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OSCE could fulfill potential after Ukraine war

Marina Strauss Vienna/Brussels
May 23, 2022

The world's largest security body, the OSCE, had to end its monitoring mission in Ukraine when Russia invaded. But the organization could take on a crucial role when it comes to rebuilding the country after the war.

Observers of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine arrive in Russia after being evacuated from Donetsk
OSCE observers were evacuated from Ukraine after Russia invadedImage: Erik Romanenko/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

When Helga Maria Schmid spoke with DW in Vienna about the end of the OSCE's special monitoring mission to Ukraine, the words she chose were "very unfortunate" and "heartbreaking."

Schmid, the secretary general of the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, had decided to evacuate international staff members and relocate local employees when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24

"This mission has done an incredibly good amount of work," said Schmid, who is German. "Not only in terms of observing the cease-fire — but our more than 1,300 monitors were really our eyes and ears on the ground," she added.

The OSCE is the world's largest security body, with 57 member countries from North America, Central Asia and Europe, including Ukraine and Russia. 

Helga Maria Schmid
Helga Maria Schmid, a German diplomat, has been OSCE secretary general since 2020Image: DW

After Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, this was an important factor in positioning the organization as a neutral mediator — or "the only organization acceptable by everyone; first responders, so to say," as Schmid put it. 

Also with the flaring up of armed conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military in the Donbas region, the OSCE stood ready to fulfill one of its key tasks: working to rebuild peace and security in Europe.

But in Ukraine, it's been thwarted. Now the question remains: How can the organization live up to its potential?

Useful role under a limited mandate

The mission in Ukraine was the OSCE's largest to date. Antje Grawe, the mission's acting head, told DW the unarmed monitors had been working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They went on patrols, mainly in eastern Ukraine, observing what was going on and reporting on developments on the ground.

Nikola Golubov joined the mission as a monitoring officer from his home country of North Macedonia almost right from its start. "While on patrol, we would always talk to civilians and ask them what challenges they were experiencing," he said. They checked whether Ukrainians still had access to medical services, or running water, electricity and gas. Could their children attend school, and were they able to cross the contact line and meet with their relatives?

Jamie Shea of Friends of Europe
Jamie Shea, a senior fellow at Friends of Europe, said the OSCE continues to be a platform for dialogueImage: Flickr, Friends of Europe/WWW.DERIBAUCOURT.COM

Over its eight years of existence, the OSCE's mission also had its weaknesses. For example, it lacked the necessary staff to cover such a vast area, and at times Russia denied access to the border area.

However, despite these weaknesses, experts like Jamie Shea — a senior fellow at the Brussels-based independent think tank Friends of Europe — confirmed the mission had "played a useful role in terms of monitoring the cease-fire, recording violations, reporting on the humanitarian situation and ringing the alarm bell if a war was likely to restart."

Grawe said that, of course, the Ukraine monitoring mission had reported on the buildup of tensions, particularly in the months of January and February this year. "But the developments that happened as of February 24 were obviously far beyond the mission's mandate," she said.

Men walk past an OSCE car damaged in the course of Russia's war in Ukraine in Mariupol
Many observers think the OSCE played an important role in Ukraine right up until Russia invadedImage: Alexander Ermochenko/REUTERS

Consensus design could promote dialogue

One of the OSCE's key missions is to prevent conflict and war in Europe. Did it fail?

When asked this question, Schmid said it's always easy to blame international organizations. The OSCE offered an instrument, a platform for dialogue. "But ultimately, we are not a defense alliance, if there is no political will," she said. If one participating state, in this case Russia, chooses force and violence over dialogue, this is not the fault of the organization, she added. 

Unsurprisingly, it was also Russia that vetoed extending the Ukraine monitoring mission at the end of March. Due to the OSCE's consensus design, a single member may block decisions taken by the 56 other countries. This structure also makes it difficult to suspend Russia from the organization, as it has been from other international organizations like the Council of Europe. 

Even with a "consensus minus one" procedure available when one member commits gross human rights violations, Belarus would likely vote with Russia, further foiling any such exclusion.

But for many, the fact that Russia and Ukraine remain together in this international organization has value in and of itself. All 57 ambassadors to the OSCE continue to meet every Thursday in their so-called permanent council.

"The OSCE is still a platform for dialogue," said Shea. "But not really with an operational role at the moment."

The organization has provided a platform for Russia to explain its position to the members. And, of course, for members to express grave concerns regarding Russia's invasion to Moscow via its OSCE membership.

OSCE's time will come

The OSCE traces its origins back to the Cold War era in the 1970s, created as an attempt to improve relations between East and West. Ever since, it has focused on issues such as arms control, freedom of the press, human rights and free elections. "The hope then of a Europe free of conflict hasn't quite materialized," admitted Schmid. "But there are huge achievements."

Despite Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine, Schmid considers the OSCE's engagement in finding a political solution beforehand "important work."

Shea agreed, saying: "At least they've kept the channels of dialogue and communication open. One day, Russia will be seriously looking for a political solution." 

OSCE observers visit a polling station during snap elections for Ukraine s new parliament in 2014
The OSCE observes elections throughout its 57 participating states, such as here in Ukraine in 2014Image: Maxim Nikitin/TASS/IMAGO

Schmid remained very cautious when asked about the OSCE's importance once the war in Ukraine eventually comes to an end. All 57 members would have to agree on any path moving forward. "I don't want to speculate about a future role we could have in any cease-fire monitoring," Schmid said.

Shea, however, spoke more freely. "We will once again make sure cease-fires are being kept, make sure states withdraw their heavy weapons. We will have to organize elections and supervise the return of refugees," he said. 

And one day, hopefully, get back to the negotiating table, he added.

Marta Silvia Vigano contributed to this article from Brussels.

Edited by: Sonya Diehn