A Letter from Moscow: (In)divisible Security and Helsinki 2.0
A Russian letter recently darkened Europe’s door. In it, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the alliance’s understanding and use of a principle known as “indivisible security.” You would be forgiven for having never heard of that niche term that emerged from a conference in Helsinki in the 1970s (more on that later), but Lavrov does have a point. It comes down to contrasting interpretations of what this term means in Western capitals versus in Moscow.
The West views indivisible security primarily as the right to choose alliance membership freely. By contrast, Moscow associates the principle with the obligation to not strengthen security at the expense of the security of other states, but it omits two other notions related to it: human rights and the non-use of force. After all, indivisible security was a product of Cold War détente that offered new opportunities to support the evolution of Eastern Europe in a way that was then also acceptable to the Soviet Union.
Revisiting the concept and its evolution could help in the current crisis. First, looking back at how Europe arrived at shared principles, despite strongly diverging interests, could provide valuable lessons now that continental security has once again become “divisible.” Second, it may help in understanding the limits of cooperation once sides begin cherry-picking from formerly agreed principles. Third, it could provide the starting point for a new diplomatic initiative — call it Helsinki 2.0 — aimed at hammering out a modus vivendi that would provide the West, Russia and non-aligned countries, such as Ukraine, with more security. Even though Russia is much weaker today than the Soviet Union was, it still has the political and military potential to wreak havoc on the European continent. With China waiting in the wings, America cannot afford another Cold War with Russia. What is now needed are hard-won diplomatic compromises.
The Helsinki Process
The principle of the indivisibility of security emerged from negotiations at the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe — the predecessor of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (known to most by its acronym, OSCE) — that took place in Helsinki from 1972 to 1975.
From the start, the East and the West pursued different goals. The Soviet Union sought to legitimize the political status quo and the division of Europe after World War II. The West and the neutral states in Europe (Austria, Finland, Switzerland, and Sweden) put an emphasis on individual security. They viewed cooperation on military security, economic issues, and human rights as equally important elements of one overarching concept: comprehensive security.
In this context, indivisibility meant, above all, that respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as they became enshrined in the seventh principle of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, was to also apply within the Eastern Bloc. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union and its allies contested this view. Moscow’s interpretation of the Final Act emphasized political recognition of Soviet power and territorial influence: sovereign equality; non-use of force; non-intervention in domestic affairs; and the right to freely choose and develop political, social, economic, and cultural systems.
Against this backdrop, realizing “indivisibility” after Helsinki aimed primarily at mitigating the worst consequences of the geopolitical division for citizens and at reducing the imminent risks of military escalation. To this end, the Final Act introduced modest confidence-building measures to observe and inspect military activities. Nearly a decade later, the Stockholm conference (from 1984 to 1986) took a leap forward and transformed these measures into “military significant, politically binding and verifiable” instruments.
From Comprehensive to Co-operative Security
In the late 1980s, another understanding replaced this limited view of indivisible security. Soviet reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev firmly anchored the human security dimension. In the Charter of Paris for a New Europe from November 1990, the participating states of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe declared the end of the era of confrontation and division on the continent. In this spirit, the document announced that “security is indivisible and the security of every participating State is inseparably linked to that of all the others.”
Even more importantly, the document defined democracy as the only legitimate system of government. This represents a considerable qualitative shift from the 1975 Final Act that often goes unacknowledged. The new concept of co-operative security also differed considerably in meaning from the concepts of limited cooperation that had prevailed during the Cold War. “Indivisibility” no longer simply acknowledged the importance of human security or the vague notion of shared interests despite enmity, but the emergence of a “community of free and democratic States from Vancouver to Vladivostok.”
At the 1992 Helsinki Summit, participating states for the first time stated that “no state in our CSCE community will strengthen its security at the expense of the security of other States.” In the decade that followed, this particular interpretation of indivisibility became the linchpin of European security. Consequently, various documents adopted similar vocabulary. The Istanbul Charter for European Security from November 1999 (to which Lavrov refers repeatedly in his letter) promoted the “creation of an OSCE area free of dividing lines and zones with different levels of security.”
Great-Power Dilemma: The Limits of Cooperation
This vision of cooperation never fully materialized, however. Instead, the parallel enlargements of NATO and the European Union promoted two different approaches to indivisible security. On the one hand, European states were now indeed able to freely choose membership in military alliances, without paying attention to power politics and potential opposition from Russia. This right had already been enshrined in the 1975 Final Act, but the European division and the existence of two politico-military blocs had rendered its implementation unthinkable.
On the other hand, indivisible security became enshrined in NATO’s strategic documents. Its explicit adoption in the Strategic Concepts of 1991 and 1999 reaffirmed Europe’s place in U.S. security thinking and strengthened the transatlantic bond in the post-Cold War world order. The 2002 NATO Prague Summit declaration was the first document to speak of indivisible security in relation to missile defense efforts, while the 2010 Strategic Concept stressed that defending “our populations and territories against ballistic missile attack … contributes to the indivisible security of the Alliance.”
To Russia, however, these developments brought home a very different message: Shaping strategic decisions on the continent would be impossible outside of Western organizations from which it remained excluded. At the same time, it was those organizations’ continued enlargement to the east that Russia increasingly viewed as infringing on its security and status, thereby negating the indivisibility principle. In addition, Russia turned out to be unable to create sufficient gravitational pull in its own neighborhood.
Until today, the country lacks the economic and soft power to attract other states, including Ukraine, without coercive means and has failed to establish competitive regional organizations. This combination created a dilemma: In order to be recognized as a great power, Russia constantly emphasizes its military might and tries to coerce its neighbors whenever it deems it necessary. Such a policy, however, only pushes those countries further away and toward NATO and the European Union. In a way, it is Russian weakness, not strength, that undermines possible cooperation.
Attempts to institutionalize Western-Russian partnership — for example, through the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act and the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council in 2002 — therefore failed to satisfy Moscow’s ambitions. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has found itself increasingly at odds with the U.S. leadership role in European security and the democratic commitments it had sign on to in the Paris Charter. The emphasis by Western OSCE-participating states on compliance with human rights and fundamental freedoms in Russia further aggravated Moscow’s grievances. In short, the more marginalized Russia has become politically, the less inclined it has been to accept previously agreed post-Cold War notions of indivisibility.
Helsinki 2.0: Indivisibility in a Divided Europe
Over the last five decades, states in the Euro-Atlantic region have repeatedly reaffirmed the indivisibility principle. The context in which it has been applied, however, has changed significantly. That brings us to the present. Unfortunately, NATO’s response to Russia’s security demands still lists the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the 1990 Paris Charter, and the 1999 Istanbul Charter as foundations of Euro-Atlantic security, without saying a single word about the substantial differences between them and the different meanings of “indivisibility” they purport. The United States, at least, acknowledges that “indivisibility” is “one concept in the rich context of the many commitments OSCE participating states have made to each other and cannot be viewed in isolation.” Nonetheless, the West’s responses seem to pretend that nothing changed in the last 20 years.
From the West’s perspective, this is understandable because Western states fully endorse today’s political status quo. To them, it is Moscow that undermines the post-Cold War security order in Europe by insisting on a veto on further NATO enlargement in the name of indivisible security. This view is exactly right, but it still fails to acknowledge a number of hard facts. Europe has not become a common and co-operative security space, as envisioned in the Paris Charter. The vision of indivisibility has materialized, but only for the collective West. As a consequence, we are witnessing the re-emergence of a divided Europe. Further militarily escalation in Ukraine would only cement this reality.
Lavrov’s letter might force the West to stop pretending that these times are still the 1990s. The West needs to adapt to the new realities and launch a broad and concerted diplomatic initiative. Breaking the cycle of escalation will be a balancing act, but it can be done without compromising on the basic rules and measures OSCE-participating states have agreed to in Helsinki and in Stockholm. Most important would be to start with a clear reconfirmation of the non-negotiable principle of the non-use of force. States should then hammer out new measures to stabilize their precarious military relations through mutual confidence-building and risk-reduction measures. In parallel, they should sit down to work out a new compromise formula that ultimately provides everyone with more security. A lot of creativity and willingness to compromise would be necessary. The Helsinki Final Act turns 50 in 2025. Preparation for a Helsinki 2.0 conference should start now.
Alexander Graef is a researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg and is a member of the Younger Generation Leaders Network on Euro-Atlantic Security (YGLN).
Ulrich Kühn is the director of the Arms Control and Emerging Technologies program at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg and is a non-resident scholar with the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.