Now the military observers have been released, it might be helpful to clarify their status as an illustration of how both media bias and internet passions on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict obscure the truth. If you think you get the truth on CNN and BBC you are not paying attention. If you think you get the truth on Russia Today you are equally not paying attention.
It is wrong to call the men “OSCE observers” in that they are not on a mission initiated and organized by the OSCE. The casual use of the phrase by almost all the mainstream media is not just incorrect, but culpable in that it gives a deliberate impression of neutrality and authority.
However it is equally wrong to characterize them as “NATO spies”, and they had every right, indeed a duty, to be in Ukraine doing what they were doing. The purpose of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which the Soviet Union was a founding member, is to prevent conflict and improve governance. (I have a dim recollection that some but not all of the Soviet Socialist Republics, including Ukraine, were individually represented when it was first founded as the CSCE. Ukraine, and of course Russia, has certainly been an important member since it became the OSCE in 1994).
I should say I strongly support the OSCE. Those who claim it is an American or neo-con front have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. I was invited to give oral evidence to the OSCE on extraordinary rendition, which I did. That contrasts with the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee who conducted an inquiry into extraordinary rendition and refused to accept either written or oral evidence from their Ambassador who had just been sacked for blowing the whistle on the subject (Don’t you love Jack Straw and New Labour). The OSCE do a lot of good work on protecting the Roma, and recently rebuked the French. Their election monitoring work is first class – if only the UK government would allow them into Scotland.
A key OSCE treaty is the Vienna Document on Military Transparency of 1999. Under this document, member states notify each other of their forces’ dispositions, and any member state can send verification missions of military officers to any other member state three times a year.
This is not some obscure or obsolete clause which was being used to justify extraordinary snooping in Ukraine. It is a mechanism in permanent operation. Russia, for example, sends military observers around UK and US installations all the time, and vice versa.
The whole point of the agreement is to make sure people know and are comfortable with where other people’s weapons are and what they are doing, so as to avoid wars starting by misunderstanding. This is especially important in times of heightened tension. So in times of escalating tension or unusual military activity, the agreement specifically allows for increased activity and extra missions to ensure people understand what is happening. Plainly the disputes for control of Ukrainian military bases and their weapons were precisely the kind of situation where missions were called for. So the observers not only had a right to be there, they had a duty.