One of the great red herrings of the Ukraine crisis is the notion that after the end of the Cold War, no European security architecture was created that included Russia and other post-Soviet nations. This is part of the narrative of humiliation and justification that maintains that Russia has been ostracized, excluded, and conspired against since the early 1990s. Within this context, the argument goes, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current “countermeasures” in Eastern Europe should somehow be understandable.
This narrative is wrong on many levels. The key point is that such an architecture does exist, fully developed with a permanent secretariat, a parliamentary assembly, branch offices across Europe, and field missions. That organization is called the OSCE.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has its roots in the Helsinki process of the early 1970s, a diplomatic effort designed to give a workable framework to détente between the Cold War blocs. In 1975, this process led to the Helsinki Final Act, a voluntary, nonbinding agreement under which the participating nations declared their willingness to respect certain principles, including national sovereignty, human rights, and nonviolent conflict resolution.
After the end of the Cold War, the OSCE was formally established when the signatories to the Helsinki accords created its institutional framework. The shared principles of the original agreement were reiterated in the Lisbon declaration of 1996.
The problem is that the OSCE is not working. Not only does it lack a binding enforcement mechanism, Russia also sees the organization as a tool abused by the West to spread democracy and interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.
The truth is that the Kremlin does not seem to share the principles that the OSCE was designed to uphold. Moscow dismisses every reminder of those principles as an illegitimate intrusion into its domestic affairs. And so the Kremlin set out to undermine the proper functioning of OSCE, which it has done very successfully.
The latest episode in this quest is the abduction of unarmed, OSCE-mandated military observers by Russia-steered militias in Eastern Ukraine. The caretaker government in Kiev had requested that these observers serve on Ukrainian territory, but Moscow was eager to send a message that it was not best pleased, and so its proxy troops in the region took care of that.
The wider point is this: no matter what binding or nonbinding agreement Russia has entered into since the end of the Cold War, it has attempted to torpedo the deal from within. This is true not only for the OSCE. It also applies to the Council of Europe and the World Trade Organization, the other major multilateral forums Russia has joined in recent decades. In both bodies, Russia’s track record of compliance is abysmal.
The reason behind Russia’s behavior is its archaic understanding of what constitutes a sovereign nation. Russia is not just against all softening of the traditional legal understanding of sovereignty, such as the responsibility to protect. Here, in terms of interpreting international law, Russia actually has a valid point that must be discussed.
But Moscow also adheres to the idea that a nation is fully sovereign only as long as it is strong enough to take care of its own security. This notion means that only a small handful of countries in the world can claim true independence. That conviction is visibly at play in Ukraine, whose sovereignty and independence Putin has never acknowledged.
What this really means is that Russia, in its current political setup, can never accept an architecture in which a country of lesser stature has an enforceable legal claim against—or even a formal veto power over—Russian objectives. That makes it amazingly unattractive for almost anybody to enter any kind of legally binding, or even nonbinding, agreement with Russia.
And that, in turn, explains why only countries that were strong-armed “decided” to join the Moscow-led Eurasian customs union, an organization clearly designed to bully Russia’s smaller neighbors into obedience, not to cultivate a proper sense of cooperation among equals.
Russia claims that all current European architecture is part of a Western plot to force Western ideas of democracy down the throats of unwilling Easterners. The real problem is that democracy and human rights—the very values Moscow has signed up to through a myriad of treaties and conventions—are a threat to those who hold power in the Kremlin.
Russia is indeed part of the European security architecture. It was welcomed into it with high hopes after the Soviet Union disintegrated. But Russia wants something that no country interested in its own security can offer: a system in which all are bound by the same rules but that gives Russia an exclusive veto power and a right to opt out as it wishes.
Moscow could never accept a structure that gave Luxembourg or Portugal, Georgia or Poland the same legal rights as Russia. As long as all countries free enough to make their own choice view Moscow as a threat, and as long as Moscow feels intimidated by binding mechanisms that enshrine that freedom, neither the old nor any envisioned new security architecture in Europe will work.
While this remains the case, European nations are best advised to deal with Russia from a robust position. Russia speaks the language of strength. It will only accept counterparts that can back up their position with real power. Never has there been a stronger reminder of the value of Western architecture for peace in Europe—in other words, NATO and the EU—than in the lessons of Ukraine.