Back in 1999, Gregory Flynn and I wrote an article arguing that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the OSCE) had come up with new ways to resolve ethnic conflict in Europe. The OSCE was building new tools to prevent conflict from occurring and to help solve conflicts that had already happened. These included a high commissioner on national minorities who was supposed to help resolve tensions with minority populations. OSCE missions were dispatched to various trouble spots in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. A new office helped countries run elections and monitored them.

We were wrong. At that time, many hoped that Russia was committed enough to democracy that it would accept OSCE-style democracy-building as a way to resolve ethnic tensions. Those hopes evaporated quickly as Russia lost its commitment to democracy and regained some of its old imperial ambitions toward many of the countries in its neighborhood. The OSCE still helps monitor elections, but the democratic consensus that allowed it to deal with ethnic conflict has evaporated. Russia has consistently pushed back against various forms of OSCE “interference,” while trying to turn the OSCE into a rubber stamp to legitimate Russian intervention in its “Near Abroad.”

President Obama’s statement following his phone call with Putin on Saturday suggests that the United States wants to invoke the old-style OSCE. It notes that Russia’s armed intervention is inconsistent with Russia’s commitments under the Helsinki Final Act (the agreement that established the OSCE), calls for “the dispatch of international observers under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE),” and notes that it intends to urgently consult with its “allies and partners in the UN Security Council, the North Atlantic Council, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and with the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum.” As the administration’s press release notes, Russia is a member of both the Security Council and the OSCE, allowing it to participate in any efforts at conciliation.

This statement emphasizes that Russia can address its purported concerns peacefully. If Putin is genuinely fearful for the interests of Russian speakers in Ukraine, or has suddenly discovered a heartfelt concern for the niceties of democratic elections, he doesn’t have to send troops in to protect these interests. The UN can despatch envoys. The OSCE is better suited still, since it has regional expertise, and specializes in elections and resolving minority issues (often through pressing reluctant governments to provide stronger minority rights). A previous OSCE high commissioner on national minorities, Max van den Stoel, helped push for stronger protections for Russian speakers in the Baltic states when they declared independence. There is no reason why the OSCE could not help broker compromises over new elections and push the Ukrainian government to guarantee the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine.

If Russia is looking for an exit strategy, this provides it. The question is, of course, whether Russia actually wants an exit strategy (or, alternatively, can be pressed into accepting one). If it’s interested, the means are there. If not, there isn’t much that either the OSCE or the Security Council can do about it. Certainly, the United States and Europe (if it is able to reach some kind of coordinated position) can use economic and political pressure to make Russia’s life uncomfortable. Equally certainly, they don’t have sufficient leverage to force Russia to pull out of Ukraine if it really doesn’t want to — and is prepared to pay the price.

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Additional posts on the recent events in Ukraine at The Monkey Cage: