Poland’s former Foreign Minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld discusses the challenges of European security and the future of international law together with Russian experts at a Carnegie Center event in Moscow.

OSCE members watch as recovery workers in rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine load debris from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, in Hrabove, Ukraine, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014, four months after the plane was brought down. Photo: AP

Forty years ago, 35 leaders from the West and the Soviet Union came together in the capital of Finland to sign the Helsinki Final Act, which created the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and became an important international document that highlighted the major principles of international laws, including territorial integrity, inviolability of frontiers and respect for human rights. It was an attempt to improve the relations between the West and the Soviet Union.

Today, amidst the escalation in Eastern Ukraine and the plight of Russia-West relations, the 40th anniversary of the OSCE could be a good time for international leaders to reassess the modern architecture of international relations.

This was the problem discussed at an event organized by the Carnegie Moscow Center and the Polish Embassy in Moscow. The event featured a debate between Poland’s ex-Foreign Minister and former head of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Adam Daniel Rotfeld, and Russian experts.

The Ukraine crisis and the death of the international legal system

These experts discussed European security in the context of the Ukrainian crisis and mulled over the question of whether global leaders should come up with a new document that would establish a new architecture of international security, given the fact that previous ones are good in theory, but hard to implement in practice.

In particular, one of the most important challenges for experts in international relations and decision makers is the decreasing role of the OSCE and the negligence toward this organization from some countries, including Russia and the U.S. As Rotfeld said, citing the opinions of his colleagues, the role of the OSCE in tackling international crisis “has been marginalized,” and the organization “has been losing prestige.”

And what is important today is to increase the influence and heft of this organization to reinforce what Rotfeld calls “international legal subjectness” as well as expand the rights and authority for the OSCE general secretary.

Viktor Mizin from the Moscow Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), who also attended the discussion with Rotfeld, agrees that the Ukrainian crisis “blew up many [international] documents,” including the Helsinki Act. “Today this document is dead,” he asserts.

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However, coming up with a new document for international relations is not a panacea that solves immediately all problems, Rotfeld suggests.

“It is not a matter of a new document and a new architecture [of international security],” he said. “It is a matter of [the reasons] why the current documents lost their legal power.”

If the clauses and recommendations of the old ones were diligently observed, there would have not been the problems that “we are facing” now, he added. 

Video by Pavel Gazdyuk

Rotfeld also questioned the impact of the Yalta peace conference, lauded by many foreign policy experts. For the Soviet Union, it was a victory and was met with enthusiasm as the document that outlined the principles of the future of Europe, while Warsaw saw it as the West’s betrayal of Polish national interests and a blow to its territorial integrity, Rotfeld argues.

“Many Polish experts, including myself, believe that the Yalta conference, in fact, led to Poland giving up more than 40 percent of its pre-war territory,” he said, adding that the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact also played a major role in this loss of Polish territory.

[The 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact  was supplemented with secret additional protocol on the delimitation of spheres of mutual interests in Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union. It made ​​possible the territorial division of Poland between Germany and the U.S.S.R., which took place in September 1939, as well the annexation of the Baltic countries by the Soviet Union — Editor's note].

Has the world been neglecting the interests of small countries?

This example leads to concerns of small European countries like Ukraine and Poland, which believe that their interests were not always taken into account by the great powers in the 20th century. And this is the challenge for those who would come up with a new document.

“The difference of today’s world is that it is necessary to take into account the rights of small countries,” Rotfeld said, adding that it is impossible to create a new international system based on the zones of influence of regional powers.

Indeed, some experts argue that Russia has never perceived some countries, for example Ukraine, as the subject of international relations. Instead, they relegated them to the role of just being objects.

In response, Russian pundits (for example, Andrei Sushentsov from MGIMO-University or Sergei Markedonov from the Russian State University for the Humanities) usually retort that the problem stems not from Russia, but from Kiev’s difficulties in coming up with its own identity. To follow their logic, it is easy to announce a country being independent, but it is much more difficult to form identity and reach the status of being perceived as a subject.       

However, Rotfeld believes that negligence toward the rights of small countries is not the best way of resolving the problem. According to him, it is necessary to “take into account that Ukraine is an independent country.” The major task is to persuade Kiev to “see its neighborhood with Russia as an advantage, not a burden.”       

“We are saying that Europe should take into consideration Russia’s interests, but in the same way one could ask to what extent Russia itself takes into account the interests of some European countries,” Rotfeld said.

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At the same time, he admits the West should take into account Russia’s interests and integrate Moscow in its decision-making process, to turn the Kremlin from a negative stakeholder to a positive international actor in tackling the Ukrainian crisis. 

How to resolve the European security conundrum

Given the differences in Russia’s and the West’s perception of European security, one of the most serious challenges for both is to find compromise and overcome the credibility gap. And this could be achieved by firmly sticking to the principles of the inviolability of frontiers and non-interference in domestic affairs of countries, a principle that is promoted by Russia due to its fear of color revolutions.   

But any healthy consensus between Russia and the West is hampered by an ideological approach that existed during the period of the Cold War. As Rotfeld said, the Cold War-style ideological confrontation should not be the way of dealing with international problems in the modern world. That’s because “network interdependence with different centers of power” is commonplace in today’s world, in contrast to the Cold War’s bipolar system. The problem is that ideology nips in the bud the possibility of compromise, which is urgently needed today in a time of hybrid, non-linear and very long wars.

“Today we entered the period, when wars start and never end,” Rotfeld clarified, warning against the Ukrainian conflict turning into such an eternal war.

Mizin echoes his view. Despite the opinions that there is no ideological confrontation, Russia and the West do have many ideological differences and events in Russia confirm it, Mizin argues. Likewise, there is increasing military escalation and militarization in both Russia and Europe. This creates a fertile ground for long-lasting war.   

Meanwhile, Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin argues that it is too early to think about the new architecture of European security, given the lack of clarity about the future of the Ukrainian crisis and no signs of its end. The war in Ukraine is going on, the interests of both sides differ, and distrust between Russia and Europe is also increasing.

After all, the Yalta peace conference as a tool of building a new system of international relations was held when everything was clear and the war was coming to an end. Today there is a great deal of uncertainty, Trenin concludes.