Anyone following Russia’s war against Ukraine in the Donbas has probably heard of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its Special Monitoring Mission (SMM). The OSCE SMM is an unarmed, civilian mission now numbering around 900 monitors and staff whose main task is to observe and report on the situation in Ukraine and facilitate dialogue between all parties to the conflict.
Their task is not an easy one, especially given the profound failure by Russia and its separatist proxies to implement their Minsk agreement obligations, which as first steps include a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and allowing access by the OSCE to all of the occupied territories up to the international border with Russia. OSCE SMM monitors have been intimidated, harassed and physically attacked by the so-called “Russian-separatist” forces. In April, American Joseph Stone became the first member of the SMM to be killed in the line of duty while on patrol in the occupied territories.
So what is this entity called the OSCE? What are its origins? How has it been involved with Ukraine? What has been the U.S. role?
The OSCE is by no means new to Ukraine. Ukraine’s history for more than four decades has been intertwined with the OSCE and its predecessor, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), collectively referred to as the Helsinki process. This process was launched by the Helsinki Final Act (also known as the Helsinki Accords), the milestone agreement signed on August 1, 1975, by 35 countries, including the United States and Soviet Union.
A critical vehicle for advancing freedom, human rights and democracy, the Helsinki process played an essential role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and restoration of Ukraine’s independence. There is a long history of American engagement in the Helsinki process with respect to Ukraine, and it remains a key component of U.S. policy towards Ukraine – especially in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion.
There is a strong link between the Helsinki process and Ukraine’s independence. Following the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, the Ukrainian Helsinki Monitoring Group used the act’s human rights standards to press the Soviet government to live up to its freely undertaken commitments. Similar groups were formed in other Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact countries. For their efforts, members of these groups were repressed, imprisoned or exiled. The Ukrainian group, which emphasized not only human rights but self-determination, came under especially harsh treatment from Moscow. The members of the Ukrainian group suffered tremendously for their courage and commitment to the ideals of Helsinki, and some sacrificed their lives, perishing in Soviet prison camps in the mid-1980s.
Despite these repressions, the members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group laid the groundwork for Ukraine’s independence. With the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s, formerly imprisoned veterans of the Helsinki movement, such as Vyacheslav Chornovil and the Horyn brothers, became leading members first of the Ukrainian Helsinki Union, then of the popular movement Rukh. And there can be no question that the main force in forging an independent Ukraine committed to democracy was Rukh.
Since independence, Ukraine has played an active role in the OSCE and even held the OSCE chairmanship in 2013. The stated goals of the Ukrainian state – democracy, respect for human rights, protection of national minorities – go hand in hand with the principles of the Helsinki Accords and subsequent OSCE agreements. OSCE institutions have been involved in Ukraine since independence, including an OSCE Mission to Ukraine and, afterwards, a field office – the OSCE Project Coordinator’s Office – that continues its work to this day. OSCE-led election missions have observed and reported on every Ukrainian presidential and parliamentary election since 1994, and their authoritative and objective conclusions helped shape events – a case in point being the fraudulent 2004 presidential elections that sparked the Orange Revolution.
A vital aspect of the Helsinki process has been Western – and especially American – support for Helsinki principles and willingness to raise pervasive violations of these principles by recalcitrant countries, be it the Soviet Union in the past or Russia today. A vital role has been played for more than 40 years by the Helsinki Commission, a U.S. government agency composed mostly of members of Congress but with an executive branch component.
Working closely with Ukrainian American and other Ukrainian organizations in the free world, it was the Helsinki Commission, whose mandate is to monitor and encourage compliance by OSCE countries with their OSCE commitments, that helped to ensure that Ukraine’s plight under Soviet rule was not forgotten prior to its appearance on the map as an independent state.
Now numbering 57 countries, the OSCE continues to be involved in Ukraine, and that involvement – and Washington’s active support of this involvement – has become more pronounced since 2014. With its invasion of Crimea and continuing armed intervention in the Donbas, Russia violates each and every one of the 10 core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act, including territorial integrity, sovereignty and inviolability of borders.
Each week in Vienna at the Permanent Council sessions of the OSCE, the U.S. Mission to the OSCE delivers factual, detailed, tough statements on Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, representing the official views of the U.S. government. By exposing violations, of which the preponderance come from the Russian side, these statements counter the false equivalence narrative that both sides are to blame equally.
The Helsinki Commission also has been active, condemning and shining the light on Russian abuses in Crimea and the Donbas and actively promoting a tough international stance to hold Russia accountable for its contemptible behavior. Key commissioners such as Sen. Ben Cardin (D.-Md.), for example, have taken the lead in Congress on sanctions legislation and in providing political, financial and military assistance for Ukraine. Commissioners have also been active in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, where Russia’s war against Ukraine has been a priority issue.
As a personal aside, it has been my tremendous privilege to be a small part of U.S. efforts in the OSCE. I worked at the Helsinki Commission for more than 35 years, participating in numerous U.S. delegations to CSCE/OSCE meetings and some three dozen elections as an official OSCE observer – about half of them in Ukraine.
Clearly, the OSCE’s work is far from complete, including in Ukraine. Russia increasingly has become an obstructionist force in the OSCE, denying consensus on decisions that would promote a more secure and peaceful OSCE region and further democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights. Moscow mocks the Helsinki process by repeatedly and flagrantly violating its OSCE commitments – most visibly, through its unjustified and illegal occupation of Ukrainian territory. No issue has taken up more of the OSCE’s attention in recent years than Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine. A Trilateral Contact Group of representatives from Ukraine, the Russian Federation and the OSCE that was set up in 2014 to facilitate dialogue has had only minimal results.
Unfortunately, it does not look as if we will see change anytime soon, as there are no serious indications that Vladimir Putin plans to withdraw from Ukraine. The overwhelming majority of OSCE countries that condemn Russia’s behavior, including the United States, will continue to utilize the OSCE as an important tool to keep attention focused on Russia’s nefarious behavior and, as difficult as it may be and as long as it may take, try to come up with solutions that compel Russia to live up to its Helsinki commitments and resolve this ongoing assault on Ukraine and on the international global order.