Taking Stock of the Challenge Posed by Russia

“Using violence as a political tool or as a violent veto is something that we have seen repeatedly over the last two-plus years and is something that we need to see an end to,” Daniel B. Baer, the US representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said of Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine. (Colin Peters/USOSCE)

US representative to the OSCE, Daniel B. Baer, responds to European call for arms control talks with Moscow

The United States shares European concerns about the erosion of Russian compliance with international treaties, but “it is not self-evident that the way forward is new commitments,” as has been proposed by the foreign ministers of fourteen European nations, said Daniel B. Baer, the US representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Baer said that the United States favors a dialogue at the level of all fifty-seven OSCE member states, including Russia. “In such a dialogue, we would expect to talk about threat perceptions and emerging challenges, and then, once we have done a stocktaking, figure out what is the most appropriate way to move forward,” he said.

The fact that Russia has withdrawn from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which led to the destruction of heavy weapons systems in Europe, is just one example of the erosion of Moscow’s international commitments. Russia has also violated by the terms of the Minsk Protocol, which seeks to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In light of such developments, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister of Germany, which currently chairs the OSCE, and his counterparts from thirteen other European nations have called for a relaunch of arms control talks with Russia. Citing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine, they expressed concern about “the continuing erosion of the rules-based European security order.”

Besides Germany, the group includes foreign ministers from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Daniel B. Baer spoke in a phone interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen from Hamburg, Germany, where he will attend the OSCE Ministerial Council on December 8 and 9. Baer discussed a wide range of topics, including the dramatic uptick in ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine, the relevance of the Minsk Protocol, and the impact of the rise of populism in Europe. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: Foreign ministers from fourteen nations, led by Germany, have voiced concern about the “continuing erosion of the rules-based European security order” and have called for the reopening of arms control talks with Russia. Does the United States share this concern and support this call?

Baer: Certainly, the United States shares the concern about the erosion of compliance with the commitments made, particularly in terms of conventional arms control and confidence and security building measures. We see that as problematic and something that should be addressed. The question becomes then once you acknowledge that there has been an erosion or backsliding what is the right solution going forward?

Russia’s actions, both on the ground in Ukraine obviously, but also in Georgia, and its continued presence in Moldova, as well as Russia’s non-implementation of CFE and imperfect implementation of the Vienna Document, these all give a common sense that there is a set of problems that ought to be discussed. Our view is that we should have a serious dialogue about security concerns. The dialogue should be at the level of fifty-seven—all participating states in the OSCE. In such a dialogue, we would expect to talk about threat perceptions and emerging challenges, and then, once we have done a stocktaking, to figure out what is the most appropriate way to move forward.

At this juncture, when Russia is undermining or failing to live up to so many of the commitments that it has made—both in treaties and political commitments—it is not self-evident that the way forward is new commitments. We think it is important to do that stocktaking as a first step.

Q: What has been the impact of the rise of far-right populism across Europe? Is this coming at the cost of human rights, and democratic and media freedoms?

Baer: The rise of populism is a reflection of, in some cases, a misperception or a confusion between what democracy is and what majoritarianism is. The idea that the passions and preferences of the majority have some kind of unqualified moral legitimacy is one that has always been dangerous to the protection of individual rights.

In many ways, the rights of individuals that are protected in constitutional democracies—like the United States and European democracies—those rights of individuals are protected not to protect first and foremost the rights of the majority, but rather those people who have found themselves as members of minority groups—whether minority groups in terms of opinion or ethnicity or sexual orientation or other distinctions.

It is absolutely the case that sometimes explicitly populist politics feeds on the idea of dehumanizing or pulling back the rights that are the inherent rights of every person from individuals in these societies. It is not a peculiarity of populism in the year 2016 or populism on this continent that where populist politics prevails the individual rights that have been at the center of American democracy and are the foundation of the Helsinki Final Act and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, etc., that those rights see greater threat. 

Q: Has the rise of populism exacerbated the challenge of consensus building in the OSCE and made the work of the organization that much more difficult?

Baer: With the OSCE I am often reminded of what the late great Dick Holbrooke said about the UN Security Council, which was that blaming the UN Security Council for the behavior of certain members of it was like blaming Madison Square Garden for how the Knicks play basketball!

A failure to reach consensus isn’t a failure of the OSCE as such, it’s a failure that attaches—not equally—to participating states. One of the things that people have to recognize is that the OSCE was created as a successor to the CSCE [Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe] in the wake of the Cold War, after the Berlin Wall had fallen, after the Charter of Paris for a New Europe laid out a truly inspiring vision for a Europe that was whole, free, and at peace; where people enjoyed the individual freedoms that they had so long been denied. The OSCE was set up at a moment when we expected and hoped, not naively, that through continued work together we could bring our countries closer together. It’s totally reasonable to say that we are growing closer together; we should make these decisions together.

At a moment now, when we find ourselves where Russia has so often violated and undermined the rules of the international system, it is unsurprising that it is also difficult to get Russia to join with us in identifying either new articulations of the universal principles or common operational projects moving forward.

One of the lessons that I have taken from my time at the OSCE is that consensus is a very good principle for establishing the standards of behavior or the principles that you want every government to be bought into. There is a certain value if we are trying to decide together what the rules of the game are to having everybody be bought in to those rules. It is a pretty lousy way of making administrative decisions!

One of the problems we face now is that the Russians hold up hiring people for key positions forcing vacancies that weaken the organization. The Russians hold up the budget for the organization every year and have consistently tried to starve certain institutions within the organization of the resources they need to fulfil their mandate.

If there are no decisions that come out of the ministerial [in Hamburg] it will be unusual, but not unsurprising because the moment we are in is a difficult moment and there is not a lot of comity coming from Moscow these days.

Q: The OSCE has recently reported a dramatic increase in the number of incidents in eastern Ukraine. Are you expecting a major escalation in the conflict?

Baer: I have given up trying to forecast what the ups and downs will be. In recent weeks, the Special Monitoring Mission has documented the highest level of ceasefire violations since last year’s summer. That is gravely concerning. There are various explanations offered for that. The question about whether there is going to be an escalation is a question that is better put in Moscow.

What we do know is that the United States has offered our full support for France and Germany working to facilitate conversations with Russia and Ukraine that can lead to, in the first place, disengagement at these three points along the line of contact with the thought that that would be the start of general disengagement from the line of contact and the genuine establishment of the ceasefire, which has so far eluded us. It has eluded us not because there isn’t the element of a comprehensive solution on the table. Those elements have been on the table since the Minsk Protocol of 2014, which was drawn from [Ukrainian] President [Petro] Poroshenko’s peace plan as well as some ideas from [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin. Those ideas are on the table; we just haven’t seen action to follow them up.

We have seen over the last two-plus years a repeated pattern of when the Russians don’t get something politically that they want at a particular moment, we see that the flow of ammunition and heavy weapons to the frontlines ratchets up and, obviously, the ceasefire violations depend on the flow of those munitions. Using violence as a political tool or as a violent veto is something that we have seen repeatedly over the last two-plus years and is something that we need to see an end to. An end to that is in the interests of both the people living in Russia—particularly those close to the Russia-Ukraine border—and those on the ground in the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine.

Q: Do you see any connection between this uptick in incidents in eastern Ukraine and Donald Trump’s election in the United States?

Baer: I have heard that suggestion. I have stopped trying to guess what’s inside President Putin’s head. If there is a calculus that this is somehow either taking advantage of a transition or laying the groundwork for that, I expect that would have been a miscalculation and one that comes with more human cost that gets added to the tally of human costs that are attributable to Russia’s actions.

Q: What is the European view on the transatlantic security relationship in light of Trump’s election as the next president of the United States?

Baer: It goes without saying that Europeans followed the US election very closely, and are closely watching the transition.  Of course, I can’t speak for the president-elect, but I think a lot of people have pointed out that the fundamental importance of transatlantic relations and solidarity to American security and world stability remains constant—as both Democrats and Republicans have long recognized.  Some things change—the importance of the US relationship with our European allies and partners will not.

I think one of the things on which many people would agree is that 2016 has been a year for many that is characterized by uncertainty and change and challenges. In a moment like the one that we’re in, I think one of the messages that [US] Secretary [of State John] Kerry will convey here at the OSCE ministerial is how important it is, particularly in moments of transition and change and uncertainty, to rely on the foundation of core principles.  And the OSCE is based on core principles, the Helsinki Accords, the Helsinki Final Act, signed in 1975, which laid out ten principles on which states that were on both sides of the Cold War agreed they would base their interactions. And in many ways, in moments of uncertainty, it calls upon us to go back to basics and to make sure we are living up to the promises that we made to each other forty-one years ago and in the years since.

Q: Is the Minsk Protocol still relevant? Should another solution to resolving this crisis be attempted?

Baer: There is no alternative on the table. The Minsk Protocol and memorandum were signed by Russia and Ukraine. They have all of the elements that are necessary to reach a resolution. The missing ingredient so far has been the will to see them implemented.

I am not of the opinion that new plans will solve what has become an old problem, which is the failure to follow through on the commitments that have been made. The commitments that have been made are the right commitments. What we need is for Russia to put its actions where its mouth has been. Obviously, Ukraine will need to take steps in the full implementation as well. That’s what we need to be focused on. The opportunity going forward is making the actions match the commitments that have been made on paper.

Q: Your Russian counterpart has reportedly accused the OSCE of ignoring human rights abuses committed by the government in Kyiv. What is your reaction?

Baer: My Russian colleague generally makes claims based on the political winds of the moment in Moscow. It is simply factually untrue to say that the OSCE has ignored the actions of any participating state. For example, the [OSCE] representative on the freedoms of media has made multiple trips to Ukraine in support of helping the new government make progress on protecting journalists and improving the legislation that protects the freedom of expression, including for the media. The president of Ukraine himself, when I was last there in September, was asked at a conference whether he was satisfied with the current condition of media freedom in Ukraine and he said no, it needs work.

There is actually a good model of healthy engagement. Can it be better? Absolutely. The fact is that the OSCE has been engaged in a number of ways on improving human rights in Ukraine. They have been engaged in training the new police forces alongside others, including the United States, and are working on judicial reform etc.

It is just nonsense to say that the OSCE isn’t engaged in human rights in Ukraine. Obviously the OSCE is afforded far less opportunity to make that kind of engagement in Russia, where it is sorely needed given the consistent backsliding and environment of oppression there.

Q: Do you see both sides—Russia and Ukraine—as being responsible for violations of the Minsk Protocol?

Baer: There is no question that in a war zone you need impartial eyes and ears on the ground. The OSCE gets limited, particularly by the Russia-backed separatists. It has its access to areas to observe limited; it has its UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] jammed or shot down so what is sees is incomplete.

But the data that the OSCE has shows first that the Russia-backed separatists restrict the activities of the OSCE more often and in more severe ways than on the Ukrainian-government controlled side of the contact line, which suggests that Russia and the separatists have a great amount to hide, and that the preponderance of ceasefire violations come from the Russia-backed separatists side of the line.

I am sure that there have been instances where there has been misbehavior or accidents or responses to one violation that has caused another. The Ukrainians are open about the fact that they are firing in self-defense in a number of places. Any firing is technically a violation of the ceasefire, but the evidence shows that the preponderance of provocations and restrictions comes from the Russian-backed separatist side of the line.

It is important to remember that there is a victim and an aggressor here. When you and I make an agreement that we won’t hurt each other and you go to strangle me and I fight back we are not equally culpable for violating that agreement.

The fact is, this conflict would not be happening without Moscow’s decisions and activities that have made it start and that have kept it burning for the last two-plus years.

Q: What is your assessment of the situation in Turkey where there has been a widespread crackdown on and purge of perceived critics of the government after the attempted coup in July?

Baer: We have made two general points: one is to acknowledge the trauma and the tragedy of the events of July 15. We understand that the attempted coup was highly traumatic for the Turkish people and obviously for the government and we support the effort to bring those responsible for the attempted coup to justice.

We have also made it clear that in pursuing accountability for those involved in the attempted coup now, particularly, is an opportunity and a requirement for the government to take actions that reinforce public confidence in Turkish democracy and the institutions of Turkish democracy. In that light, we have raised concerns about both restrictions on free press as well as other activities that have happened since the events of July 15 that these activities may not be reinforcing public confidence in Turkish democracy and its institutions.

Q: The OSCE’s job has been complicated by the challenge of reaching a consensus, as well as restrictions placed on it by some countries. What do you see as being the OSCE’s future?

Baer: In some sense, even if it’s not a moment in which we can make a lot of new decisions, it certainly is a moment in which continuing to engage and to offer engagement with those who don’t engage in good faith is more important than ever. The OSCE is a platform where all fifty-seven participating states are around the table and are represented equally.

While it is my assessment that these days our colleagues from the Russian Federation do not often engage in good faith, we intend to continue to offer that kind of engagement every week. At some point, there has to be a change in the condition of relations between Russia and the other countries in the region. It is simply not sustainable for there to continue to be a growing rift. At that point, platforms like the OSCE will be platforms not only for engagement but for a return to genuinely cooperative work and building a more peaceful, prosperous, and stable security environment for this region.

The OSCE will continue to have value as this inclusive platform that is grounded in principles and where we can have the kind of engagement that isn’t unmoored or transactional. It is an engagement that is intended to be long-term and principles-based. That kind of engagement is as valuable now as it has ever been. Like most things in international politics, that engagement is what states make of it.

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.