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Commentary | 6 December 2017

It is Time to Revitalize Political-Military Dialogue in the OSCE

Arms Control Conventional Arms Control CSBMs Europe OSCE Euro-Atlantic Security

Conventional arms control, including confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs), has vastly increased military predictability and transparency in Europe by helping provide a stable politico-military environment. But difficulties in addressing the new political and security developments in recent years within the existing framework of obligations and commitments have led to an increasingly volatile and dangerous situation in the OSCE region. The repeated violation of fundamental OSCE principles, coupled with the erosion of the OSCE instruments for conventional armed control and CSBMs, has undermined what little trust and confidence remains in the region.

The current security environment is unstable and unpredictable. Military exercises are larger and more frequent, and are often conducted with no-notice and in sensitive areas. The risks of escalation from miscalculation or misunderstanding are growing. Military-to-military contacts have become scarce, yet hazardous military incidents, once rare, have significantly increased in the OSCE region, especially in the Baltic and Black Sea areas.

There is also a return to deterrence with renewed focus on enhancing conventional military capabilities with states investing in equipment, training and troops. Modern military systems offer higher precision and longer ranges than ever before and new military technologies are on the rise. With changed force postures, we are also witnessing enhanced forward deployments and have also seen the reintroduction of military conscription in some participating States.

A number of useful proposals have been put forward to increase transparency and opportunities for verification of military activities, as well as reduce the risks of unwanted escalation. This is under the OSCE’s 2011 Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security- Building Measures. Ineffective attempts to use CSBMs under the Vienna Document to respond to the crisis in and around Ukraine have been part of this discussion. Such efforts clearly demonstrated the limitations and structural weaknesses of the existing instruments in managing crisis situations.

OSCE participating States have called for self-restraint in conducting military activities, especially close to borders areas. They have pointed out that timely information on the purpose and specifics of military activities would significantly help prevent miscalculation and misunderstandings. Moreover, as long as trust remains low and the number of military activities is on the rise, de-escalation and preventive measures and well-functioning communication channels are of vital importance. However, as long as the political will to move in this direction remains low, the prospects for relaunching result-oriented discussions on modernizing the Vienna Document and its application in good faith are remote.

On one hand, there is common understanding that the current situation is dangerous and needs to be reversed. On the other hand, perceptions of the core reasons for the current state of affairs and how to find a way out are deeply divergent. There is a need for confidence-building and for sincere and constructive dialogue to reverse these worrisome trends. The OSCE is the ideal platform to address these issues in an inclusive and open manner. We need to re-create a safe space for diplomacy and return to listening mode in order to better understand each other’s perspectives. We also need to proactively work towards creating the conditions for such dialogue.

Last year, at their annual meeting in Hamburg, OSCE foreign ministers launched the Structured Dialogue on current and future challenges and risks to security in the OSCE area. The Structured Dialogue offers an opportunity to create a common basis for state-owned, transparent and inclusive discussions. And although the Structured Dialogue is still a young process, it is about to produce its first concrete results. A systematic analysis of trends in military force postures and military exercises – a ‘mapping exercise’ – has recently started and will be an important first step toward establishing commonly accepted facts that can provide the basis for further discussions.

The mapping in itself will be an important milestone, but additional efforts will be needed to address immediate risks and challenges associated with the current politico-military environment. It is high time that our political leadership realizes that politico-military matters can no longer be dealt with as a sideshow but are once again taking centre stage, whether we like it or not. There is a need for engagement and leadership to proactively take up the challenge of addressing the new, complex realities of European security.

We need to stop the slide toward instability and confrontation to ensure durable peace and security in this part of a crisis-ridden world. The OSCE offers the appropriate forum for meaningful and inclusive security dialogue. With the Structured Dialogue a start has been made, but it is up to the OSCE participating States to use it to positive effect, for the benefit of us all.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.