The OSCE headquarters in Vienna. (Credit: Immanuel Giel/WikiCommons)
The OSCE headquarters in Vienna. (Credit: Immanuel Giel/WikiCommons) (via:

Italy, which assumed the Chairmanship of the OSCE this year, is facing a difficult environment within the greater European region, characterised by a multitude of unresolved and emerging crises.

While the OSCE has been declared obsolete numerous times throughout its existence, since the onset of the Ukraine crisis the organisation has regained relevance as a security mechanism. Today, the raison d’être of the OSCE and its potential to foster peace and security on the Eurasian continent are no longer questioned. Yet, the biggest challenge now is to transform its recent achievements into long-term success, so that it becomes a pillar of a comprehensive and inclusive European security architecture.


The environment within the OSCE space, which encompasses 57 states stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok, is one of disorder and numerous challenges. These range from an unresolved migration and refugee crisis, regional conflicts with a significant risk of escalation, the persistent threat of terrorism, to continuing tensions between Russia and the West, to name only a few. Yet, despite these challenges, or precisely as a result of them, the OSCE recently awoke from the state of ‘sleeping beauty’ and proved capable of making effective use of the instruments at its disposal.

It is widely agreed that the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis put wind into the sails of the OSCE, which until this turn had been gradually losing significance for participant countries. This is somewhat paradoxical given that the crisis emerged because of an ineffective European security system.

The OSCE indeed took swift action at the initial stage of the Ukraine crisis by establishing the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine in September 2014, which has helped monitor compliance of the Minsk agreement[1]. It also proved that the OSCE is vital for mediating regional conflicts. While in the past there were plenty of voices that were almost gleefully foretelling the end of the OSCE, today, the raison d’être of the organization seems no longer questioned.

Nevertheless, the future relevance of the OSCE will depend on its ability to contribute to building an inclusive, indivisible, and comprehensive space of peace and security in the long-term. This idea of a wider security community from Vancouver to Vladivostok was envisioned in OSCE documents after the end of the Cold War, but has never been realised. In order to maintain its recently regained relevance, rather than continuing ‘business as usual’, the organisation will have to follow a strategic approach by prioritising issues that both utilise its strengths and that will help the OSCE become an important part of Europe’s future security order.

With the OSCE’s proven record of successfully mediating conflicts, the Ukraine crisis and protracted conflicts in the OSCE region must remain at the centre of the organisation’s activities. Additionally, because the migration and refugee crisis will be a key security challenge for a large number of OSCE countries in the future, finding solutions within the OSCE will become increasingly important. Last but not least, the organisation must address what is perhaps the most sensitive area – political-military issues, including arms control – if it wants to resolve the divergent security dilemmas and make progress in the ‘standoff between Russia and the West’. Therefore, the new chair, Italy, should be devoted to the above-mentioned topics in 2018 and ensure that the OSCE’s participants remain committed to them in the years to come.

Addressing unresolved regional conflicts – such as in Ukraine, Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia –  is where the OSCE is of particular value. Mediating these conflicts was declared a top priority by the Italian Chairmanship for 2018 since they bear the burden of ensuring stability in the OSCE space. Yet, while all protracted conflicts in the OSCE region need to stay on the organisation’s radar, in 2018, the crisis in Ukraine, as well as the conflict over Transnistria, are likely to receive particular attention.

The crisis in Ukraine: Breaking the deadlock

It goes without saying that the Ukraine crisis, which is moving into its fifth year, will continue to profoundly affect relations between Russia and the West, and will have long-term effects on the European security environment if it remains unresolved. Despite the OSCE’s success in reacting to the crisis by deploying a special monitoring mission early on in the conflict, there is still a long way to go.

Today, the implementation of the Minsk II agreement[2], which was signed by the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine three years ago, is at an impasse. Since progress currently seems unrealistic given that both sides refuse to fulfill the requirements of the agreement, the goal of the OSCE must be to find a way to break this deadlock in negotiations, instead of merely insisting on the implementation of the agreement.

The OSCE’s efforts should include a discussion on whether to create a UN peace keeping mission in the Donbas – an idea that Russia presented at the UN Security Council in September 2017. The Russian proposal envisions a lightly armed peacekeeping force that would be stationed along the line dividing Ukrainian forces from separatists in eastern Ukraine, providing security to the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission.

The confusion over Russia’s motivation for proposing the peacekeeping mission, and different expectations with regard to the function, size, and scope of such an operation in eastern Ukraine, shows that a discussion on the topic is desperately needed. Some high level negotiations have indeed taken place in recent months. However, a thorough and transparent debate between Kiev and Moscow, along  with representatives of the Normandy Format and independent experts, has yet to take place. Both sides should have a fair and open platform to discuss their respective visions of such a peacekeeping operation, as well as any reservations towards the other side’s position.

The objective of such a discussion should be not only to eliminate any concerns about each other’s expectations, but – most importantly – to clarify how such a mission might be helpful in finding a sustainable solution to the conflict in the longer term. Since all actors that are engaged in negotiations over the Ukraine conflict are  participants of the OSCE, the organisation provides the ideal forum for this kind of debate.

One should not fall under the illusion that the installment of a UN peacekeeping force alone will solve the Ukraine crisis. UN peacekeepers are neither a panacea for the stalled implementation of Minsk II, nor for Kiev’s domestic problems, the latter of which require significant reforms by Ukrainian authorities. Nevertheless, in view of the current deadlock in negotiations and the accumulating fatigue of stakeholders, a discussion over the proposal could give the diplomatic process new impetus. This is especially so given the cancellation of the planned meeting of the Normandy Format[3] during the Munich Security Conference in mid-February, which could have been a critical opportunity to discuss the proposal. At the same time, as part of the negotiation settlement, issues that are the very source of the stalemate and Ukraine’s growing resistance towards the Minsk II agreement, must be addressed. Otherwise, achieving any progress is hardly realistic.

Transnistria: Avoiding escalation

Another issue which must be in the spotlight of the Italian Chairmanship is the conflict over the self-proclaimed, but internationally unrecognised, Republic of Transnistria (unofficially called Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic or PMR). The OSCE’s efforts in this context are key, given that the so-called ‘5+2’ settlement process within the OSCE, which includes Moldova and Transnistria as sides, along with the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine as mediators, and the European Union and the United States as observers. This is the only existing official format within which negotiations on the conflict take place.

Keeping the channels open between Moldova and Transnistria is now particularly important given that the conflict has been complicated by the emergent Ukraine crisis. The changing regional geopolitical dynamics and shifting positions of stakeholders in the settlement process pose additional challenges to the Transnistrian government, which is already faced with a struggling economy and societal issues. Ukraine and Moldova’s toughened stance against the PMR since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis has a potential destabilising effect on Transnistria and carries the risk of further isolating the region, making a settlement even more difficult to achieve.

Since 2016, Kiev has undertaken measures towards Transnistria, which are largely motivated by security concerns regarding Russia, as well as the aim to deliberately weaken the government in Tiraspol and decrease Russian economic, political, and military support of the PMR. The decisions include banning imports and exports of a number of goods, strengthening the border fortification, and establishing Ukrainian-Moldovan joint border and custom controls. Kiev’s toughened position towards the government in Tiraspol, which it regards as under strong control of Moscow, might seem justified from a Ukrainian point of view. However, politicising the conflict not only runs against fulfilling its role as a guarantor of peace in Transnistria, but most importantly it carries the risk of destabilising the entire region and further exacerbating relations with Russia.

A common decision on the status of the PMR might be both premature and unrealistic in the near future though. In light of recent developments in that region, the task for the Italian Chairmanship will be to continue the Austrian Chairmanship’s efforts to facilitate dialogue between the negotiating parties and help build confidence and trust within the local society. The decisions taken during the Austrian OSCE Chairmanship last year have been criticised for their symbolic and technical nature, as well as the fact that the future legal status of the PMR was not addressed. Although technical arrangements on socioeconomic issues might not lead to a solution of the conflict, they have a positive effect on the economic situation in the region and may diminish the estrangement between people living in the region, contributing to more stability in the longer term. To give an example, the decision taken last year to open the Gura Bicului-Bychok bridge in Moldova, which connects both banks of the Dniester/Nistru River and has not been in operation since the conflict in 1992, has immediate beneficial consequences for people living in the conflict-torn region.

A lack of vision in settling the conflict should not be an excuse to marginalise the issue by the parties involved in 5+2 negotiations. The negotiation process in itself is important in order to keep the stakeholders constantly engaged in dialogue on the issue, in order to allow them both to exchange information and to discuss individual assessments of the ongoing developments in the region. This significantly minimises the danger of further deterioration of the situation. Putting the negotiations on hold, as was the case prior to the Austrian Chairmanship, runs the danger of both deepening the division between Moldova and Transnistria and leading to a loss of interest in resolving the conflict on the part of the negotiators.

Addressing the challenges of migration

A topic that has come back into focus for the OSCE in 2018 is the migrant and refugee crisis. Migration entered the OSCE’s political agenda along with the massive influx of migrants and refugees in 2016, and the realisation that it will remain a key security challenge in the years to come. This is hardly surprising given that a large number of the OSCE’s 57 participating states and its Mediterranean and Asian partners are directly affected by the crisis, be it as a country of destination, origin, or transit.

Yet, while it was one of the focal points of OSCE during the 2016 OSCE Chairmanship of Germany (largely due to the fact that Germany is among the most attractive destination countries for migrants and refugees), in 2017 it received less attention. Given that Italy has been one of the countries heavily affected by increased migration to Europe in the past few years, placing the issue back on top of the political agenda seems only logical. It can be understood as a continuation of efforts made last year when it chaired the Contact Group with the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation, an informal group within the OSCE that gathers periodically to support the exchange of information on issues relevant to Mediterranean security.

When assuming the role of OSCE chair early this year, Italy emphasised not only the need to devote more attention to migration and refugee issues, but also to strengthen the partnership with South Mediterranean countries. Enhancing links with and within the South Mediterranean in the context of the migration crisis seems particularly important. There has been an obvious lack of comprehensive partnerships between Europe and countries of origin and transit, making it one of the weakest aspects of European migration policy, as well as the source of mismanagement of the recent migration and refugee flows. The European Union has lagged in developing a comprehensive migration policy plan, due in large part to the overwhelming number of issues related to migration. With its more focused role within and around Europe, the OSCE is now presented with the opportunity to step in and address the security aspects, alleviating some of the pressure being placed on the EU in handling the migration and refugee crisis.

The elephant in the room:  Politico-military issues

A crucial part of building security and stability on the Eurasian continent in the long-term is an effective management of current and potential challenges in the politico-military sphere. Italy should use its position as OSCE chair to stimulate discussions within the so-called OSCE Structured Dialogue, a format that was launched during the annual OSCE Ministerial Council at the end of the German OSCE Chairmanship in 2016. The Dialogue was established with the aim of reducing tensions in the politico-military realm through rebuilding trust and confidence among the OSCE partners. The role of the OSCE in discussing developments in the politico-military sphere, which is one of the organisation’s three dimensions, is of particular importance. Given that the NATO-Russia Council rarely meets and has not proven an effective forum for solving security-related matters, the OSCE is de facto the only instrument both for reducing the risk of military incidents and accidents, as well as strengthening cooperation aimed at overcoming divergences between Russia and the West.

It is hard to ignore the fact that disagreements between Russia and NATO members over politico-military issues remain at the heart of the tension between them. The erosion of arms control agreements risks further deterioration of East-West relation, leading to serious implications for wider European and global security. While arms control might not be a remedy for easing the tensions between Russia and the transatlantic community, any progress could help increase predictability over the actions of both sides and create an atmosphere of trust. As Frank Walter Steinmeier accurately put it, “arms control agreements (…) are not the result of existing trust – they are a means to build trust where it has been lost”.[4]

What needs to be seriously addressed in this context is the future of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). Signed in 1990, the treaty established limits on the levels of armaments in order to guarantee a military balance between the Eastern and Western blocs. As a result of the changing geopolitical situation and disagreement between Russia and NATO members over the implementation of the treaty, negotiations on the CFE reached a deadlock soon after the Agreement on the Adapted CFE Treaty was signed in 1999.  In 2015, after having years of concern over NATO’s eastward expansion and the planned US missile programme in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia completely withdrew from negotiations over the CFE Treaty.

Due to the fact that for now breaking the deadlock on the CFE Treaty term is hardly realistic, the focus should be placed on updating other agreements that exist in the sphere of arms control. Such are the 2011 Vienna Document on Confidence and Security-Building Measures (CSBMs) – which is a mechanism aimed at increasing transparency in the military sphere through on-site inspections and information sharing – and the Treaty on Open Skies, which permits unarmed aerial surveillance flights over the territory of the 34 signatory states.

At a time when the West accuses Russia of military unpredictability and Russia is concerned with NATO’s increased activity on the Eastern flank, these mechanisms to increase transparency and trust seem particularly relevant to minimising the risk of confrontation. At the same time, a discussion must take place on a possible new framework for conventional arms control, given that the CFE Treaty may never be revitalised.

The bigger picture

It is neither realistic nor advisable for the Italian chairmanship to address all unresolved problems and emerging challenges within the OSCE space this year. Rather, it should stay focused on the most pressing issues that are at risk of more rapid deterioration. When tackling these issues, the OSCE must also not lose sight of the long-term strategic objective of building inclusive and indivisible security in wider Europe, and how best practices can be learned from addressing these most pressing conflicts. Efforts in reaching any settlement in the unresolved conflicts in the OSCE region must be embedded in the process of building a new inclusive Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian security framework. As long as the fundamental problems that continue to plague East-West relations persist, it will be difficult to accomplish the former without addressing the latter.

Despite recently regaining relevance with its effective response to the Ukraine crisis, today the OSCE is faced with the daunting task of translating its achievements in conflict mediation into overall and long-term success. The ability of the OSCE to effectively address its internal structural problems and support its member states in developing a common understanding of the parameters of a wider European peace and security, will be critical for its future.


[1] Representatives of Ukraine, Russian, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), and the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) signed the Minsk Protocol on 3 September 2014 under the auspices of the OSCE. The agreement aimed to halt the war in the Donbass region of Ukraine with an immediate ceasefire, however two weeks after the Minsk Protocol was signed, frequent violations of the ceasefire commenced by both parties to the conflict.

[2] In Minsk on 11 February 2015, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany agreed to a package of measures to alleviate the ongoing war in the Donbass region of Ukraine.

[3] A diplomatic group of senior representatives of the four countries (Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France) to resolve the situation in the East of Ukraine.

[4] From Lisbon to Hamburg: Declaration on the Twentieth Anniversary of the OSCE Framework for Arms Control, MC. DOC/4/16, December 9, 2016.