OSCE missed opportunity to bring peace to Ukraine

In the first days of this month, road traffic in my home town of Łódź, Poland, was severely disrupted, causing annoyance among city dwellers, including my mother. After she texted me one morning to wish me a good day and complain about the commuting inconvenience, I quickly realized that it was due to the 29th annual meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Ministerial Council.

Poland has been holding the chairmanship of the OSCE this year. The chairman-in-office and my former law professor, who also serves as the current Polish foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, comes from Łódź. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the city located in the heart of Poland at a crossing point of many important European routes became the host of the event aimed at discussing the security situation in the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian region.

The two-day summit that took place between December 1 and 2 in the EC1 complex gathered foreign ministers, state secretaries and high-level officials from the organization’s 57 member states, 11 Partners for Cooperation and plenty of other senior officers from various international organizations.

The most important guests included, among others, Polish President Andrzej Duda, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, German Foreign Affairs Minister Annalena Baerbock, and the European Union’s foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell, as well as US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland.

As reported, Nuland came as a substitute for Antony Blinken, who co-hosted French President Emmanuel Macron during his lavish visit to the US.

It is worth noting that the venue of the event was not far from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which has played an important role in the history of the Jewish and Orthodox communities of the city, including members of my own family.

After the failed attempt on the life of Czar Alexander II on April 2, 1879, the most eminent citizens of Łódź decided to celebrate the survival of the monarch by funding an Orthodox temple. Among them were Karol Scheibler, Izrael Poznański, Juliusz Kunitzer and Edward Herbst – all wealthy industrialists proudly belonging to the Lodzermensch social group.

The cathedral was designed by the famous architect Hilary Majewski. At the later stage, right before the city was liberated by the Soviets from the Nazi occupation on January 19, 1945, the Orthodox clergy of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was saving Jews by issuing fake baptism certificates.

Perhaps you wonder why I recall all this. It is because I am of the opinion that the city of Łódź, thanks to its unique history, could have served as a perfect place to talk about Ukraine peace terms if it had not been for Warsaw’s blunder not to issue visas to the delegation from Russia and in effect ban Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov from attending the OSCE’s first high-level gathering of this kind since the conflict in Poland’s eastern neighbor broke out on January 24 – a move that Moscow denounced as “unprecedented and inflammatory.”

The commentary from the minister of European Affairs, Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk, made a bad situation even worse: “I do not see any added value from the presence of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Poland. I believe that the decision not to come to Poland for the OSCE summit in Łódź is absolutely correct.”

In the given circumstances, Russia’s permanent representative to the OSCE, Alexander Lukashevic, attended the summit on Lavrov’s behalf. The diplomat did not pull any punches to express what his country thought about the insult received from Poland.

“The OSCE missed a historic chance to facilitate an inclusive nationwide dialogue in Ukraine,” Lukashevic asserted. “What we heard today in this room only confirms the upsetting thought that the West is deliberately devaluing the instruments of diplomacy, resolutely embarking on the path of confrontation,” he concluded.

Travel ban

Although Poland linked its decision to bar Lavrov from entering the country and taking part in the OSCE summit of foreign ministers to the EU sanctions imposed on Russia after the government initiated its, as the Kremlin put it, “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine, their argument does not pass the smell test and certainly contradicts legal facts. Here is why.

If we look closely at the EU Council Decision CFSP 2022/331, which amended Council Decision CFSP 2014/145, it becomes clear that Russia’s top diplomat is exempted from the travel ban.

Suppose we want to insist on sticking with the older decision. In that case, we must remind ourselves that it provided a specific provision that allows the OSCE chairmanship to exempt sanctioned individuals from the travel ban. And yes, it was designed this way on purpose.

But to understand the ulterior motive for Poland’s actions, one should look one month back to allocate this disturbing pattern of behavior in time, as this was not the first case of Warsaw undermining the credibility of the OSCE.

To be precise, that was in November. The Polish authorities refused to issue visas to the Russian delegation, which was scheduled to attend the autumn session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) in Warsaw between November 24 and 26, motivating their decision that allowing entry to the Russians “would violate the principle of solidarity with Ukraine.”

In other words, the Polish chairmanship preferred to be partial over complying with the 2016 OSCE PA Tbilisi Declaration, which guarantees unimpeded access to all members of the assembly participating in any official OSCE events.

Ukrainian demands

To put things into perspective, during a video address at the mentioned session in Warsaw, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged the OSCE to help his country defeat Moscow. He also explicitly asked, “Why, in particular, is a terrorist state even after nine months of its continuous crimes still a member of your Parliamentary Assembly?”

At the same time, the Ukrainian leader made clear that he was not satisfied with the organization, as, in his opinion, it is lagging behind other “various international platforms finding the necessary solutions to help stop Russian terror.”

Traveling back from Warsaw to Łódź, the demands of the Ukrainians became even more radical. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called for the expulsion of Russia from the OSCE – the idea that may somehow explain the highly controversial declaration made by the spokesman for the Polish Foreign Ministry, Łukasz Jasina, in March that the Polish government acts as a “servant of the Ukrainian people.”

The surest way to achieve this goal would be to follow the “creative” advice of the US ambassador to the OSCE, Michael Carpenter. He told the Polish press that “the organization’s values are more important than its procedures” when referring to the current situation at the OSCE.

Because of the conflict in Ukraine, the veto power held by Moscow might thwart any plans that would go against its interest. In practice, this would mean that rest of the member states would circumvent this obstacle by applying the “consensus minus one” rule to suspend Russia’s participation in OSCE decision-making.

As a result, as the Crisis Group argues in its report, “this step would almost certainly lead to [Russia’s] withdrawal” from the organization.

Value of the OSCE

It is worth remembering that the OSCE, which dates back to the Cold War détente and the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, was created to foster constructive dialogue between the broadly understood East and the West. After the Charter of Paris for a New Europe was signed in 1990, it did not take long before the organization assumed its current institutional form in 1994.

It ultimately became the world’s largest security body where, apart from the United Nations, Russia and the US can mitigate conflict with the potential to establish peace.

When I reached out for a commentary to one of the most prominent international-relations scholars in Poland, Professor Stanisław Bieleń, he said the following:

“The tragedy of the Polish leadership at the OSCE lies in the fact that instead of promoting an alternative to war in providing ways of resolving disputes and breaking the impasse (and this can be only ensured by a neutral attitude towards the parties to the conflict), Polish politicians launched a ‘rhetorical battle’ against Russia.”

There is no doubt that the principles of the work of the chairmanship-in-office have been broken. But after seeing Zbigniew Rau’s closing statement and his unusual selection of thinkers in the opening paragraph, I must say in his defense that he visibly fell into the trap of what the late George Kennan would call the “legalistic-moralistic” approach to foreign policy.

As that distinguished US diplomat and historian believed, applying “the concepts of right and wrong” to foreign affairs may lead to detrimental consequences. Therefore he notes in his book American Diplomacy that when moralistic “indignation spills over into military context, it knows no bounds short of the reduction of the law-breaker to the point of complete submissiveness – namely, unconditional surrender.”

As Kennan continues, a moralist “approach to world affairs, rooted as it unquestionably is in a desire to do away with war and violence, makes violence more enduring, more terrible, and more destructive to political stability than motives of national interest.” In fact, “A war fought in the name of high moral principle finds no early end short of some form of total domination.”

Since Sergey Lavrov believes that Poles “have been diligently digging a grave” for the OSCE during the entire year, I sincerely hope that all parties involved will find enough strength and wisdom to avert the tragic consequences of the Polish chairmanship during Macedonia’s term next year.

Even in imperfect form, the organization is crucial to preventing and ending wars and conflicts in Europe, as well as serving as an additional channel of communication between Russia and the US. The alternative seems daunting, as it would mean that my home town could go down in history as the location of the funeral of peace in Ukraine and beyond.