Risk still there for Ukraine to become frozen conflict – OSCE chief

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Secretary General, Thomas Greminger. [EPA-EFE/MASSIMO PERCOSSI]

Despite recent rapprochement between Ukraine and Russia, the full implementation of the Minsk agreements is still “miles away” and there is still a risk that the separatist regions could turn into another “frozen conflict”, OSCE Secretary-General Thomas Greminger said in an interview with EURACTIV.

He also spoke about rebuilding trust in European security cooperation, progress in resolving the crisis in Ukraine and the prospects for the Western Balkans.

Thomas Greminger has served as secretary-general for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) since July 2017.  He spoke to EURACTIV’s defence reporter Alexandra Brzozowski on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference 2020.

The OSCE’s primary goal was to promote cooperation after the Cold War, but we see relations deteriorating in Europe. How do you plan to restore the trust that was lost in recent years?

First of all, let me confirm the assessment that there is a historic deficit of trust among key stakeholders of European security. Zero-sum logic – unilateralism and bilateralism – are replacing the cooperative approach to problem-solving in security that the OSCE stands for.

We need to reinvigorate the notion of cooperative security, instead of trying to do it by striking a bilateral deal. We need to conduct, promote more genuine forms of dialogue. But we currently see “loudspeaker diplomacy” dominating the scene and we need to create and use more private, more confidential spaces and more traditional diplomacy to resolve security challenges.

Moreover, we do need progress in resolving conflict. We still have a violent conflict in the midst of Europe and progress in addressing the crisis in around Ukraine is decisive if we want to fundamentally restore trust in European security.

We also need to cooperate in those areas, where there is an obvious convergence of interests between opposing stakeholders to restore trust: transnational threats like counter-terrorism, preventing violent extremism, dealing with cyber threats, combating trafficking of all sorts and more recent emerging security challenges, like the nexus between climate change and security.

We’ve seen that Europe’s security structures changed deeply in recent years, to what extent is there the need to adapt the mechanisms we have?

We do need to adapt mechanisms created in the early/late 90s to today’s challenges and ways of diplomacy – there is no doubt about it. But I would argue there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Lots of mechanisms and tools are out there and it’s only a matter of using them. What we do need is political leadership and politicians that recognize the values of these tools and use them. In that sense, the OSCE has obviously a lot to offer as we see ourselves as an inclusive platform for dialogue that would allow rebuilding trust to bridge the growing divides.

To illustrate this point, three years ago we launched what is called the Structured Dialogue, an inclusive dialogue platform, which allows us to discuss threat perceptions. It has now transformed more and more into a platform that constructively aims to address military risk management. It currently proves to be useful but is not being used to its full potential. It requires a commitment by the big stakeholders, especially the United States and the Russian Federation.

But what we see, for example, that arms control treaties are in demise and Europe is stuck somewhere in the middle. Should Europe become a more active mediator here?

Europe should be more self-confident in defending the values and the approaches it stands for. It is a relatively complex, intertwined set of arms control measures that was created in the past. Europe was at the core of this, and a rules-based approach to solving security issues is the European way of dealing with these matters. In that sense, I would call for a Europe that is more assertive in defending these approaches and does not give in to the trend of a mere transactional or bilateral way of trying to address non-proliferation matters. In a short term perspective, it will clearly yield some gains.

Looking at the Ukraine crisis, how do you assess the recent efforts of the Mink process?

I have been around since the very beginning of this crisis in around Ukraine and I would say that what has been happening since last summer is clearly very positive. We need to give credit to Ukraine’s President Zelenskiy, who has brought a strong new impulse towards implementing the Minsk agreements, which is the blueprint we have for peace in the Donbas.

But although we’ve seen some movement with the Normandy summit, the outcomes have been meagre…

The Normandy Four summit in Paris was in a way an important moment, showing there is a political commitment by leaders to see this process through, and that is decisive. Especially because it is going to be a long, tough, complicated, challenging process that is not only about creating a sustainable ceasefire, which is one of the big challenges, but also about resolving and implementing some of the political clauses in the Minsk agreement. That requires substantive investments in political capital from both sides – from Kyiv, but also from Moscow. This will take time, but as long as there is a political will, there can be progress.

You see with the Trilateral Contact Group that once there is guidance, there is a more constructive mood. It’s slow, it’s painful, but we have now managed to agree one of the three disengagement areas that were accepted in Paris. We haven’t come to cross off any other points, which shows how difficult it is.

If you compare the situation with a year and a half ago, we were completely stuck, while now, at least, there is movement. However, there is still no trust among the stakeholders on the ground, which makes it so difficult to identify additional disengagement areas. But again, I would say, there is incremental progress in the right direction.

When we look at the Steinmeier Formula, do you think it’s a good idea to push for local elections while the situation on the ground could legitimise the separatists and create a frozen conflict zone?

Look, at some point in time, we need to arrive at the stage of local elections. But obviously we need to create the conditions for it. In that sense, one needs to read the Steinmeier Formula properly. It tells us that the special status legislature will come into force once the OSCE has come to a positive verdict on the conduct of these local elections – positive assessment means being in line with international standards and Ukrainian legislation. But one needs to imagine what needs to be in place in order to come to such an assessment.

Instead of stigmatizing the Steinmeier formula, we need to focus on what we need to do. We need a sustainable ceasefire, we need freedom of movement, and we need freedom of speech and the ability to campaign in the Donbas region. We are still miles away from this.

Another important aspect is: What is going to happen the day after? What about all those institutions that have been set up by the de-facto authorities? Obviously, they need to be, you can use the term dismantled, or you can use the term transformed, into Ukrainian institutions. This needs to be clarified.

As you predict the process might take years, other frozen conflict zones in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh etc. come to mind. Is there a threat of a replay in Ukraine?

Clearly, I cannot exclude that we end up with a protracted situation. It is a possible outcome. From my point of view, we can only think in terms of planning scenarios. I do see indicators that the main stakeholders would want to avoid coming into a protracted situation as the one we have in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh or Transnistria, simply because it is expensive. Expensive, not only for the monitors but also for the main stakeholders – be they in Russia or be they in Ukraine.

When it comes to the Western Balkans, which saw Europe’s last full-scale war, what prospect do you see of solving the existing disputes any time soon?

Europe needs to watch out not to become too exclusively focused on only managing conflicts, as we clearly have challenges and opportunities in other important regions.

We saw immense progress with the Prespa Agreement, showing that if there is political you can resolve deep-running disputes.

But at the same time, we have the blockage in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. However, there are interesting initiatives coming from the region. The mini-Schengen approach, for example, is very intriguing as it shows the region is ready not just to wait for what destiny will bring, but to take destiny into their own hands. I find this very positive.

What is very important for the region, is the vision of acceding to the EU. It is so fundamental. I hope that in the months to come, we will see more encouraging signals from Brussels, in particular for North Macedonia and Albania. Clearly, the signal goes way beyond North Macedonia and Albania and the EU would be wise to be aware of that.

Do you think it sends the wrong message that you change the ‘rules of the game’ while some countries are already in the midst of the process?

If amending the rules allows everybody to come on board of a process that is being owned by all, then I’m totally fine with it. What is fundamental is that those in the centre of the process are treated fairly. Accession does not need to happen tomorrow. It’s important that these states also understand that there are high standards if you want to accede, and these standards need to be reached. But you cannot constantly change the threshold. There is a strong political incentive out there for the Western Balkan countries, and it needs to be credible. Otherwise, it threatens to hamper all the progress we have seen in the region.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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