The question of how Russia fits into any new architecture of European security continues to be debated across Europe by organizations such as the OSCE, which recently held two important conferences to discuss this challenge.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Belgrade, Serbia, December 3, 2015. Photo: AP

The future of European security continues to be debated across the continent. It was not only the EU summit in Brussels on June 28-29, or preparations for the NATO summit in Warsaw scheduled for July 8-9. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also scheduled two major conferences – OSCE Security Days and the Annual Security Review - in June to debate the current state of security in Europe.

The goal of these events was to try to find ways out of the confrontational atmosphere caused by the Ukraine crisis and other recent negative developments, including the European migration crisis. Little did they know that more surprises would soon follow from Britain.

The OSCE Security Days – an informal gathering of diplomats, experts and civil society representatives – opened on June 23 in Berlin around the time the Brexit referendum polling stations were closing in Britain. The next morning, participants were visibly shocked by the referendum’s results as the Leave party won, creating yet more uncertainty on top of the already volatile and tense situation.

“This is a black day for Europe,” proclaimed Gernot Erler, the German government’s special representative for the country’s OSCE chairmanship, in his opening speech. “We are experiencing a period of uncertainty and political upheaval,” he said several days later in Vienna at the opening session of the Annual Security Review. Unlike the OSCE Security Days, this event is a formal meeting of senior diplomats from the OSCE participating states.

“Fundamental principles and our shared values are called into question. Our shared security is under threat from within and from outside. Comparison with the Cold War, though frequently cited, doesn’t cover it. We find ourselves confronted with a confusing synchronicity of diverse challenges,” Erler continued.

High expectations, but no breakthroughs at the OSCE

High expectations were placed on Germany’s OSCE chairmanship this year, with many hoping that Germany’s new heft within the organization would help resolve the Ukraine crisis and maybe even lead to strengthening and reforming OSCE – the only pan-European security body involving both Russia and its allies from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as well as NATO and EU countries. With half of the year already gone, few if any tangible results are visible.

Erler’s speeches at both OSCE forums were formulated without any harsh rhetoric vis-à-vis Russia, which have been characteristic of many statements by Western officials over the past two years.

“In the interests of constructive dialogue we should be prepared to see things from the other side’s point of view, although it may appear difficult and uncomfortable at times. But it is possible if we leave lip service behind us, as well as the sovereign insistence that our position is the only true and right one,” he said.

Such a breakthrough did not happen either at the open debate in Berlin or at the closed sessions in Vienna. Parties were largely repeating their known positions and divergent narratives. This was especially clear whenever the debate involved the Ukraine conflict or the blame for the military buildup in Europe.

“This is a wrong time for a possible breakthrough. Too many things are changing,” said a diplomat from a Western delegation.

Meanwhile, Robert Cooper, a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and the former head of Policy Planning at the British Foreign Office, said that some sort of settlement in Ukraine is a prerequisite of any new steps for improving European security. 

“If we want to be rebuilding trust, that situation has to be dealt with in some way. Talking alone will not do it. It has to be done by action,” Cooper said during the Berlin conference last week.

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At the same time, he remains very critical of Russia’s policy in Ukraine, calling it a “particularly flagrant violation of the Helsinki Final Act.” Cooper praised the OSCE and, particularly, its work on the ground in Ukraine. However, he warns against arming the OSCE mission in Ukraine – an idea pushed by Kiev and debated now amongst the OSCE participating states.

Caution on arming the new OSCE mission

“The way I see it at the moment as an outsider, the OSCE’s security today is provided by some degree of mutual confidence. The moment you start arming it, you change the nature of the mission. Somebody is going to start thinking, ‘These people are armed against us.’ I think these issues are going to be treated with great caution, which is diplomatic speak for ‘don’t do it’,” Cooper said.

Likewise, Andrei Kelin, the head of the European Cooperation Department of Russia's Foreign Ministry, said that arming the mission would mean the separation of Donbas from the rest of Ukraine.

"Arming a mission means separation, because security in this case will be provided not by accepting states, not by Ukrainians or by the people of Donbas, but by the mission itself, and it will mean more freezing of the situation," Kelin said. "Our official line is different. If Kiev strongly believes that giving some arms to people moving into the line of separation will be helpful, we are not against it. But providing weapons for the so-called ‘electoral police’ will be damaging. Distrust will be higher, and it will be more difficult to reconcile."

Meanwhile, OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier said that "we stand ready to discuss possible scenarios involving armed personnel [of the OSCE]."

"We must clearly articulate that SMM [Special Monitoring Mission] is an unarmed civilian mission and will remain so unless a formal decision is taken with the consensus of all 57 participating states,” Zannier said during the Annual Security Review conferebce in Vienna.

"Managing the worsening"

“If we are unable to prevent the worsening of the situation, we must contain and manage the worsening,” said Stefan Fühle, special representative of the Czech Republic for OSCE and Western Balkans and former EU Commissioner in charge of expansion and neighborhood.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany Andrej Melnik said that in Ukraine’s view, no transition from confrontation to cooperation in Europe is possible unless “the violations of international law in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea are discontinued” and the territorial integrity of Ukraine is restored.

Yet other speakers proposed to revive the arms control dialogue and work on the prevention of spontaneous military conflict. But one of the obstacles for resuming such a dilaogue is the lack of understanding between Russia and NATO.  

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In fact, Russian and Europen sides reiterated their well-known positions during the conferences in Vienna and Berlin last week. Kelin cited the number and size of NATO maneuvers near Russian borders, a scope unheard of since 1989, as well as plans to deploy rotating units and infrastructure as grounds for Russian security concerns. However, Stefanie Babst, head of NATO’s Strategic Analysis Capability, insisted that NATO's measures are defensive and transparent. Russian observers had been invited to all of the military exercises including Anaconda 2016, she added

At the same time, the deputy defense minister of Georgia, Anna Dolidze, who participated in the same panel discussion, stressed Georgia’s openness to a dialogue with Russia. “The willingness in terms of expressing trusting intentions from our side is there and continuously so. We hope for some kind of reciprocal steps,” she said.

Four projects, all in crisis

Trying to facilitate a freer and open discussion on the future of European security, Germany’s OSCE chairmanship organized another event in Vienna last week – a panel discussion “European Security – Quo Vadis?”, which brought together prominent Russian and European experts. They looked at the problem in a broader perspective.

Ivan Krastev, the chairman of Sofia’s Center for Liberal Strategies, said that Europe today is dealing not with one, but with at least four major processes, all of which have reached the critical phase. According to him, it is not only the expansion of European institutions and values, but also state building. After all, so many new states have emerged in Europe, both in the Balkans and in the former Soviet space, many of which had “only names and borders.” The third trend was the transformation of Turkey – what he called “the emergence of post-Kemalist Turkey.” And the fourth was the transformation of Russia.

“All of these four projects were very complex and very vulnerable and at this moment all four have very important internal problems. I see the problem of European security not so much in the relations between states, but due to the internal problems in all four projects. We don’t know how to balance each other. And either these four projects are going to stabilize each other or destabilize each other,” Krastev said.

According to him, the current instability in Europe is mainly about domestic vulnerabilities.

“If you read the Russian newspapers, every person protesting against President Putin is paid by the West. If you read some of our papers, every football hooligan in Europe is paid by the Kremlin,” Krastev said, adding that the level of conspiracy theories in Turkey or new small independent states can be even higher.

“Either we are going to rearrange European security in a way to basically control this type of internal vulnerability, or we can basically destroy the European order not even on the level of intentions, but on the level of misperceptions,” Krastev added.

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Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, head of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara office, said that the current situation in Europe is more similar to the World War I period than to the Cold War.

“There is no order that is agreeable to all, there is no balance of power, there are self-interest-driven policies by all major actors and desire to evade problems by assuming they don’t exist. So, the threat is much bigger and we cannot wait for long years to reach accommodation,” he said.

When asked by Russia Direct about the ways of resolving the current standoff between Russia and NATO, Unluhisarcikli said that confrontation would become sustainable once the balance of power is re-established. The Warsaw NATO summit may be an important step in that direction, he believes.

Meanwhile, Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, said that the military standoff is unlikely to last for more than three years because sides will realize it is senseless. “Today three quarters of the world's population don’t care what is happening between Russia and NATO. We will have a pretty nervous period, but it will not last more than two to three years and then we’ll face a different situation. Maybe worse, but a different one,” he said.

Changing the framework of the debate

In Krastev’s view, the parties went “too far” in mistrusting each other, and Russia contributed significantly to creating this environment when, for example, President Putin denied in a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that there were Russian troops in Crimea. Contacts military to military and intelligence to intelligence are important. But the framework of the debate also needs to be changed.

“We have all started talking to our national audiences. Today talking foreign policy is just basically being popular with your own people. Being a little more analytical and interested in others is not going to hurt us,” he said.

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Constanze Stelzenmüller, Robert Bosch senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes that immediately it would be very difficult for the West to have a constructive conversation with Russia on security matters. Europe, especially in connection with the Brexit vote and ensuing changes to the EU, will be paying more attention to its own resilience.

“But ultimately there cannot be a new security in Europe without Russia. The question is what Russia is going to look like and what Europe is going to look like, and none of us have the crystal ball to tell you that,” she said.