American, European, Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers meet in Geneva in April 2014 to discuss the conflict in Ukraine.

European Security Reform Holds Key to Breaking Stalemate in Ukraine

October 27, 2016
Simon Saradzhyan

One mustn't expect any wonders,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she prepared this month to host yet another summit focused on resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Merkel had every reason to be pessimistic: All four previous meetings of the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine in the so-called Normandy Format have yielded no breakthroughs. The Oct. 19 summit turned out to be no exception. It did call for a road map to put in effect the stalled peace agreement known as Minsk-2, but parties to the talks in Berlin also kept on bickering over interpretations of the peace deal’s clauses and the order in which they should be implemented.

To some it might seem that the devil is in the details of the February 2015 agreement, but, in my view, the heart of the impasse lies in the bigger picture: I believe that the primary reason the signatories to Minsk-2 keep locking horns over the fine print is that none of them—not Ukraine, not Russia, not the West—can be certain that their real minimal requirements for security will be met.

Based both on official statements and on less explicit indications, the underlying requirements of these lead stakeholders appear to be the following: Ukraine wants international guarantees that Moscow will discontinue its support for separatism in Donbas and refrain from comparable campaigns anywhere else in Ukraine; Russia wants guarantees that Ukraine will be a permanently neutral state, not joining any military alliances Moscow sees as hostile; and the West wants to prevent Russia from using either overt military force or more covert means to change any borders in Europe again. If and once these demands are met, I suspect the main players will stop squabbling over Minsk-2’s particulars and make significant progress toward resolving the conflict, which has already claimed nearly 10,000 lives.

One possibility for reconciling the above-listed demands is a new charter on European security signed by all member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including Russia and Ukraine. First, the charter would reaffirm OSCE members’ pledge to respect each other’s territorial integrity and refrain from any kind of overt or covert action to change borders in Europe again and would commit them to resolve their existing territorial disputes in peaceful ways. This clause would go a long way toward fulfilling the minimal demands of Ukraine and the West. (Discussions about the status of Crimea and other disputed territories in post-Soviet states may realistically need to be deferred for all OSCE members to sign on.) Second, the charter would require any further expansion of the continent’s military alliances to get the consent of three-fourths of OSCE members. This would likely meet Russia’s minimal demand: By my count, more than a quarter of OSCE members can be assumed to currently oppose NATO expansion into the ex-Soviet space, while at least a third would oppose expansion of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Thus, neither alliance would be able to bring any more post-Soviet republics into its fold. Such a non-expansion clause would be of particular appeal to Russia, which categorically opposes NATO’s further expansion into the former Soviet Union. The charter would also echo some of the more constructive points in the new European Security Treaty that Russia proposed in 2008, which thoughtful European policy heavyweights like Wolfgang Ischinger have noted as a plan worth reexamining (albeit without handing Russia the right of unilateral veto).


The charter would have very specific, enforceable mechanisms for managing conflicts.

I believe not only Ukraine but also Georgia and Moldova would sign on to this charter as long as leading Western powers do so and as long as the document contains enforceable mechanisms of preventing Russian hostilities against them. None of the three stands a real chance of joining NATO in the foreseeable future, as is clear from statements by the leaders of Germany, France and other Western European members of the alliance, which operates by consensus. In the absence of such prospects, all of these three post-Soviet states would benefit from a new security arrangement, committing Russia to refrain from “hybrid warfare” against them and from pulling them—or separatist republics on their territories—into the CSTO.

The charter would have very specific, enforceable mechanisms for managing conflicts, including early-warning systems to identify and defuse tensions in their initial stages. More importantly, the document would entail responsibility for violators—crucial in alleviating both general international and concrete Ukrainian concerns about Russia’s future behavior. Specifically, any dispute over overt or covert use of force or other hostile actions would be referred to an arbitration panel consisting of the signatories’ representatives; to come into effect the panel’s rulings would need the support of three-fourths of its members. Countries refusing to comply with the rulings would see their membership suspended. Thereby, if, for instance, Russia were to refuse to comply with a ruling and its membership were suspended that would, among other things, cost Russia its operational veto on NATO expansion. (Not only would Russia lose the right to vote, but also its behavior could sway other signatories to change their stance on a larger NATO.)

Ideally, the charter would also facilitate the revival of some useful arms-control and confidence-building mechanisms from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, in which Russia has suspended its participation. This would help to assuage mutual concerns about current and planned deployment of forces—something called for this year by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country chairs the OSCE in 2016. The charter could likewise help expand Russia’s existing bilateral agreements on prevention of military accidents with individual NATO members to the entire alliance, thus preventing dangerous military flybys of the kind we have seen lately that increase the risk of unintended confrontations and accidental conflicts.


While facilitating a resolution of the conflict in Ukraine, the proposed charter would also have a more lasting, wider and important benefit: repairing or even rebuilding Europe’s collective security architecture.

While leaders of all OSCE countries would be invited to sign the charter, it would not have to be ratified by the signatories’ parliaments—a condition that proved effective in securing the adoption of such key multilateral security documents as the Helsinki Accords of 1975 and the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997. The latter stated that NATO member states have "no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members." The West debated with Russia on whether the act was legally binding or required ratification, and the U.S. Senate did not ratify it, but nonetheless NATO kept its promise not to deploy nuclear weapons in new member states. Likewise, the new OSCE charter can contain important pledges, but would not require ratification to be effective.

While facilitating a resolution of the conflict in Ukraine, the proposed charter would also have a more lasting, wider and important benefit: repairing or even rebuilding Europe’s collective security architecture—so ill-functioning that it would eventually have put Russia and the West on course toward military confrontation even if there had been no fighting in eastern Ukraine.

If there is currently consensus on any issue in not only Moscow, Berlin, Paris and Kiev, but also in Brussels and Washington, it is on the fact that post-Cold War Europe’s security architecture is broken. We have seen evidence of this in the wars involving former Yugoslavia, Russia, Georgia and Ukraine. This architecture needs to be rebuilt before we witness another deadly failure in the form of armed conflict. The proposed charter could be the first building block.


Simon Saradzhyan

Simon Saradzhyan is the director of the Russia Matters Project and assistant director of the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.