Building Bridges to Russia in the OSCE?

IFSH Brief Analysis by Dr habil Cornelius Friesendorf

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov took part in the OSCE meeting in Skopje.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the world’s largest regional security organization, is struggling to remain vital. This is mainly because Russia is using its veto power to control the consensus-based organization.

At a recent meeting, foreign ministers of the OSCE gave the organization a new lease on life: they agreed on Malta as the Chair for 2024 and extended the mandates of the four leadership positions of the OSCE bureaucracy. Nevertheless, the standoff between Russia and Ukraine’s allies will likely continue to stymie the OSCE. Thus, there has yet to be an agreement on the regular budget.

How can supporters of Ukraine cope with Russia in the OSCE? One classical approach is compartmentalization, used by diplomats to separate disputes from areas where common interests allow for cooperation. Compartmentalization can have a spillover effect, creating an impetus to expand cooperation into other policy fields. In the ideal case, it fosters trust.

Compartmentalization within the OSCE would mean preventing irreconcilable views on Ukraine from impacting all OSCE activities. By building bridges to Russia, this approach could prevent Moscow from turning the OSCE into a zombie organization—a fate met by other international organizations. With that said, this approach has limitations and risks that Ukraine’s allies would have to manage carefully.

With regard to its limitations, compartmentalization is based on the assumption of compromise and rational cost-benefit analysis. Yet research on Russian security policy suggests that Russia is primarily status-driven, and while this does not preclude its engagement in interest-based bargaining, it makes the spillover of cooperation into areas that are part of Russia’s imperialist project less likely. Moreover, there are not many areas in which Russia’s interests and those of Ukraine’s allies dovetail. For example, while bridge-builders in the OSCE have proposed that the security implications of climate change ought to be addressed, Russia’s dependence on fossil fuels is not conducive to cooperation on this issue.

Compartmentalization can also have unintended consequences. Cooperation can be seen as legitimizing norm violation. When norm violation is extreme—as is the case in Russia’s war against Ukraine—justifying compartmentalization comes with a high burden of proof. There is also the risk that Ukraine’s allies will tone down criticism of Russia’s war because they seek cooperation in other areas (while routine condemnation will not change the Kremlin’s policies, it does protect core norms). Even worse, compartmentalization could deepen divisions between those within the OSCE who have called for a “no business as usual” approach (such as Poland and the Baltic states) and those who worry that this policy could destroy the OSCE (such as Austria and Switzerland). In the end, Russia could perceive offers to compartmentalize as weakness and exploit even minimal cooperation for propaganda purposes.

Given these limitations and risks, any compartmentalization in the OSCE would have to be finely calibrated. Ukraine’s allies should focus on areas where consensus with Russia is required to keep the organization afloat—in particular on budget matters. In doing so, they must ensure that the gains outweigh the negative consequences. For the regular budget, this means, for example, that removing language from the budget draft that has led Moscow to block approval would arguably be an acceptable concession. Moreover, compartmentalization should benefit the right people. Enhancing cooperation on organized crime or cyber security, for example, would inadvertently play into the hands of the strongmen who dominate the Russian state. Instead, the OSCE should focus on areas of direct benefit to local populations, such as promoting economic connectivity.

Perhaps most importantly, compartmentalization would require expectation management. It is not a panacea for dealing with a revisionist state. Rather, its value would lie in helping the OSCE to survive until conditions—especially a change in the Kremlin—allow for a return to a more cooperative European security order. 


Dr habil Cornelius Friesendorf is Senior Researcher and Head of the Centre for OSCE Research (CORE) at the IFSH.