Five key questions — and answers — about the OSCE mission in Ukraine


Workers place an advertisement over a poster which reads, “Hands off Ukraine” in the eastern Ukraine city of Perevalsk on March 11. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is sending a new team to observe military developments in tense regions of Ukraine after pro-Russian forces rebuffed previous attempts to monitor Crimea. (Sergei Grits/ AP)

At the end of last week, Russia dropped its objections to an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission to Ukraine. The mission will not, however, visit Crimea. Russia is claiming that this reflects a tacit recognition that Crimea is now part of Russia, while other nations, including the United States, insist to the contrary.

Few non-specialists understand what the OSCE does, and what role it might play. Here are some answers to the more obvious questions. These in part draw on Piecing Together the Democratic Peace, an article on the OSCE’s evolution that the late (and sorely, sorely missed) Gregory Flynn and I wrote for International Organization some 15 years ago. (The organization has not changed nearly as much as you might expect in the intervening period because of fundamental disagreements over what it should do.)

What is the OSCE and where did it come from?

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is the descendant of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). It has 57 “participating” states, including the United States, Western and Eastern European nations and former members of the Soviet Union, including various Central Asian republics. The CSCE was the product of the Helsinki Final Act negotiated between West and East during the Cold War, in which the West effectively recognized the way that Europe had been carved up after World War II, in exchange for the East making commitments to peaceful cooperation and a variety of human rights.

Warsaw Pact negotiators (as well as then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, contrary to some fancy footplay in his memoirs) believed that the human rights commitments would be empty letters. In fact, they turned out to be a useful political tool for Eastern European dissidents like Vaclav Havel, who used them to shame Eastern European governments. When Soviet hegemony started to crumble, Hungary invoked CSCE commitments to justify refusing to help East Germany shore up its collapsing regime. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, participating states changed its name to the OSCE to mark its new status and importance.

What does it do?

The CSCE/OSCE played a key role in helping establish democracy in Eastern Europe during the 1990s. It helped deal with ethnic tensions through its High Commissioner on National Minorities, and worked on conflict prevention (through various Missions in trouble spots) and democracy building (through its ODIHR arm). However, after Russia’s economic collapse and subsequent turn to nationalism, the OSCE had a far harder time generating consensus to support its operations. It has continued to work quietly on various issues, as well as organizing election monitoring in various countries, but has had to contend with increasing hostility from Russia and other states that have turned back towards semi-authoritarianism or authoritarianism. It remains the one regional security organization that both Western states and Russia participate in. This explains its importance. It also explains why it had difficulty in acting until now — it is a consensus based organization that has difficulty in going against tacit and explicit Russian resistance.

Why did Russia change its mind and allow the OSCE access?

Likely as a sop to Germany. Both the United States and Germany have pushed for OSCE involvement since the beginning of the crisis. For the United States, the OSCE was an “off ramp” that might allow Russia to deescalate and not invade Crimea, by providing a peaceful means to protect the interests of Russian speakers in Crimea. Obviously, this didn’t work (very likely, the Obama administration did not hold out very high hopes for it anyway). For Germany, the OSCE is more fundamentally important as part of the underlying framework for peaceful relations between European states. Germany is reluctant to confront Russia as directly as the United States, and would prefer instead to draw it back into a version of Cold War Ostpolitik which could gradually ease tensions.

What can the OSCE do in Ukraine?

Observe. The OSCE has no military capacity. What it can do is send observers to various areas of tension and report back on what is going on. One big, unresolved question is whether the OSCE can send observers to Crimea. Russia claims that the OSCE mandate does not allow any OSCE operations within Crimea, but the United States disagrees. Since Russia has shown itself willing to fire warning shots over the heads of OSCE observers in the last couple of weeks, the Russian interpretation will likely prevail on the ground.

If the OSCE is so weak, can its actions have consequences?

Yes. The presence of OSCE observers may make it harder for Russia to claim e.g. organized violence against Russian speakers in parts of Ukraine where it isn’t happening (this is likely part of the reason why Russia fired those warning shots). This, however, has its limits: Russia paid little attention to the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities when she said that there was no evidence of serious anti-Russian violence in Crimea.

More broadly, the OSCE can provide back channels for communication between Ukraine and Russia, without either publicly acknowledging the claims of the other. It can also help defuse tensions between Russian speakers in East Ukraine and the Ukrainian government, as it did in Estonia in the early 1990s (where Estonian government discrimination, ethnic Russian bitterness and Russian troops in situ could have led to renewed confrontation between Russia and the West two decades early). For sure, the OSCE cannot stop renewed widescale violence, let alone Russian invasion. It can, however, raise the public costs of invasion and help ease frictions that might otherwise result in accidental confrontation that might in turn escalate into shooting war.

Henry Farrell is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He works on a variety of topics, including trust, the politics of the Internet and international and comparative political economy.
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