Andrey Kortunov, General Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) discusses the role of the OSCE in limiting the political fallout from the Ukrainian crisis and preventing the creation of a new ‘’Iron Curtain.”  

OSCE monitors visit the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near a village Eastern Ukraine in July 2014. Photo: Reuters

Having been created more than a generation ago by the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) now faces one of the greatest tests of its relevancy and effectiveness since it was created as it searches for a resolution to the Ukrainian crisis. All this as the OSCE prepares to commemorate its 40th anniversary in 2015.

To discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the OSCE and the world in the new post-Cold War era, Russia Direct sat down with Andrey Kortunov, General Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) at the International Seminar “Helsinki+40 Process: Prospects for Strengthening the OSCE” that took place in Moscow on Sept. 25.

Russia Direct: What lessons should the OSCE and the world learn from the Ukrainian crisis?

Andrey Kortunov: It seems to me that the Ukrainian crisis has revealed the extreme weakness of European security institutions, including the Russia-NATO Council and other NATO and EU agencies. Of course, in comparison with these organizations, the OSCE did pretty well in Ukraine regardless of its flaws.

Yes, it was not so fast. Yes, it came too late. Yes, it did little. Yes, it might not be effective enough. Yet, finally, the OSCE started working and now the world pins its hopes primarily on this organization. That’s why the major lesson is that we should not see the OSCE as one of those bygone organizations with meager potential and capabilities.

At the same time, it is obvious that the OSCE needs further development in different fields. It is clear that the Organization should adjust itself to the new realities and requirements of European problems. 

RD: Could you be more specific: To what extent do you find the OSCE work in Ukraine effective?

A.K.: Any organization is good or bad to the extent to which the states which create it would like to see it. Of course, some measures could be taken in a more efficient and better way, for example, more timely monitoring in Ukraine or a more balanced approach in the investigation [of Flight MH17]. The OSCE hasn’t been as independent and neutral as other organizations.

But, again, it’s not the problem of the OSCE as a mechanism, but rather it’s a problem for those countries that created the Organization. It’s a matter of budget, mandates and changes of the rules of the game. And this is the question that should be addressed during its anniversary session next year.          

RD: As indicated from the Sept. 25 International Seminar “Helsinki+40 Process: Prospects for Strengthening the OSCE,” the OSCE might expand its activity in other regions (for example, in the Middle East), focus on other transnational threats and step up conventional arms control and security-building measures. In fact, many of these functions overlap with NATO’s. In this regard, how should we view the OSCE – as a rival or alternative?

A.K.: There is a difference between these organizations: The OSCE is the organization of collective security in Europe, while NATO is a military bloc. And from the point of view of its perception and international law, the OSCE is more legitimate than NATO because the Organization brings together all European countries including those that are NATO members.

Whether the OSCE will be the North Atlantic’s alternative, rival or appendix, much depends on the evolution of NATO and its policy in the future: If it returns to a Cold War strategy, its major goal will be the containment of Russia. In this case, the OSCE and NATO are hardly likely to cooperate, because the OSCE includes Russia and other countries that don’t support such a policy.

If Russia and NATO resume dialogue, I can admit that under certain circumstances, NATO might be seen even as the tool of the OSCE. After all, the OSCE doesn’t have military forces and defense potential. That’s why it might look for other mechanisms. 

RD: Do you think that the OSCE will increase its activity in non-European countries in the Middle East given the looming threat from the Islamic State that is reported to be recruiting many mercenaries, including citizens of OSCE member states?

A.K.: The OSCE is a mechanism that doesn’t have analogues in other regions. There is no such organization in Eastern Asia and the Middle East. So, if the OSCE will demonstrate its efficacy in Europe, probably it will be invited to monitor or deal with other activities in other regions. It’s really possible given the demand for this. 

Maybe, we will see other scenario: Eastern Asia will take into account the OSCE experience and create such an organization in its region. So far, it is very difficult to make any forecast. But during the International Seminar on strengthening the OSCE there were discussions about the OSCE role in security.

But the OSCE focuses on broader issues: It deals not only with security, but also with cooperation. Ideally, the OSCE should work on development. And if it succeeds, this experience might be in demand in other regions. But so far, it is too early to talk about such initiatives because it remains unclear how it tackles the Ukrainian crisis. 

RD: Do you agree with the criticism toward the OSCE that it allegedly uses double standards in its approaches and policy?

A.K.: As with any organization, the OSCE is vulnerable to pressure and certain political influence. Indeed, Russia’s official position is that the OSCE has recently focused on a very limited set of problems such as the elections in ex-Soviet republics and became a lever of influence on political development in these countries, which it is not a proper policy, according to Russia’s authorities.

In my view, some claims are grounded to a certain extent, while others are exaggerated. But I believe that the problem is possible to resolve provided enough political will and flexibility. We could find ways of transforming the OSCE into a more balanced structure.

RD: Several weeks ago, the media reported that Ukraine started to build a defense wall along its border to prevent Russia’s probable aggression, as Kiev sees it. It may be an oversimplification, yet even though, such moves are symbolic, they conjure up the Berlin Wall, the “Iron Curtain” and all the grave implications of the Cold War confrontation.   

A.K.: Unfortunately, there is indeed the threat of a new schism in Europe. Yet I believe that the wall is being built from both sides of the border. There are many people who indeed want to isolate themselves from the West, diminish contacts with it and defend themselves from the West’s liberal ideas. I think it a big challenge: Such a division would be pernicious for us and for our Western neighbors.

So, we have to deal with challenge and resolve the problems instead of pointing fingers, shifting responsibility to each other and isolating ourselves. It’s not responsible: After all, it is always easier to slam the door and arrogantly lock yourself in the false ideas of your perceived rectitude. It’s not the sign of professional diplomacy.

On the contrary, true diplomacy means that you should keep the doors open and look for compromises and common ground. So, I hope that both Russia and the West will be wise enough and rely on a common sense approach.