Former OSCE secretary general and Swiss ambassador Thomas Greminger believes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks the start of a new Cold War. An increase in proxy wars should be expected, he says in an interview. This content was published on April 19, 2022 – 09:00April 19, 2022 – 09:00Giannis MavrisOther languages: 4
The full-scale invasion came as a surprise even to him. As a long-time mediator between Russia and Ukraine, Greminger knows high-ranking officials on both sides. He was convinced that rational cost-benefit analysis would prevail and make all-out war unlikely.
From 2010 he was Swiss ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which includes Russia and the United States and other former Cold War enemies. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Switzerland held the chair of the organisation, and Greminger was able to play an important mediation role. One breakthrough was the agreement on a permanent observer mission to Ukraine, whose mandate has, however, recently expired. From 2017 to 2020 he was the OSCE’s secretary general. Today he is director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP).
SWI swissinfo.ch: The pictures of murdered civilians in Bucha have shocked the world. Is this a turning point in the war?
Thomas Greminger: Yes, these are presumed war crimes that must of course be investigated and which will clearly have huge repercussions, not least on the post-war world. These pictures will not be forgotten so soon.
SWI: There is not much news these days about the peace negotiations. Is an agreement between the parties even conceivable?
T.G.: As things stand, the two sides are clearly still far from an agreement. There is one area, though, where they appear to have edged closer, that is regarding the future status of Ukraine. It seems they might be able to agree on a form of neutrality backed by international guarantees. However, as far as territorial concessions are concerned, they are, to my knowledge, still worlds apart. Russia presumably has far-reaching demands that include at least Crimea and the Donbas.
SWI: The negotiations are taking place under Turkish auspices. What about direct communication channels between Russia and the West? Do they still exist, or have they collapsed entirely?
T.G.: There probably still are a few functioning channels, for instance on the issues of conflict resolution, Iran and space flight. But the fact is that almost all other processes have been suspended, all dialogue channels have shut down. Communication is severely limited even at an expert level.
How quickly these channels can be re-established will depend not least on how the war ends – so that discussions can resume on North Korea, Afghanistan and Syria, for example, or on transnational risks and challenges, such as the fight against terrorism, cyber threats and climate change. At the moment, however, almost everything is frozen.
SWI: What does the military situation look like today? It seems that Russia has failed to achieve its primary military objectives in Ukraine.
T.G.: Yes, that is definitely the case. What we are seeing now is a rotation of Russian troops and a new, much stronger and probably exclusive focus on the east and south of the country, so ultimately on the Donbas. I expect a major Russian offensive in the near future. And then we shall see what the new power balance is.
SWI: Swiss Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter believes that Russia wants to deliberately stir up refugee movements in order to destabilize Europe and speaks of “hybrid warfare”. Do you share this assessment? OpinionThe World Trade Organization and the demise of multilateralismThis content was published on May 15, 2020The resignation of the WTO director-general does not bode well for the international trading system, multilateralism and International Geneva.
T.G.: Last autumn, I would have fully agreed with this statement with regard to the refugees heading for Poland from Belarus. But I don’t necessarily see it like this in the current situation. Here, the refugees are not weapons but victims of war. So far, over 11 million Ukrainians have had to flee their homes. Of these, more than four million have crossed the border to other countries as refugees. The others have all sought safety within Ukraine itself as internally displaced persons.
SWI: There are growing calls in the West for broader sanctions against Russia. How effective have these measures been so far? And can they really force a peace, or at least a ceasefire?
T.G.: It is the nature of sanctions that they do not have an immediate effect, or only partially so. Those adopted so far are hitting Russia hard, there is no doubt about that. But much of the impact will only really become visible in the medium term.
I understand the call for additional sanctions after the pictures from Bucha. But I don’t think it is realistic at the moment to expect broader sanctions – in particular on energy sources – as these would also deeply harm the European economy. Sanctions should not become a goal on their own.
SWI: Russia is involved militarily in several countries. Are conflicts likely to break out again elsewhere, in the wake of the Ukraine war? Azerbaijan, for instance, recently made military advances into Nagorno-Karabakh.
T.G.: This is clearly a possibility. I believe we are facing a Cold War 2.0. You know the phenomenon of proxy wars from the Cold War – I think there is a significant risk we will be seeing more of these in the future. NewsletterSign up for our free newsletters and get the top stories delivered to your inbox.
As Russia is concentrating so heavily on Ukraine at the moment, it can no longer pay as much attention to other contexts. There is presumably the case for Syria, and for some African contexts, where Russia was very active recently.
SWI: So this means the formation of new blocs, a new Cold War. What role can the OSCE play once the “hot phase” is over?
T.G.: The main concern now is safeguarding the OSCE, its institutions and its instruments. This will not be easy in this highly polarised world. Not even the successful OSCE mission in Ukraine could be continued, because Russia opposed it. In the medium term, however, I definitely see a chance for the organisation to play an active and useful role once more.
However, the OSCE’s instruments and platforms can only be effective if the [member] states want to use them. This requires a consensus among the key players in European security. In the 1970s to 1990s, there was a strong will to do so. Lately, however, this has been much less the case; the OSCE has primarily been used as an instrument for crisis management, and no longer as a platform for discussing basic questions of European security.
This is precisely why the OSCE and its institutions must be preserved as far as possible, so that they can be used again in the future to reflect on these issues and to agree on a new European security architecture. Unfortunately, I am not very optimistic in the short and medium.
SWI: What role could Switzerland play in all this? It had good diplomatic ties with Moscow, but now it has been added to Russia’s list of “unfriendly countries”. Ukraine: what can stop the war?This content was published on Apr 19, 2022Inside Geneva host Imogen Foulkes asks whether war crimes investigations and sanctions might cause Moscow to reconsider its position in Ukraine.
T.G.: I would not overestimate the importance of this list. Even without it, Switzerland would not be a mediating party – simply because there is no mediation at present. Turkey is hosting talks, but it is not actually playing a mediation role. The parties to the conflict – especially Russia – are currently not interested in peace brokers.
In the medium term, there are definitely areas where Switzerland could play an important part. For example, on the status [of Ukraine] question. Perhaps an agreement will be reached on the principle of neutrality. Then it will be a matter of working out what exactly this entails and what form it could take. Here we can provide know-how. Switzerland could also play a role in connection with the sanctions, for example, in dispute settlement.
I believe that, in the aftermath of the hot war, there will be scope for an active foreign policy. But for now, until the guns fall silent, there is little we can do, other than providing vital humanitarian aid.
Translated from German by Julia Bassam