At present, there is no realistic prospect for successful peace talks between Ukraine and Russia. This, however, creates space for other actors to step in and mediate on humanitarian matters. This blog post identifies three areas where the OSCE can potentially contribute to recovery now and peace in the future.

After two years of war between Russia and Ukraine and twelve months of limited gains either for Russia or Ukraine on the battlefield, one could argue that the time is ripe for a peace initiative. As for the most recent initiative, Switzerland agreed to host a global peace summit on Ukraine. Over 160 countries are invited to discuss Ukraine’s peace formula. However, peace talks make sense only in a situation in which, as William Zartman put it, the belligerent parties find themselves in a mutually hurting stalemate; that is, they are locked in a conflict from which they cannot escalate to victory and this deadlock is painful to both of them (although not necessarily in equal degree or for the same reasons). To date, both Russia and Ukraine are denying the existence of such a stalemate, remaining committed to their initial proposals for the solution of the conflict.

All peace proposals to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian war since the breakdown of initial negotiations in May 2022 can be summarized as “2+6.” The “2” represents the proposals made by the presidents of Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian proposal is clearly articulated in President Zelensky’s 10 Essential Steps Plan. On the Russian side, in his end-of-year press conference Putin reiterated – and since then repeated – his original war aims: “denazification, demilitarization and a neutral status for Ukraine”.

What unites the peace initiatives by various third parties – to date there are six of them by China, Brazil, Indonesia, the Vatican, a group of African States, and Saudi Arabia – is the fact that they all come from non-Western countries. This marks a significant change compared to the period of the gray zone conflict before February 24, 2022, when France, Germany, and the OSCE played major roles in the effort to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. The collective West – essentially the G7, NATO, and the EU – has so far been steadfast in support of Ukraine and of Zelensky’s peace plan. The Western position is that the 10 Essential Steps Plan is the only credible basis for negotiation. Yet, this position has created the void into which six non-Western proposals were launched. The goal of Ukrainian diplomacy is to narrow the gap between the positions of the Western and non-Western countries in the assessment of Zelensky’s 10 Essential Steps. Zelensky, for example, was given the opportunity to address all 22 member states of the Arab League in Jeddah in May 2023, representatives of Brazil, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey in Copenhagen in June 2023, and again the Peace Formula summit in Malta in October 2023.

In the meantime, since both Kyiv and Moscow have accepted the status quo of continued conflict, this creates space for other actors to intervene on mediation of humanitarian issues.

The mediation in humanitarian issues, combined with post-war recovery and reintegration, is the area where the OSCE can contribute due to its experience and track record. While Russia allowed at least a limited OSCE presence on the ground prior to its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 – in the form of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM, which ran from March 2014 to March 2022) and the PCU (which ran from June 1999 to June 2022) – any OSCE presence in Ukraine is now operating outside the Organization’s consensus principle.

Based on a foregoing analysis and input received from OSCE, Ukraine- and Vienna-based interlocutors, the OSCE can contribute to the following areas.

  • First, the OSCE needs to maximize existing niche expertise and experience in the economic and environmental security dimension. The OSCE has well-established expertise in facilitating projects on mitigation of the environmental consequences of war (including demining) and facilitating connectivity (including customs and integrated border management).
  • Second, the OSCE may engage in recovery and reintegration processes in Ukraine, including, but not limited to social-psychological support for trauma-affected population groups, refugees and IDP return and reintegration, combating human trafficking (including the abduction of children to Russia), and accountability for violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. Societal reintegration needs to be achieved at the local level as well. Therefore, the OSCE needs to be involved in the continuation of Ukraine’s decentralization reform – one of the most successful reforms in Ukraine over the past decade.
  • Third, the OSCE may need to work closely with other international organizations on future programming for Ukraine’s recovery, for mediation in humanitarian issues, peacekeeping, reintegration, and transitional justice. This should extend beyond the EU and include the UN and its specialized agencies. Consultations should also give due consideration to the future institutional framework of multilateral donor engagement with Ukraine.

At present, the OSCE has a limited capacity to deliver functions and services on its core mandate of conflict prevention and conflict management, including various formats of mediation. The war in Ukraine has completely paralyzed the OSCE, and the Organization faces enormous challenges to its ability contributing meaningfully to conflict management efforts. However, this does not mean that the OSCE cannot play a role in supporting recovery now and peace in the future. Provided there is sufficient political will, there are a number of opportunities for the OSCE, based on its longstanding presence in the country. The OSCE can also draw on projects it has implemented there over the past decade and elsewhere (such as in the former Yugoslavia and the Baltic states since the 1990s). It can operate in certain niche areas of expertise in which it can add real value to broader international recovery and peace-building efforts.