LODZ, Poland -- A meeting of Europe's largest security organization opened Thursday with foreign ministers and other representatives strongly denouncing Russia's war against Ukraine, a conflict that is among the greatest challenges the body has faced in its nearly half-century of existence.
Along with the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was founded to maintain peace and stability on the continent, has provided a rare international forum for Russia and Western powers to discuss security matters.
But since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the 57-nation OSCE has become another venue where the bitter clash between Russia and the West has played out, exposing the organization's own inadequacies in helping to resolve the conflict.
The two-day ministerial meeting in Lodz, Poland, is its first since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Notably absent was Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was banned from entering Poland. The country is the current chair of the OSCE and a member of the 27-member European Union, which put Lavrov on a sanctions list.
Lavrov denounced the ban and Poland on Thursday.
“I can say responsibly that Poland’s anti-chairmanship of the OSCE will take the most miserable place ever in this organization’s history,” he said. “Nobody has ever caused such damage to the OSCE while being at its helm.”
Russia's permanent representative to the organization, Alexander Lukashevich, led the Russian Russia's delegation to Lodz instead of Lavrov. Lukashevich denounced the Western countries after a string of statements condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine.
“What we’ve heard in this hall today only reinforces one sad thought: the West is deliberately devaluing the tools of diplomacy, firmly taking the path of confrontation," he said.
Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau said he had a responsibility to defend the OSCE's “fundamental principles,” and argued that it was not Poland but Russia which has hurt the organization by blocking budgets, appointments and other critical aspects of its functioning. All decisions must be adopted by consensus.
“I would say it's outrageous to hear Russia accusing the chairmanship of pushing the OSCE into the abyss, destroying its foundations and breaking its procedural rules," said Rau, who oversees Poland's chairing of the organization.
The OSCE acted as a mediator in Ukraine before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It helped negotiate peace deals for eastern Ukraine following a Russian-backed separatist war that began in the Donbas region in 2014. In March, the OSCE discontinued its special monitoring mission to Ukraine.
Also missing from the meeting in Lodz was Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei of Belarus, who died suddenly last weekend at the age of 64 and was buried earlier this week. Belarusian authorities didn’t give the cause of Makei's death, and he wasn’t known to suffer from any chronic illness, triggering speculation about possible foul play.
A Belarusian representative, Andrei Dapkiunas, delivered remarks that he said were prepared by Makei before his death. He deplored the exclusion of Lavrov, saying it “is killing the OSCE,” and accused Western powers of undermining Europe's security structure with what he described as their unfair isolation of Russia and Belarus.
Peter Szijjarto, the foreign minister of Hungary, which is in the unusual position of being an ally of Poland while maintaining close economic and diplomatic ties with Russia, appeared to fault Poland for excluding Lavrov.
“Channels of communication must be maintained,” Szijjarto said.
Szijjarto told the meeting that Hungary wants peace in Ukraine, but he didn't mention Russia by name.
The OSCE was established in 1975 and became a platform for dialogue during the Cold War. An emphasis on human rights and economic development undergirds its approach to security. It is known for its monitoring of elections but has also carried out conflict prevention and post-conflict peace-building missions in places such as Bosnia, Moldova, Georgia and Tajikistan.
The U.S. representative, Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, said she came away from the gathering in Lodz with a renewed optimism, noting that 55 of the OSCE's 57 members — Russia and Belarus excluded — were finding new ways to work to defend democratic principles.
Russian President Vladimir Putin “has failed to defeat Ukraine,” Nuland said. "Despite his brutal war of aggression, his war crimes, and now his vicious fight against civilians trying to freeze them in the middle of winter, Putin has also failed in his effort to divide and destroy the OSCE.”
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