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Fate of disarmament: Russia-USA tension; Putin suspends weapons-grade plutonium deal

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It might amount to over-simplification of the facts if one says USA or Uncle Sam, using militarism as its key foreign policy tool, is the root cause of all troubles and tensions the world and humanity facing today. How come having got largest WMD on earth and having tested the efficacy of bombs on humans in Japan, USA has also been able to dictate its terms to the world nations?

Today world is being threatened by the menace of nuclear weapons (nukes or WMD), capable of dismantling entire world along with living beings and non-living things. Yet, the world’s top nuclear weapons’ states like USA, Russia, UK and China have not made any sincere attempt to rapidly reduce nuclear weapons according to a reliable time table plus easily verifiable methods and briskly make the world free from WMD.

Instead of taking steps to realize the objective of total disarmament and denuclearization, super power USA and other world nuke powers just threaten Iran, North Korea, among others who want to acquire nuclear technology at par with others seeking it for peaceful purposes, thereby giving a false impression that they seek to destroy their own nukes. These naughty powers threaten them because they just do not want more countries to join the nuke club to share its bogus prestige.

Nuclear weapons like climate disorder complicate the international environment and add to the human insecurity. A nuclear weapon is an explosive device that derives its destructive force from nuclear reactions, either fission (fission bomb) or a combination of fission and fusion (thermonuclear weapon). Both reactions release vast quantities of energy from relatively small amounts of matter. The first test of a fission (“atomic”) bomb released the same amount of energy as approximately 20,000 tons of TNT (84 TJ). A nuclear device no larger than traditional bombs can devastate an entire city by blast, fire, and radiation. Nuclear weapons are considered weapons of mass destruction, and their use and control have been a major focus of international relations policy since their debut.

Since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have been detonated on over two thousand occasions for the purposes of testing and demonstration. Only a few nations possess such weapons or are suspected of seeking them. The only countries known to have detonated nuclear weapons—and acknowledge possessing them—are (chronologically by date of first test) the USA the Soviet Union (succeeded as a nuclear power by Russia), the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Thanks to USA and other western veto members, Israel also possesses undeclared and unlawful nuclear weapons, though in a policy of deliberate ambiguity to confuse the IAEA and UN, it does not acknowledge having them. Germany, Italy, Turkey, Belgium and the Netherlands are nuclear weapons sharing states.

The nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) aimed to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons, but its effectiveness has been questioned, and political tensions remained high in the 1970s and 1980s. As of 2016, 16,000 nuclear weapons are stored at sites in 14 countries and many are ready for immediate use. Modernisation of weapons continues to occur. But outdated nukes retained in arsenals pose danger to the world.

US-Russia deal

USA and Russia, with the largest nuclear assets and arsenals, do not have any plan for credible disarmament to make the humanity fear less.

During the cold war, both the then super powers USA and Soviet Union amassed huge arsenals of nuclear weapons as defense measures against each other. The highly destructive potential of these arsenals were meant to deter direct conflict between the United States and USSR, since any direct war between two powers with that amount of nuclear destruction would completely wipe out both sides. After the fall of the USSR, relations between the two countries began to normalize, and portions of these stockpiles began to be eliminated. But relations between the US and Russia have begun to sour again. The Russian presidential decree claims that “a fundamental change of the circumstances” has taken place between the two countries since 2010, according to the state-owned TASS Russian News Agency.

A nuclear deal signed by the USA and Russia in 2000, hailed as a step forward in cooperation between former enemies towards the common goal of eliminating cold war nuclear stockpiles, has been suspended by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The deal, which was expanded in 2010, put both countries on a course to securely dispose of over 34 tons of plutonium, enough for almost 17,000 nuclear weapons. But the Russian presidential edict that suspended the agreement on October 03 cited “unfriendly actions” on the part of the USA, but said that Russia’s plutonium would still only be used for peaceful purposes.

The treaty, on the disposal of plutonium, the material used in some nuclear weapons, was concluded in 2000 as one of the framework disarmament deals of the early post-Cold War period. It required Russia and the USA to destroy military stockpiles of plutonium, a deal which represented another encouraging step away from nuclear doomsday and an insurance policy against the materials falling into the hands of “terrorists or rogue states”. The deal has no bearing on the numbers of nuclear weapons deployed by Russia or the United States. Instead, it concerns 34 tons of plutonium in storage in each country that might go into a future arsenal, none of which has yet undergone verifiable disposal.

Under the agreement, which was signed in 2000 and expanded in 2006 and 2010, Russia and the USA each were to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, enough material for about 17,000 nuclear warheads. When it was signed, the deal was touted as an example of successful cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation between Washington and Moscow.

The deal of disposal of weapons-grade plutonium has been a symbol of US-Russian rapprochement that has fallen apart amid tensions over Ukraine, Syria and other disputes. A 1993 agreement allowed Russia to sell blended-down uranium bomb cores to American utilities for use as fuel rods in civilian power plants, in a swords-to-plowshares program called Megatons to Megawatts. This program generated about 10 percent of all electricity in the United States for 20 years, until 2013. The plutonium program, while smaller, held the potential to also yield energy for civilian electrical networks.

Russia will withdraw from the original pact and subsequent amendments, the decree says, meaning that the country will no longer be treaty-bound to destroy its plutonium stockpiles. But the decree also offers an assurance, backed by no bilateral agreement, that the plutonium will not be used for military purposes. These agreements were designed to limit and circumscribe the future chances of getting back into a competition over nuclear arms. It was an important step in defusing the strategic nuclear arms race.”

Other US-Russian nuclear deals still stand, including the pivotal New START nuclear arms reduction treaty that limited the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 for each country. In its statement, the State Department said Russia had not lived up to the terms of an agreement last month to restore the cease-fire in Syria and ensure sustained deliveries of humanitarian aid to besieged cities.

Russia had viewed the agreement as rendering disarmament irreversible by destroying the fissile materials accumulated during the Cold War. In this light, the Russians had interpreted the treaty as requiring that the plutonium be irreversibly transformed into nonexplosive materials by using it in civilian nuclear power plants as a type of fuel, called mixed oxide fuel, or mox. Russia is pressing ahead with that. But glitches and cost overruns in the mox plant at Savannah River, S.C., delayed the American program. President Obama proposed canceling the program in the 2017 budget and instead sending the plutonium for long-term storage at a nuclear waste site in Carlsbad, N.M. The US State Department has said the move complies with the treaty, but the Russians have said it does not, as Putin reaffirmed on Monday.

The plutonium decision follows the failure of a USA-Russia ceasefire in Syria last month. Washington and Moscow continue to trade accusations over which side was responsible for breaking that agreement, even as fighting escalates around Aleppo. “President Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and Syria has led to international sanctions and at least a partial isolation internationally,” John Herbst, the US ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006 tells the Monitor in an email. “He blames the USA for these problems and has few instruments that he can use to effectively retaliate. So he has chosen the renunciation and violation of arms control agreements as a way to express his unhappiness with US policy.”

Collins, who was the US ambassador to Russia when the agreement was signed, called the abrogation a “strange move,” given the extraordinary danger, not least to Russians, should plutonium fall into terrorist hands. He added that it was “in my understanding the first time they have withdrawn from a specific nuclear agreement,” highlighting the slide in relations lately. Russia and the United States had reaffirmed the plutonium disposal agreement in 2009, as President Obama pursued the “reset” policy with Dmitri A. Medvedev, then the Russian president.

Separately, the US State Department said it was suspending bilateral contacts with Russia over Syria, following Secretary of State John Kerry’s threat to suspend contacts amid new attacks on the city of Aleppo.

USA says it remains “interested” in arms control and would be ready to sit with Russia to discuss the agreements that the Kremlin has either violated or renounced. But the USA is not willing to acquiesce in Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine or its revisionist aims in Europe. Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said the government was disappointed by the Russian decision since “both leaders in Russia and the United States have made nonproliferation a priority.” “We’ve also been quite disappointed by a range of Russian decisions both in Syria and inside of Ukraine,” Earnest said, adding that the decision on the plutonium deal was part of a problematic pattern.

Putin’s decree cited as reasons for Moscow’s move the “emerging threat to strategic stability as a result of US unfriendly actions,” as well as Washington’s failure to meet its end of the deal. It said, however, that Russia will keep the weapons-grade plutonium covered under the agreement away from weapons programs.

Putin pointed to the stalled plant construction earlier this year when he accused the US of failing to meet its end of the deal. He also argued that the policy change would give the U.S. “return potential,” or a chance to recycle the material back into the weapons-grade plutonium. “Russia has been observing the agreement unilaterally for quite a long time, but now it no longer sees such a situation as possible amid the tensions,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Commenting on Putin’s move, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the USA has “done all it could to destroy the atmosphere encouraging cooperation,” citing US sanctions on Moscow over the Ukrainian crisis and deploying NATO forces near Russian borders. “We would like to bring Washington back to understanding that it can’t introduce sanctions against us in areas where it’s quite painless for the Americans, and at the same time continue selective cooperation in areas it sees as advantageous,” the Foreign Ministry said. It emphasized that Moscow was suspending the deal and not annulling it altogether, adding it would be ready to restore the plutonium agreement if the USA takes Russian concerns into account.

Tension

The increasing tension between the two superpowers stems in large part from conflicts in Crimea and Syria, with the US and Russia constantly finding themselves supporting opposing powers in local conflicts in the manner evoking Cold War skirmishes. In Syria, for instance, both countries have a common enemy in the form of the Islamic State. But the countries back different factions in the Syrian civil war, making chances of genuine cooperation between the US and Russia slim at best.

Russia and the USA last signed a nuclear disarmament accord in 2009, when both sides agreed to a new limit on delivery vehicles such as bombers or cruise missiles of 500 to 1,100, and a limit on deployed warheads as low as 1,500. In the chaos surrounding the end of the Cold War, the USA embarked on a sweeping program to secure the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal and fissile materials by returning them to Russia from former Soviet states and upgrading security at storage areas. The Soviet nuclear program was so entwined with the economy and society that slowing the Cold War military machine took years and cost United States taxpayers billions of dollars. In several cities, specialized nuclear reactors, for example, continued to pump out plutonium because they were also used to heat water for residential use in showers and space heating in nearby towns..

The Kremlin had signaled previously that it planned to cut back on mutual efforts with the USA to secure nuclear material on Russian territory. Times have changed, Putin wrote in the decree signed on Monday. “The threat to strategic stability posed by the hostile actions of the USA against Russia, and the inability of the USA to deliver on the obligation to dispose of excessive weapons plutonium under international treaties” forced Russia’s hand, he wrote.

Russia said last year it had started up a plant that produces mixed-oxide commercial nuclear reactor fuel known as MOX from weapons-grade plutonium. Meanwhile, the construction of a similar US plant in South Carolina has been years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

In April, Russia began to express concerns that the USA was not living up to the 2010 agreement. The agreement stipulates that the plutonium is supposed to be disposed of in a specific, but expensive, way. A Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) Fabrication Facility in South Carolina, which would have recycled the plutonium into mixed-oxide commercial nuclear reactor fuel, was supposed to be built for $1.7 billion, but ballooned to $7.7 billion in 2013, according to RT. The facility, which is expected to cost at least $1 billion per year to operate, has yet to be completed. As the cost and problems with the MOX facility piled up, the Obama government proposed a different, more cost-efficient method involving diluting the plutonium and storing it in special facilities. Russia expressed concerns that the US chemical process of disposal would be easily reversible, allowing for the reclamation of weapons-grade plutonium. The Union of Concerned Scientists said in a proposal the Russian position had “little technical merit,” and went on to point out that Russia’s disposal approach would produce fissile material that might not be “weapons-grade” but could still be “weapons-usable” itself.

The USA wants to cancel the Savannah River Site’s MOX project and use an alternative method for disposing of excess plutonium. Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the state-controlled Rosatom nuclear corporation, said that while MOX makes sure that weapons-grade plutonium can’t be used for any military purposes, the U.S. intention to dilute and stockpile the material means “it could be dug up again.”

In Putin’s second term in office, Russia pulled out of a treaty governing conventional forces in Europe in retaliation for the Bush regime’s abrogation of the antiballistic missile treaty that prohibited missile defense systems.

As part of the suspension, the USA is withdrawing personnel that it had dispatched to take part in the creation of a joint US-Russia center to coordinate military cooperation and intelligence if the cease-fire had taken hold. The suspension will not affect communications between the two countries aimed at de-conflicting counter-terrorism operations in Syria.

Observation

A strain in ties between the former Cold War rivals has escalated in recent weeks followed the collapse of a truce in Syria and the Syrian army’s massive onslaught in Aleppo under the cover of Russian warplanes.

It seems unlikely that the two countries will resume cooperation on plutonium soon. The abrogation signals that the nuclear agreements that accompanied the breakup of the Soviet Union and were to lead the world back from the hair-trigger brink of atomic conflict could be open to revision, as Russia’s relations with the West sour on a range of disputes today, including Syria and Ukraine and the Kremlin’s interference in the domestic politics of Western democracies.

As ties with the West have frayed under Putin, analysts in Moscow have floated the prospect of a Russian pullback from an array of disarmament agreements dating from a period of greater friendliness. Two years ago, for example, Washington accused Russia of violating another bedrock security agreement by testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile.

In a draft bill on suspending the plutonium agreement sent to parliament, Putin specified the document could be restored if the USA reverses its moves to deploy its forces near Russia’s borders and pulls them back to areas in Europe where they were in 2000. He added that the US should also “renounce its unfriendly policies” by revoking anti-Russian sanctions and compensating Russia for the damage incurred by them and by “putting forward a clear plan for the irreversible disposal of the weapons-grade plutonium in line with the agreement.”

Russia has only suspended weapons-grade plutonium deal with USA and not entirely withdrawn from the deal, giving rise to speculation about its expectations from USA in order to subsequently withdraw the suspension and resume the bilateral deal action. Saying relations with the USA have deteriorated in a “radically changed environment,” President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia withdrew from a landmark nuclear security agreement, in a troubling sign that the countries’ cooperation in a range of nuclear areas could be threatened.

The Kremlin first wants the removal of all economic sanctions and compensation for the damage they have caused; the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, which allows Americans to freeze the assets of Russian officials thought to have been involved with human rights violations; and reductions in the American military presence in countries that joined NATO after Sept. 1, 2000.

The suspensions of the deal will likely further strain tensions between the two powers, which have been increasingly at odds in recent years. The presidential decree for the suspension could still be overruled by the Russian parliament. However, the chances are “near zero,” particularly as Russia looks to regain cold war-level influence. The suspension can be undone quickly if that is what Putin wants.

Unless the USA shows the way to the world by dismantling its own nukes first and then works for total disarmament and denuclearization, the world would continue to manufacture more and more nukes. Terrorism of states and illegal invasions and destruction of alien nations by NATO and allies like Israel cannot do away with nukes.

Peace cannot be established in the world so long as colonialism, imperialism and capitalism, requiring nukes to threaten weak nations, decide policies for the humanity.

Humanity is shivering, including Americans!

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Putin and Biden meeting – a chance for a better world

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The whole world is looking forward to the meeting of the new US President Joe Biden with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Although the Kremlin and the White House urge people not to expect too much from the June 16 summit, one still wants to believe that a personal meeting by the leaders of the two rival powers will lead to a thaw in bilateral relations and help defuse global tensions. At the same time, statements coming from the White House about negotiation plans sound rather vague. The bottom line is about “understanding Russia’s position and its aspirations.” The impression is that hundreds of Russologists working for the State Department, NSA, CIA and other agencies are unable to provide a definitive answer to this question, and the not very young 46th President of the United States has been forced to personally go for information. Moscow makes it clear that negotiations are a good thing, but the initiative comes from the United States, so the agenda will largely be agreed right on the spot.

At the same time, there are a number of key topics that the leaders of the two countries simply can’t ignore. Of course, there will be questions about human rights that Biden wants to ask Putin so badly, but the Russian leader too may want to ask about certain “inconvenient” things. First of all, about the United States participation in conflicts in the Middle East, where the “liberation movements,” indirectly supported by  Washington continue to attack Russian and Syrian government forces. In fact, the parts of Syria and Iraq controlled by the Americans and their allies have become areas where there is no effective conflict against terrorists. The militants from that area are killing people in Germany and France, and spreading the ideas of extremism and radical Islam throughout Europe.

The United States has every right to defend its interests in the oil-producing regions, but such methods are hardly acceptable. The Kremlin apparently has obtained enough evidence of the “dirty methods” of warfare practiced by the United States in the Middle East. The spare parts for the numerous drones shot down over the Khmeimim airbase alone prove beyond any doubt the American involvement in organizing aerial attacks on the Russian military. However, a dialogue between Russia and the United States could quickly extinguish the flames of war in Syria and, more importantly, help ensure Europe’s security against terrorist attacks. So, Putin has a very important trump card up his sleeve, which he can’t fail to play. The only question is how Biden will react to this win-win move by Moscow.

As to the question about human rights, it may prove rather unpleasant for Biden. During preparations for the summit, the Swiss government pointedly indicated (apparently at the suggestion of the White House) that the vaccine race continues. Geneva is ready to accredit, without PCR tests, journalists who have been vaccinated with Western vaccines, but not with Sputnik, which has already proven its effectiveness. Needless to say, the Russian negotiators also used their own country’s vaccine. However, such a move, designed to show once again who is the “boss” in the upcoming meeting, only reflects a complete disregard for the European`s right to vaccination, and this is only the beginning. And the demonstrative support and financing of the Russian opposition – hardly gives Biden any reason for accusing Russia of human rights violations.

Even the case of the Belarusian oppositionist Protasevich, who was taken from  the plane which grounded in Minsk due to a terrorist threat immediately brings to mind the “arrest“ of the plane of Bolivian leader Morales, or the US-approved extrajudicial detention of Russian sociologist Shugalei in Libya. In addition, the long history of the Guantanamo detention center hardly gives US officials any moral grounds to lecture anyone about human rights.

If, during the Geneva summit the United States and Russia can heal the festering wound of the Middle East conflict, this would be a giant step forward in the war on terror. The question is whether Biden will try to turn the dialogue with Putin into a series of accusations to increase his approval rating back home. A similar incident has already taken place and made the 46th President of the United States to look not so good. That being said, we can hope that in Geneva Joe Biden will lean back on his many years of experience and good knowledge of Russia, and emotions will not prevent him from achieving a breakthrough in relations with Moscow and mending bilateral ties, thus easing tensions in Europe and allaying peoples fear of a new global conflict.

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Russia, Europe Discuss Prospects for Cooperation at SPIEF’21

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Despite the deep-seated disagreements between Russia and the European Union, Kremlin is indiscriminately courting European business leaders. Ahead of the 24th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum [SPIEF’21] on June 2-5, President Vladimir Putin, in an official message, emphasized Moscow would forge a closer economic cooperation with its foreign partners and ready to share experience in various areas and further called for building constructive partnerships between members of the global community and expand business ties to effectively tackle the current critical global challenges and achieve sustainable development.

“We are ready to share our experience in areas such as healthcare and digitalization, and to work with partners to build better telecommunications, energy, and transport infrastructure. We also recognize the importance of addressing key issues facing the environment and climate,” according to the president’s message released on the official website.

Later at the plenary session held under the theme A Collective Reckoning of the New Global Economic Reality, Putin said, particularly about energy connectivity between Russia and Europe – “that Gazprom is ready to fill Nord Stream 2 with gas. This route will create direct links between the Russian and German systems and will ensure energy security and reliable gas supplies for the Europeans, like Nord Stream 1” and, in addition, emphasized readiness to implement similar high-tech projects with European and other partners in the future, despite all sorts of artificial barriers in the current political environment.

That, however, during the business discussion exclusively devoted to Russia-Europe, leaders of European business noted that strategies are needed for the improvement of relations between Russia and the European Union, and the necessity to develop a consolidated response to global challenges.

“In 2020, Russia faced four challenges. First, the pandemic, second, the collapse of oil prices, third, the devaluation of the Russian local currency the rouble, and the fourth, which is an ongoing challenge, the geopolitical context that does not make things easier. At the same time, Russia demonstrated good economic indicators. The global challenges are so disruptive that we need to come up with a joint approach and cooperate in fighting the pandemic,” according to objective views of Johan Vanderplaetse, Chairman of the Association of European Businesses (AEB) and President for Russia and the CIS, Schneider Electric.

Taking his turn during the discussions, Maksim Reshetnikov, Minister of Economic Development of the Russian Federation explained that the ultimate goal is to combat greenhouse gas emissions. In this context, technological neutrality, mutual recognition, and implementation of projects aimed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions are crucial. Building these mechanisms is a subject for strong international discussion, and there are high hopes for the climate conference in Glasgow this November.

Development of 5G networks can become a new touch point for Russia and Europe. But, no country, and no government can cope with all the tasks on their own. For example, 5G requires joint efforts, so European Union and Russia must work together to deploy this technology. Now both need to work together on 5G technologies in Russia and in Europe, suggested Arun Bansal, Executive Vice-president, Head of Market Area Europe and Latin America, Ericsson.

“Russia has amazing technological capabilities, and there are great companies. If we compare them with Western companies, if we join forces [connecting to 5G], we will all benefit from this,” added Johan Vanderplaetse, Chairman, Association of European Businesses.

During the discussions, the participants acknowledged that existing problems, especially the need to achieve international agreements. “We are now probably at the most difficult point in the development of our relations since the end of the Cold War. I think both sides value our relationship. Why are we at this negative point in our development? Of course, there are territorial and geopolitical issues, issues of human rights violations. I believe that all these problems contributed to the suspension of our political dialogue, which is now affected by uncertainty. In this atmosphere it is difficult to go back to the normalization of these relations,” according to Markus Ederer, Ambassador of the European Union to the Russian Federation.

Vladimir Chizhov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the European Union (EU) explained that most of the effective formats available for the members of the European Union and the Russian Federation for interaction are currently on hold. On the other hand, Russia has not closed a single door neither has it imposed restrictions for Europe. All suspensions were initiated by the European Union.

Some believe that there should be solutions, suggested expanding the list of green projects and finding a compromise between government and business. “We categorized nuclear energy as a green project, and this was a crucial decision. We believe that, based on the criterion of greenhouse gas emissions, based on the principles of technological neutrality, nuclear power should be seen as clean energy. And secondly, we have developed a number of transitional projects that may not meet some highest standards, but for many industries in our country this is a big step forward,” says Maksim Reshetnikov, Minister of Economic Development of the Russian Federation.

For Markus Ederer, Ambassador of the European Union to the Russian Federation, it is necessary to use the opportunity to strengthen relationship in the context of green transformation and creation of green economy, as it will be a new field for cooperation that is of high interest for representatives of European business community. The more policy becomes oriented towards the development of a green economy, the more seriously moving towards stabilizing relations between Russia and Europe.

Regional experiments that allow to introduce a system of emission quotas in the regions. “We are working on a soft regulatory framework that will allow us to implement climate projects, take into account the carbon footprint of products that will make our entire system more transparent, while at the same time we are launching a system of more stringent regulation based on regional experiments. Many countries have followed this path. We are currently in the final stage of the Sakhalin experiment, which will enable individual regions, at their will and in agreement with the business, to declare the goal of carbon neutrality and introduce a system of emission quotas with the trading system, and so on,” stressed Maksim Reshetnikov, Minister of Economic Development of the Russian Federation.

“We need to focus on reducing carbon emissions and strengthening other areas. The Sakhalin project is also a great example of enhancing our cooperation, including in the future. These are efforts that we should focus on, excluding the political context. We must work on issues of compliance with the obligations of WTO member countries. The obligations of all WTO members must correspond,” concluded Markus Ederer, Ambassador of the European Union to the Russian Federation.

The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, popularly referred to as SPIEF, brings together international business leaders, government officials and representatives of expert and media communities to discuss various topics and jointly search for effective solutions to the most pressing challenges in Russian and global economies. The SPIEF is held annually, and since 2006 it has been held under the patronage and with the participation of the President of the Russian Federation.

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To Stay or Not to Stay? Seven Concerns Russia Has about the OSCE

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Today we live through a new cycle of intense confrontation between Russia and the West. This confrontation is exemplified by Russia increasingly voicing its disappointment in and frustration with many multilateral international institutions—from the United Nations to the Council of Europe and to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Though few would question the importance of multilateralism as such, its existing practice raises concerns and meets growing resentment. It has become a fashion in Moscow to make a case for a new isolationism and Russia’s disengagement from many international agreements, regimes and institutions.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is no exception. In Russia, an increasing number of statements can be heard about OSCE allegedly failing to meet Russia’s expectations, interests and proposals. Sometimes such statements lead to conclusions that the OSCE is hopeless, that its time is over and that Moscow should leave this dysfunctional and highly biased Organization as soon as possible.

One could brush off these statements and conclusions as incompetent, politically loaded and destructive. Still, since they have received broad circulation at least in the Russian expert community, it would be more appropriate to dig deeper into this matter and to reconstruct the logic of the criticism. The goal of this brief article is to summarize the most popular Russian arguments against the OSCE and to offer counter-arguments in favor of continuous Russian engagement with this important international institution.

OSCE has a geographical bias

Critics argue that after the end of the Cold War, the OSCE has focused its attention on States and territories to the East of Vienna (mostly in the post-Soviet and post-Yugoslav countries), while the rest of the vast Euro-Atlantic space has never appeared on its radar screen. The logical conclusion is that the OSCE is a one-way street—a mechanism to transfer Western values and practices to the East of the European continent. This geographical bias looks particularly inappropriate today when many Western countries themselves experience increasingly serious problems with political populism, extremism, and separatism, the argument goes.

This assertion is partially true. Indeed, over the past two decades, the OSCE has conducted many operations and implemented many projects in the former Yugoslavia and, to a lesser extent, in the former Soviet Union. However, these activities are generally on the decline now, with the exception of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine and some limited activities in Central Asia. More importantly, an attempt to block the Western influence in the post-Soviet space by leaving the OSCE does not make any sense. The West will continue to promote its political institutions and democratic standards in the East in any case. The only question is whether it will do it mostly through the OSCE, where Russia has a say, or whether it will use mostly EU mechanisms and/or bilateral agreements between major Western powers and their partners in the East. Leaving the OSCE would simply deprive Moscow of any kind of influence with regard to the East-West interaction in the Greater Europe in the future.

OSCE has a thematic bias

Another line of criticism maintains that the Organization has focused almost exclusively on the human rights agenda, to the detriment of other, equally important parts of its initial mandate, such as security, economic cooperation or environmental protection. Politicians and scholars in Russia often claim that the OSCE has turned into a body which sees its main mission in criticizing all possible deviations from the flawed Western interpretation of human rights and in advancing the obsolete concept of the “liberal universalism”.

This view is not entirely right. The OSCE never limited its activities to human rights protection. For instance, it remains one of very few mechanisms to discuss European security in general, and confidence-building measures in Europe in particular. One should not forget that in 2014, the OSCE turned out to be the only international organization capable of playing a role in deescalating the crisis in Ukraine. However, even if the OSCE decided at some point to terminate all of its human rights and democracy-related activities, this decision would not make Russia’s position any easier. These activities would simply move to another place—for example, to the Council of Europe, which arguably has more rigid human rights standards than the OSCE.

OSCE has failed to implement the Charter of Paris

Numerous opponents of the Organization never miss an opportunity to underscore that the 1990 Charter of Paris has remained on paper only, and the OSCE has never become the cornerstone of the Euro-Atlantic area as leaders had hoped for some thirty years ago. Today our common continent is more divided than it has been at the end of the 20th century, and the prospect of returning to the concept of a “Europe whole and free” at this juncture does not look too encouraging.

It is hard to deny that OSCE participating States have failed to implement the Charter of Paris in full, and that the OSCE has failed to receive the central position in the Euro-Atlantic security system. There is an endless and fruitless discussion about who is responsible for this historic failure—Moscow or Western capitals. Still, it is clear that one cannot blame an organization for the failures of its members to provide it with more authority, power and guidance.

Any organization is as strong and efficient as its members want it to be. Maybe, the time has come for another OSCE summit meeting with the idea of setting new goals and priorities for the Organization in a situation very different from what it was back in 1990. If the Charter of Paris looks too romantic and naïve today, let us get back to a less antiquated 2010 Astana Declaration and figure out whether we can use it as a foundation for building a new Europe in 2021.

OSCE is not innovative enough

Critics also argue that the OSCE is too slow to respond to new challenges to the European security and to new opportunities for cooperation in Europe. In particular, critics say that the OSCE has not yet played a significant role in such areas as confronting international terrorism, dealing with illegal trans-border migration, managing climate change, or fighting COVID-19. The OSCE has also never seriously attempted to export its model to other regions of the world—like the Middle East and North Africa—and its modest efforts to get involved in Afghanistan were not successful either, critics say.

Of course, any organization has its institutional inertia and the OSCE is no exception. Still, nobody forbids it from including new topics in its overall portfolio. For Russia, it would be easier to advance an innovative agenda through the OSCE than through the NATO-Russia Council or through the remnants of the former EU–Russia cooperation mechanisms. Starting with relatively modest, technical aspects of these huge and extremely complicated problems, and investing relatively small amounts of additional funds, Moscow is not likely to find too many institutional obstacles within the OSCE. At the lower end of OSCE activities, there is often no need to reach consensus among all participating States if there is a desire to launch new initiatives. For example, one could start with putting together a representative “coalition of the willing” on this topic.

OSCE costs Russia too much money

One of the favorite arguments of OSCE critics in Russia is that Moscow spends too much money on the Organization, especially given the more than modest political returns on its investments. In addition, Russian proposals are often rejected in Vienna, and various bodies of the OSCE, in particular its Parliamentary Assembly, often harshly criticize the Kremlin. Furthermore, Russia is also clearly underrepresented within the OSCE staff at most levels, critics say.

This argument does not look very convincing. The OSCE has always been a comparatively low-budget institution. Russia pays about $ 80 million per year as its contribution to the regular budget of the United Nations (not to mention another $ 300 million on UN peacekeeping), and close to $40 million per year to the Council of Europe. The Russian contribution to the OSCE budget has never exceeded $ 10 million per year and the Organization’s field operations have always been relatively inexpensive for Moscow. The OSCE is a good investment opportunity for the Kremlin if Russia still cares about preserving a serious multilateral dialogue with its Western neighbors.

OSCE has no clear status

One of the fundamental problems of the OSCE in the eyes of its dedicated opponents in Russia is its ambiguous legal status. The OSCE has no Charter that has been ratified by national legislatures and is therefore not a full-fledged intergovernmental institution, they argue. Some of the OSCE agencies have acquired too much autonomy or, as you might conclude looking from Moscow, they have been de-facto hijacked by the West, like the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).

This seems to be a partially valid argument. The OSCE needs a Charter or a legally-binding Founding Act that would certify its mandate, structure and mode of operation. Ideally, this new document, prepared in accordance with Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, should turn the OSCE into a rightful international organization with enhanced institutional capacities and more generous funding from member States. It should also clarify the division of labor between the Secretary General and the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, as well as specify the degree of autonomy of OSCE bodies, including ODIHR.

However, pushing for institutional reforms within the OSCE can only be done as participating State of the Organization, not as an outsider. The sad story about the United States initiating its withdrawal from WHO and then getting back in should serve as a lesson for policymakers not only in Washington, but also in Moscow.

If Russia leaves, OSCE will collapse

Somehow, many Russian critics of the OSCE tend to believe that once Moscow leaves the Organization, it will completely lose its practical meaning and will soon collapse. When this collapse happens, Russia could start building its own multilateral institution, engaging members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and other likeminded countries. After all, Russia has a lot of experience launching new international institutions (see for example BRICS, SCO, EAEU and others).

This assumption does not look realistic. Even the most authoritarian regimes in the post-Soviet space value participating in the OSCE because for them the OSCE is one of very few opportunities to remain part of the Euro-Atlantic community of nations. For instance, all Central Asian States are OSCE participating States, though they are not members of the Council of Europe. It is highly unlikely that Russia’s departure will trigger a chain reaction and lead to an institutional collapse of the OSCE. However, if Russia leaves the OSCE, this departure will definitely change the balance of power within the Organization and the “Western agenda” could in turn become more explicit and more articulate.

Having left the OSCE, Moscow will have no instruments for promoting institutional reforms or for balancing diverging national priorities within the Organization. At the same time, even if the OSCE became fully marginal in Europe, NATO and the European Union will undoubtedly fill the emerging vacuum, which is hardly in Russia’s interests.

For many historical, cultural, institutional and even psychological reasons, Moscow has never been particularly strong in foreign policy multilateralism. The time has come for Russia to muster its ability to work efficiently within complex, and sometimes controversial multilateral frameworks. A more active and more flexible Russian position within the OSCE might be an appropriate way to test new patterns of behavior that Moscow could later apply to other international regimes and institutions, including those that have more power and authority than the OSCE.

The OSCE does not have a magic wand to fix numerous problems between Russia and the West, but it can offer a platform to discuss these problems in a rational and mutually respectful way. Moscow does not have such platforms in plenty today and this is another reason to preserve and to upgrade what it still has at its disposal.

From our partner RIAC

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