Preventing a new division of Europe

sipriThe crisis in Ukraine poses the most serious challenge to European security since the end of the cold war, and highlights the urgent need to refashion European security so that it is capable of managing the new environment that has developed in the region. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the only actor capable of bringing the current crisis to an end, and building long-term peace and stability in Ukraine and the wider region, writes SIPRI’s Neil Melvin.

While the origin of the crisis lies in the confrontation between ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and an opposition movement protesting against what it saw as a corrupt and illegitimate government, the catalyst for the violence has been the geopolitical struggle for Ukraine that has been played out over recent years between the transatlantic community and Russia.

Competition between the integration projects of the European Union (EU), in the form of its proposed Association Agreement with Ukraine, and Russia, through its Customs Union, has served to destabilize the delicate east-west balance in Ukrainian foreign and security policy and, thereby, put pressure on the fragile regional, linguistic and ethnic mosaic that makes up contemporary Ukraine.

The crisis has now spread beyond the borders of Ukraine, following Russia’s military intervention in Crimea on the pretext of its obligation to protect Russian co-nationals.

Pressure on states to commit to Russia or the West has risen

Today, Ukraine is at the centre of the geopolitical pressure arising from east-west competition, which is also harming the other states of Eastern Europe and of the Caucasus. The 2008 Russia–Georgia war demonstrated the impact of this strategic competition on the region’s fragile states. The conflict ended with the division of Georgia, Russian forces in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and an EU mission monitoring a de facto international border inside Georgia.

In Ukraine, the good work of the OSCE in helping to negotiate a special status for Crimea in the 1990s, to promote integration on the peninsula, to ensure democratic elections, and to find a balance in the country’s nationalities and languages policies has been undone in the space of a few months. Yet none of the current main international actors—the EU, NATO or Russia—acting alone has the tools and capacities to put Ukraine back together. The risk now is that we face a major internationalized conflict in the country.

The role of the OSCE

The Ukrainian crisis can only be solved in the context of a wider framework of European security. In the 1990s the OSCE played a vital role in consolidating the sovereignty of the newly independent states of the former Communist bloc, preventing conflicts in places such as Ukraine, the Baltic and Central Asia, managing conflicts in the Caucasus, the Balkans and Russia, and promoting post-conflict peacebuilding.

Despite its decline over the past decade, the OSCE remains the best forum to bring together all of the relevant actors, including the EU, Ukraine, Russia and the United States.

Furthermore, the OSCE has the relevant tools at its disposal—the High Commissioner on National Minorities, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and its monitoring missions—to address the multidimensional nature of the security crisis in and around Ukraine. Under its current Swiss chairmanship, the organization also has a unique claim to independence.

Europe is today at a turning point in its security. The conflicts that have already affected Georgia and Ukraine could spread to other areas—including Moldova, the Caucasus, Central Asia and perhaps even the EU itself—unless a new consensus on working together to address security challenges is found.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, there is an opportunity—perhaps one last chance—to renew the OSCE, update its mission and build on the agreements at the core of the organization to develop peaceful, cooperative approaches to security in Europe and prevent further division.

About the author
Dr Neil Melvin (United Kingdom) is the Head of SIPRI’s Conflict and Peacebuilding in the Caucasus Project.


Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

SIPRI is an independent international institute dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament. Established in 1966, SIPRI provides data, analysis and recommendations, based on open sources, to policymakers, researchers, media and the interested public. SIPRI is regularly ranked among the most respected think tanks worldwide.