European Security Organization Faces Existential Crisis at Meeting

A security organization born in the Cold War to maintain peace in Europe ended a high-level meeting Friday without a final resolution, underlining the existential crisis it is facing amid Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The war launched by one member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe against another has created hurdles for the 57-nation group. It makes decisions based on the consensus of all members, which rendered it impossible for the vast majority that condemn the war to get through a final resolution opposing Russia’s aggression.

Running through the two-day meeting of foreign ministers and other representatives, the OSCE’s first such high-level meeting since the Feb. 24 invasion, was the question of how it can continue to function without consensus from Russia and its ally Belarus, which say they have been unfairly isolated.

“I have no doubts that in the next few years it will be extremely difficult for this organization to deliver on its mandate,” Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau said at a concluding news conference. Poland currently holds the organization’s rotating chair.

The problems facing the organization predate the war. Russia has hampered decisions on budgets, senior appointments and other critical work for years.

The Vienna-based OSCE has a wide-ranging mission to protect peace, with a strong emphasis placed on human rights in addition to arms control and other military security issues. The organization is best known to the public for its role in monitoring elections.

But it has struggled amid a real war. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the organization evacuated its staff members working on a peace mission in Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists in the east had fought Ukrainian forces for the previous eight years.

Three Ukrainian employees remain “unlawfully detained” by Russian forces in eastern Ukraine since April, OSCE Secretary-General Helga Schmid said Friday.

Still, Schmid argued that the organization was “not paralyzed” and said it was finding ways to work around Russia’s obstruction, for instance by using a donor-funded program to do demining work and to help survivors of sexual violence in Ukraine.

Notably absent from the conference was Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was banned from entering Poland because he is on a European Union sanctions list. Lavrov spent 40 minutes of a news conference in Moscow on Thursday complaining about his exclusion as the meeting opened in Lodz, Poland.

North Macedonia is set to take over chairing the OSCE in 2023. Bujar Osmani, the country’s foreign minister, said that despite all the obstacles he would not declare this week’s meeting a failure.

It “took place against the backdrop of an all-out war in Europe, unprecedented circumstances since this organization has been established,” Osmani said, adding that many participants agreed the OSCE was needed, especially now.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the OSCE’s recent meeting had been vital for showing a united front against Russia, and that the organization was finding “creative ways” to get around Russian vetoes.

“Of course, this has been the most difficult year for the OSCE since it was founded, but in my view, it was also the most important year,” she told reporters in Berlin Friday, after returning from Poland.

The OSCE was established in 1975 and became a platform for dialogue during the Cold War.

Some members were critical of Poland for banning Lavrov from the meeting in Lodz and voiced hope that North Macedonia’s chairmanship next year will create new openings for dialogue in the organization.

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