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Russia’s Lavrov sparks rift at European security meeting

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Member countries are divided over the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s annual foreign ministers’ meeting on Thursday with Baltic nations and Ukraine refusing to attend over the presence of Russia‘s Sergei Lavrov, according to Reuters.

The 57-member OSCE is the successor to a Cold War-era organization for Soviet and Western powers to engage but is now largely paralyzed by Russia’s ongoing use of the effective veto each country has.

The US and its allies are seeking simultaneously to keep the OSCE alive and hold Russia to account for its invasion of Ukraine. They are attending while making a point of denouncing Moscow’s actions – a stance that some of Ukraine’s closest allies have little truck with.

“How can you talk with an aggressor who is committing genocide, full aggression against another member state, Ukraine?” Estonian Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna told reporters on Wednesday in Brussels where he attended a NATO meeting.

Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are siding with Ukraine on the issue. Russia’s Tass news agency reported Lavrov arrived in Skopje on Wednesday after a circuitous five-hour flight that avoided the airspace of countries that have barred Russian aircraft.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said he understood unease about Lavrov attending the meeting in Skopje, North Macedonia. But he said it was a chance for Lavrov to hear broad condemnation of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Your decision to allow Lavrov to participate is in line with our common objective to keep multilateralism alive,” Borrell told North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski at a joint press conference in Skopje.

“Lavrov needs to hear again, from everyone, why Russia is being condemned and isolated,” Borrell said. “Then he will be able to come back to the Kremlin and report to the Kremlin master.”

Estonia had been due to take over the annually rotating OSCE chairmanship but Russia blocked it for months. A last-minute deal for neutral Malta to take over the chairmanship must be formally approved at the meeting on Thursday and Friday.

The OSCE issue reflects broader diplomatic questions about Ukraine. While only Belarus regularly sides with Russia at OSCE meetings, this week’s absentees worry that Western powers’ commitment to Ukraine is wavering.

The United States has been at pains to reassure them while arguing that the OSCE, which upholds standards that Russia has agreed to, is the right place to hold Moscow to account.

“First of all … we have no planned interactions with Russia. We will also not accept any return to business as usual in the midst of this aggression, which has resulted in the largest land war on the European continent since World War Two,” U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Michael Carpenter told reporters.

“A lot has been done to expose Russian atrocities, and I expect that that will be the theme, of condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, in all its forms.”

It later became clear, however, that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken would only attend meetings with his counterpart from North Macedonia and other like-minded countries on Wednesday then leave before the Ministerial Council formally begins on Thursday.

The OSCE is not the only international body where the West and Russia meet. Lavrov still attends Group of 20 events around the world and the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

In terms of substance, the stakes in Skopje are low. With the chairmanship settled, the main open issue is whether four top OSCE officials, including Secretary-General Helga Schmid, will have their terms extended.

The absentee countries, however, fear that Lavrov will use the meeting as a platform. “It just so happens that the aggressor country is having a veto, and in a sense trying to hijack the agenda of the OSCE. I think that is simply wrong,” said Latvian Foreign Minister Krisjanis Karins.