By Gabriela Iveliz Rosa Hernández
Russia confirmed it is no longer fulfilling its commitment to share information about its armed forces with 56 other states, as required by a multinational confidence- and security-building mechanism.
Russia’s failure to comply with this and other international obligations, including by waging war on Ukraine, has prompted some participating states to question Russia’s role in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the leading forum for addressing security and stability concerns in the region. Ukraine has called for Russia’s total exclusion from the organization. (See ACT, January/February 2023.)
“Russia does not renounce its obligations under the Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures in Europe, but its actions will depend on how other countries fulfill the requirements of this agreement,” the Russian Foreign Ministry told Kommersant on March 10, a week after Arms Control Today reported exclusively that Moscow did not share its national data last year and was continuing to withhold it this year.
Overseen by the OSCE, the Vienna Document has allowed the 57 participating states to observe and notify each other about their military exercises and other relevant events to prevent misinterpretation of these activities. It is one of the few remaining mechanisms for political and military cooperation in Europe.
The Russian confirmation comes at a fraught time when the security situation in the OSCE region is deteriorating as tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan increase in Nagorno-Karabakh, protesters and police clash in Georgia, and Russia continues its war on Ukraine. Russia’s use of its veto in the OSCE has hampered the organization’s work in the past year. (See ACT, December/January 2023.)
Coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine in February, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly brought lawmakers from all over Europe to Vienna for its annual winter conference. Ukraine and Lithuania said they would boycott official conference meetings because of the presence of Russian delegates, who were granted visas by Austria after much criticism despite their country being under sanctions by the European Union and the United States.
At the meeting, the Russians faced walkouts and ridicule from other delegates. The Russians accused the West of preventing dialogue by supplying Ukraine with weapons. Many delegations wore yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
“Russian warship, go **** yourself,” Latvian lawmaker Richard Kols said in Russian at the meeting, echoing a rallying cry of the Ukrainian military forces and civilians protesting the Russian invasion.
According to the Associated Press, Russian delegates argued that Russia should not be excluded from the organization, yet questioned why their country should continue paying its OSCE contribution. “Addressing the problems of European security without the biggest country in Europe is not possible,” said Deputy Duma Chairman Pyotr Tolstoy, head of the Russian delegation.
Russia’s decision to stop sharing information about its armed forces with the OSCE does not help its case. The decision was first communicated on Jan. 16, 2022, in a letter from Konstantin Gavrilov, head of the Russian arms control delegation in Vienna, to the chair of the OSCE Forum for Security and Cooperation. The decision was reiterated in early 2023. Gavrilov said Russia would not provide national information about its armed forces for 2023 as stipulated in Chapter I of the Vienna Document, essentially suspending its participation in the annual exchange that is supposed to be conducted each year by Dec. 15.
Russia still has not provided the required data even though the new reporting year has begun, an official from an OSCE participating state told Arms Control Today on condition of anonymity.
In the letter, Gavrilov wrote that the decision “was taken in response to the Czech Republic’s step to suspend the implementation of its commitments under [the Vienna Document] towards Russia and due to Ukraine’s interpretative statement about its refusal to participate in the 2023 [data exchange], as well as to send certain routine notifications provided by the Vienna Document.”
“We proceed from the assumption that if the Russian Federation exchanges its national [data] report, it will for sure end up in the hands of the above-mentioned participating states,” he added.
The letter also accused 29 of the participating states, including Estonia, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States, of not providing certain notifications on time and alleged that the Netherlands excluded Russia from the list of notification recipients. In addition, Russia accused Bulgaria, France, and Poland of not inviting Russian representatives to their military bases, as required under the Vienna Document.
As of February, 50 participating states had provided the required military forces data for 2023, the official from the OSCE participating state said, while Armenia, Mongolia, Poland, and Ukraine provided information “on delay,” meaning late. The remaining two countries, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, have not submitted information for years.
Asked about Russia’s accusations, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in an email on Feb. 28 that “the United States continues to fully adhere to all of its commitments under the Vienna Document…including the provision of required notifications and other information to all [OSCE] participating states, among them Russia.” He did not address the issue of Russian compliance.
According to Western officials, Russian adherence to the document has long been eroding. As Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in August, “[T]he Vienna Document 2011 remains formally in force, but there are no prospects for its practical implementation.”
“In the absence of trust between the parties, the verification mechanism actually becomes a source of intelligence information, which does not meet the spirit of the agreement," he said at the Moscow Conference on International Security.
When Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, Ukraine requested under Chapter III of the document that the OSCE send unarmed military and civilian personnel to its territory, starting in Odesa, to dispel concerns about military activity. OSCE military assessment personnel were denied entry to Crimea.
In 2021, Ukraine called for a meeting under Chapter III and requested that Russia clarify its military activities as Russian forces were building up near the Ukrainian border. Russia refused to respond to the inquiry and insisted that it had no obligation to do so, but accepted a Swiss inspection in the territories of Voronezh and Belgorod.
In 2022, before launching its full-scale war on Ukraine, Russia announced that it no longer would host visits to verify the data part of the information exchange or inspections of specified areas to observe military activities. It cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason.
According to RBC, a Russian website, Russia recently accused Western countries of changing plans for conducting military exercises and increasing the scale and intensity of these exercises since 2022.
Gavrilov said on March 6 that Western countries have not agreed on the dates for the annual meeting to assess the implementation of the Vienna Document.
“For example, on February 16, the largest multinational Orion-23 exercises in recent decades started in France. We learned about their beginning from the press, and not through the official channels of the Vienna Document. This is even though NATO allies are practicing large-scale military operations in all environments during these maneuvers,” he said.
The West has long been concerned about Russian adherence to the Vienna Document requirements. But Moscow’s decision to further cloak its military activities and conventional forces makes the situation worse by signaling a return to deeper strategic ambiguity as its forces and equipment are spent in Ukraine. Russia has increased its defense budget and mobilized its defense industry to support the war.