Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits a front line in the Donbas on June 9, 2021. Photo: AFP / Ukrainian Presidency / Anadolu Agency

The situation that is currently unfolding in Ukraine is both tragic and terrifying. It poses a real threat of turning into a major conflict in Europe, with two nuclear powers involved on each side of the dispute.

At moments like this, all efforts aimed at preventing further escalation of the situation on the ground are more important than ever, with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe having a significant responsibility to remain impartial in its assessment of the situation on the ground and therefore playing a crucial role in delivering a peaceful outcome.

Of course, besides the OSCE, we expect the UN secretary general to offer his good offices to mediate the situation, as when one of his predecessors made the United Nations a forum of discussion during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which was solved by a responsible deal, whereby the Soviet Union removed its “threat” in the form of missiles in Cuba against a quid pro quo, the removal by the US of its missiles from Turkey.

Another critical player here is the Normandy Group

It’s clear to everyone that a war in Europe is a lose-lose proposition, and no one wants to see young Ukrainians fighting young Russians in a totally needless war. What is important is to exercise common sense and stop the warmongering – primarily on the side of the Western powers.

Special Monitoring Mission

While tensions have rapidly escalated in Donbas since January 9, with military forces conducting regular bombardments along the engagement line, the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) has been crucial in recording ceasefire violations in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

That monitoring mission has been deployed in the eastern part of Ukraine since 2014, and its primary role is to provide early warning of potentially dangerous escalations.

On top of that, the Trilateral Contact Group charged with settling the situation in the region introduced additional measures that have come into force since July 27, 2020, to control the ceasefire in Donbas.

Under that agreement, the conflicting parties are prohibited from opening fire, carrying out offensive, reconnaissance and subversive operations, using any type of aircraft, or deploying heavy weapons in populated localities. Furthermore, only the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine can use drones in its activities to control the ceasefire observance.

It’s also worth noting that any retaliatory fire in the event of an offensive conducted by either side of the conflict is permitted only after a commander’s direct order, and one of the main provisions associated with the mentioned mechanism is the use of disciplinary measures for intentional ceasefire violations.

Even though Russia’s permanent representative to the OSCE, Alexander Lukashevich, in January warned the organization’s Permanent Council in Vienna of the danger posed by a significant increase of Ukrainian right-wing paramilitary groups arriving in Donbas, and urged the OSCE’s SMM to pay close attention to Kiev’s deployment of military equipment near the line of contact, this has fallen on deaf ears.

The same was the case early this month. This raises an issue of the impartiality and objectivity of the current OSCE leadership.

Unfortunately, as if that isn’t enough, the OSEC’s staff that has been involved in monitoring the situation in eastern Ukraine began to withdraw from Donetsk on February 13, after the US-led hysteria concerning the possibility of a “Russian invasion” that has not yet materialized – although many specific dates had been announced by the US over the past week.

Polish chairmanship of OSCE

This year, Poland holds the chairmanship of OSCE. Its chairman-in-office, who also serves as the current Polish foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, has inaugurated the so-called Renewed European Security Dialogue initiative that aims to serve along with the US-Russia bilateral talks and dialogue at the NATO-Russia Council to ease security tensions between the West and Moscow.

The Polish enterprise, which aims to reflect “on the interpretation of three fundamental principles for peace and security in Europe – the principles of comprehensive security, indivisible security and peaceful coexistence, their mutual relations and links with other principles covered by the OSCE Decalogue,” has met with little interest from the Russian side, which called it as “ill-conceived.”

“Many problems have piled up over years. They undermine the basis of the OSCE and the goals that the heads of state set to this organization, namely, to be an organization of cooperation, dialogue, and compromises,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Rau during the Polish top diplomat’s visit to Moscow last Tuesday.

As a matter of fact, Poland is deeply engaged in hostilities toward Russia on the international stage as de facto yet another proxy of the hawkish government in the US, and even during the Polish foreign minister’s recent stay in the country, he couldn’t refrain from trying to influence its eastern neighbor’s internal affairs by meeting with representatives of Russian civil-society and human-rights experts.

Interestingly, although the mandate of the mission to Ukraine (approved by the OSCE Permanent Council) also requires it to maintain constructive working interaction with the authorities of Donetsk and Luhansk, Rau rejected their invitation to visit the Donbas region, in effect putting in doubt his impartiality, as well as the willingness to do justice to all sides of the ongoing conflict by visibly favoring the Ukrainian side.

Origins of the crisis

There is something almost surrealistic about this crisis, which had its origin in the coup d’état against the democratically elected president of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych, in February 2014.

That putsch was supported by the United States and many European states, which instead of demanding respect for the rule of law and democracy, wasted no time in recognizing the newly installed regime.

A US undersecretary of state at the time, Victoria Nuland, is remembered for her telephone call with the US ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt, in essence calling the shots – who should be the new prime minister, etc. It’s clear that Article 6 of the Helsinki Final Act of August 1, 1975, which explicitly prohibits interference in the internal affairs of states, was violated by the US and the several European states.

Moreover, the unconstitutional new government engaged in what may be termed incitement of racial hatred and “hate speech” against the Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who had good reason to feel threatened.

Though the Western media didn’t report much on it, there were pogroms against Russians, including a massacre in Odessa, where 46 Russians were killed and hundreds injured. It was predictable that the Russian population of Crimea, afraid of further illegalities ordered or condoned by Kiev, decided to hold a referendum on March 14, 2014, resulting in the majority voting for secession from Ukraine.

On March 18, the Parliament of Crimea declared itself independent and requested reunification with Russia, from which Crimea had been separated by an administrative decision of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, without any consultation or approval of the population.

This situation could have been solved earlier if the Crimean population had been consulted in 1991 when Ukraine unilaterally separated itself from the Soviet Union in a manner not consistent with the Soviet constitution.

The Russian population of Donbas similarly sought to exercise their right to self-determination, which is anchored in the UN Charter, Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 8 of the Helsinki Final Act.

Breaking the vicious cycle in Ukraine

Bearing in mind the currently deplorable situation in the region and a genuine threat of further escalation of conflict in Ukraine, the main objective of the Polish chairmanship of OSCE should be to find the political will and courage to implement the common and indivisible security that was approved at the OSCE summit in Istanbul in 1999 and later adopted in the Astana Declaration in 2010.

This would undoubtedly require persuading Ukraine to adhere to the Minsk Agreements and taking “plurilogue” – a term used by Ursula Caser, an OSCE expert from Portugal, during a meeting of the Coordinating Project on Ukrainian issues in Odessa in December 2014 – as a guiding principle by the current OSCE’s leadership.

Another possible option would be for Ukraine to adhere to Article 1 of the Helsinki Final Act, which guarantees their right to declare their neutrality. In this manner, Ukraine would be able to entertain fruitful relations both with the EU and Russia.

It’s well to remember that Article 1 of the Helsinki Final Act provides for the sovereign equality of all states. This means inter alia that all states have a right to national security and to be free from immediate threats such as the stationing of missiles near their frontiers. 

It should be easy to understand that European security depends on a comprehensive European security system and can’t be based on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization threatening everyone else.

As we know, the US promised that NATO would not expand “one inch” toward the east, which was recently confirmed by the German press, which uncovered a document from 1991 proving this fact.

It should be remembered that in international law, statements by foreign ministers and other high officials are binding, even if they weren’t incorporated into a treaty or written in stone. Breaking one’s word on matters of national security constitutes a major assault on a “rules-based international order.”

It would also be a noble task for the OSCE to ensure that Article 8 of the Helsinki Final Act is duly respected in Ukraine.

Bearing in mind that the OSCE should above all promote peace, it should first and foremost call on all parties to silence the drums of war, as well as the continuous discrimination and incitement to hatred toward the population of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Alfred de Zayas is professor of international law at the Geneva School of Diplomacy, former secretary of the UN Human Rights Committee, and the UN's independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order from 2012 to 2018. You can follow him on Twitter @Alfreddezayas.

Adriel Kasonta is a London-based political risk consultant and lawyer. He is former chairman of the International Affairs Committee at the oldest conservative think tank in the UK, Bow Group. His work has been published in Forbes, CapX, National Review, the National Interest, The American Conservative, and, to name a few. Kasonta is a graduate of London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). You can follow him on Twitter @Adriel_Kasonta.