heavy weapons they observe in violation of the Minsk agreements are only the tip of the iceberg.
"One has to imagine a situation where there is no dialogue in this conflict," Hug said. "The situation would be much worse. Right now, there are open channels at all levels that can be used to find ways to address a situation that is often on the brink of deteriorating."
The OSCE has no hard tools to force the sides of the conflict to reach a solution. Ultimately, it comes down to political will. "We know that when the sides that have signed up to Minsk, agree in Minsk and recommit to a ceasefire, it will stop and it's possible that it stops overnight within hours," Hug said.
Hug said parts of the conflict line in eastern Ukraine resemble scenes from World War One, with "trench after trench, line after line."
A successful chairmanship?
Germany's OSCE chairmanship was based on the themes "Renewing dialogue, rebuilding trust, restoring security," all the while knowing there were limits to what it could do to resolve complex and highly charged conflicts within the body.
Though distracted by crises within the EU, Germany spent considerable diplomatic capital to foster political dialogue with Russia while applying harder tools, such as maintaining EU sanctions and reassuring NATO's eastern members worried about a repeat of Russian aggression.
Unlike the United States, which has taken a hard-line stance against Russia by tying multiple other issues areas to the resolution of the Ukraine conflict, Europe's approach led by Germany has been different. In the vein of former German Chancellor Willy Brand's Ostpolitik, Germany and Foreign Minister Steinmeier have sought engagement and dialogue with Russia in the belief that it will contribute to building peace and stability in Europe.
"If you have a long-term vision that you need to build peace and security in Europe with Russia then the OSCE and dialogue is necessary," Nünlist said.