It's Time for a New Helsinki Conference on European Security
In 1973, the Soviets wanted to organize a conference of European states. Their goal was to gain international recognition of the status quo in Europe, and more specifically to gain recognition of East Germany (DDR) as a state. Finland used this opportunity to not only invite European states, but also invite all states who were responsible for peace and stability in Europe, including the United States and Canada. Although the West was initially hesitant about the Finnish initiative of organizing a conference on European security and stability, the success of Finland's policy of neutrality finally convinced them of the necessity of attending such a conference. The Finns were able to organize the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and to get the participating states to sign the Helsinki Act in 1975. Interestingly, the Helsinki Act was seen as a significant lessening of the tensions of the Cold War by applying many of the same principles of neutrality that Finland espoused. Specifically, the Final Act established principles to guide the interactions between participating states such as a mutual respect for sovereignty and the inviolability of frontiers as well as non-interference in foreign affairs of participating states.
The Helsinki Act now seems all but forgotten as Russia now retains control of Crimea and Ukraine is fighting a civil war to maintain its sovereign borders, while constantly watching the border for Russian intervention. On Sunday, Ukrainians (not including the separatist areas of Ukraine) voted for a new president. The winner seems to be Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch who on the one hand has made overtures toward promising decentralization of power and more regional autonomy for Eastern Ukraine as well as promising to improve relations with Russia, while on the other hand has begun a new military attack to try to destroy the rebels in a matter of hours, not days.
While the situation is grim in Ukraine, what is even more troubling is the emergence of a new cold war between the United States and Russia. While Russia was initially eager to join the West's world order following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia now is eager to oppose United States hegemony in Europe and the former Soviet Union. To make matters worse, much of Russia's opposition to US hegemonic practices stem from a perceived arrogance that the United States will do whatever it wants without the need for cooperation from other states. Further, the expansion of NATO into the former Soviet space as well as the pursuit of a missile defense system, has made Russia feel isolated and threatened by the United States' projection of power.
Critics of Russian president Vladimir Putin will quickly point out that Russian actions in the Crimea are precisely the reason that NATO needs to expand in the post Soviet space, while supporters of Putin say that NATO expansion has caused Putin to need to secure the warm water naval port in Crimea and thus return Crimea to Russian control.
It should be noted that while the West has imposed sanctions against Russia, Putin's popularity has skyrocketed. Further, while sanctions might have hurt the Russian economy to some degree, Putin has been successful in pivoting to Asia by signing a major deal with China for natural gas, alleviating the sting of Western sanctions. Further, Putin has not yet really responded to Western sanctions, which would inevitably hurt Western businesses at a time when the Western economies were just starting to recover.
While it is important to focus on Ukraine and to resolve this crisis peacefully, we must not lose sight of something more important. Even during the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States came to a fundamental agreement involving the security of Europe. All of the states responsible for peace and security in Europe agreed on certain fundamental rules which should govern international relations in Europe. We are quickly losing this agreement. While Russia has requested the OSCE to investigate events in Ukraine, the OSCE has not yet been able to adequately do so. Further, they have at times shown themselves to be very oriented to the West, and not as neutral as they were set up to be following the Helsinki Act in 1975. It could lose its legitimacy, and when that happens, the Helsinki Act will no longer be something that all of the states responsible for peace and security in Europe agree upon.
It is time to have another large conference for all of the states responsible for peace and security in Europe to come together and either reiterate their support for the Helsinki Act or define a new set of rules on how European states should interact. All of the original representatives of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe should attend. It is possible to cooperate again despite what the political elites of the countries involved keep saying. However, if more time passes with continued tit for tat between the major players, it is likely that not only will a new cold war develop, but that even the accepted rules of the first Cold War will not likely be followed.
Both Russia and the West have a lot to lose if the crisis in Ukraine is not resolved quickly and peacefully. However, the world has a lot to lose if the West tries to isolate Russia further and there is a breakdown of the Helsinki Act. Russia can play the spoiler to the West by helping Iran and Syria defy the United States. Further, the recent agreement between China and Russia should worry the West in that this action further reduces the United States' influence in Asia as well as Europe.
It is time for the Finns to step forward and host another conference. They did it once already at a time that cooperation between the West and the Soviet Union looked bleak. It is time for them to do it again to allow cooperation to once again be possible with new agreed-upon rules for interaction among all of Europe.