European Security Architecture: Against Russia, or With It?

Shifting foundations: the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975, which served as the groundwork for the later OSCE. Image: US National Archives and Records Administration

Beyond the immediate priority of bringing peace and justice to Ukraine, Europe’s security architecture needs a redesign and fresh focus. A place should be reserved for Russia, conditional on fundamental change in its conduct. But for now, security has to be organised in opposition to Moscow.

Nearly a year into the continent’s first major state-on-state war since 1945, Europe’s cooperative security arrangements are on life support. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is hamstrung; the nascent European Political Community (EPC) a blank canvas.

European countries need to address urgently how to achieve not just security for Ukraine, but broader stability too. Progress requires hard-headed defence arrangements and creative thinking beyond traditional alliances and agendas.

It may seem arcane to consider security architecture as war rages. But Russian President Vladimir Putin took a wrecking ball to the European security landscape too when he invaded Ukraine. That Russia had both targets in mind is evidenced by proposals it put forward in December 2021 for a Russia–NATO security agreement, and a parallel Russia–US one, including no forward deployment of forces from 1997 dispositions, and no more NATO enlargement. It wasn’t just about Ukraine.

Ukrainian security, European stability and Russia’s relationship with the continent are therefore intertwined.

Securing Ukraine

Ukraine has fought skilfully but remains dependent on Western arms and ammunition. In Bucharest on 29–30 November 2022, NATO foreign ministers pledged to ‘further step up political and practical support’, including strengthening Ukrainian resilience through countering Russian disinformation, assisting repairs to energy infrastructure and protection from missile attacks, and strengthening long-term force interoperability.

The focus so far has been on support from individual Allies. Yet the invasion has fundamentally changed the landscape for the Alliance collectively. Ukraine is now NATO’s de facto frontline. And when the fighting stops, Ukraine’s security will require certainty about Allies’ continuing commitment.

There is an understandable but unhelpful fixation on how NATO might fulfil its commitment from the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine and Georgia ‘will become members of NATO’. But security does not have to be an all-or-nothing question of NATO membership and protection under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

What matters most now is certainty that Western arms, ammunition and training will continue at a scale sufficient for Ukraine to win the war. There needs to be assurance too that practical support will continue and be available in the event of – and to deter – further Russian aggression. Potential security guarantees need to be discussed.

The OSCE may yet have a role to play in ensuring a lasting peace when the guns fall silent in Ukraine

NATO, too, will benefit from an ever-closer security partnership with a Ukraine that has battle-hardened and increasingly well-equipped and NATO-interoperable forces. Ukraine will emerge from this war an asset to the Alliance.

Stabilising Europe

Security challenges persist elsewhere in the 57-nation OSCE area, including parts of the Western Balkans, the South Caucasus and Central Asia. OSCE foreign ministers met in Lodz, Poland, on 1–2 December 2022 at a time of unprecedented challenges for the organisation, which is limited by decision-making by consensus.

The events of 2022 underline that the OSCE’s foundational principles, set out in the Helsinki Final Act – including refraining from the threat or use of force, the inviolability of frontiers, territorial integrity of states and peaceful settlement of disputes – are as important as ever.

These are not historical platitudes, but essential for international security and justice now. They matter globally as well as for the OSCE area. They should matter to Russia too, given the challenges that it faces.

The 50th anniversary in 2023 of the start of the Helsinki process should be a call to action. The OSCE may yet have a role to play in ensuring a lasting peace when the guns fall silent in Ukraine: the 2014–15 Minsk Agreements were negotiated in an OSCE context, and envisaged an OSCE monitoring and verification role. The Confidence and Security Building Measures in the Vienna Document also remain applicable, if in need of updating.

And the OSCE now has competition, in the form of the EPC. Its first meeting took place in Prague on 6 October 2022, bringing together 44 European leaders with the aim ‘to promote political dialogue and cooperation … in order to strengthen the security, stability and prosperity of the European continent’. This sounds like the OSCE, shorn of its non-European elements.

The EPC’s roots lie in EU soil, but it is a broader community. In addition to the EU27, invitees to Prague included Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, six Western Balkans countries, four European Free Trade Association countries, Turkey and the UK. Russia and Belarus were not invited.

This first EPC meeting was modestly successful: firstly, for the fact of bringing together such a community – not a given; secondly, for the setting it provided for Armenia and Azerbaijan to agree measures relating to confidence-building on their border; and thirdly, for the agreement to continue. Further EPC meetings will take place in Moldova in spring 2023, and in Spain and the UK thereafter.

Towards a European Security Council?

If Armenia and Azerbaijan found the EPC a useful context to discuss bilateral issues, so could other countries. Yet to drive effective European action, a tighter format is required.

Collective security cannot be kept on ice until Russia is willing and able to become a responsible security actor

A European security forum could be established. Agreeing its composition would be a formidable challenge, but one organisational model could be the UN Security Council, with a mix of permanent members and other countries participating on a rotating basis.

Permanent members of a European security forum might include the continent’s most powerful actors – France, Germany, Poland, Turkey, Ukraine and the UK – though there are delicate geographical balance considerations and national security dynamics to factor in. A seat for the EU could help provide reassurance to other EU27 members. There should also be an institutional connection with NATO – Europe’s collective defence organisation and the continent’s essential security link to the US.

The forum’s remit could be akin to Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty: consultations whenever the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any European state is threatened. It could have the right to request involvement by the UN or NATO, or to invite ad hoc coalitions of the willing to take diplomatic or military action in accordance with international law. The forum could work in tandem with the OSCE to promote the Helsinki principles and consider new measures to protect civilian populations.

It is encouraging that the EPC has already turned its attention to protecting civil infrastructure. And in Dublin on 18 November, 83 countries from Europe and beyond adopted a Political Declaration on strengthening the protection of civilians from the humanitarian consequences of the use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas. This includes commitments to ensure that national armed forces implement a range of practices to avoid civilian harm.

Russia’s aggression has again focused attention on the critical need to protect civilians and civil infrastructure, hitherto neglected in European security discussions.

Against Russia, or With It?

Russia is set to emerge from its war on Ukraine weaker, isolated and less able to project power. It will be concerned about cracks appearing in its own Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO): the 23 November 2022 CSTO Summit was notable for Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan refusing to sign a CSTO declaration on assistance for his country.

Yet there can be no comfort for other countries and no settled peace while Russia is in confrontation with Europe.

A different path remains open: one of constructive Russian engagement in European security, a seat at the top table, and a functional relationship with international interlocutors, including NATO. But that is not going to happen without a fundamental change in Russian conduct, and justice and accountability for the destruction caused by Putin’s war.

And collective security cannot be kept on ice until Russia is willing and able to become a responsible security actor. Until then, European security must be organised in opposition to Moscow.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Peter Jones CMG

Distinguished Fellow; Former COO and Director-General, FCDO

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