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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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Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.

Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive

 approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.

Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.

Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.

Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.

As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.

Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.

Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.

Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.

While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.

For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.

Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.

To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.

The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.

For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”

The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.

It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.

If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.

“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.

Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.

The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.

In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.

The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.

The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.

The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.

Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.

This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.

The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.

Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.

This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.

from our partner RIAC

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Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

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The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.

Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.

But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.

CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.

In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.

Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.

Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.

More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.

The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.

A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.

Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.

Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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