BRUSSELS/VIENNA (Reuters) - The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's annual foreign ministers' meeting on Thursday has split member states, with Baltic nations and Ukraine refusing to attend over the presence of Russia's Sergei Lavrov and urging others to as well.
The OSCE is the successor to an organisation set up during the Cold War as a place for Soviet and Western powers to engage, but is now largely paralysed as Russia keeps using what is effectively a veto each country has at the security and rights body. Field missions in the Balkans and Central Asia continue.
The United States and its allies are seeking to simultaneously keep the OSCE alive and hold Russia to account over 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 at a meeting with his counterparts from other NATO member states.
Estonia had been due to take over the annually rotating OSCE chairmanship but Russia spent months blocking it. A last-minute deal for neutral Malta to take over the chairmanship must also be formally approved at Thursday and Friday's OSCE meeting in Skopje, hosted by the current chair North Macedonia.
Poland, which hosted the last such so-called Ministerial Council a year ago, nine months after Russia invaded Ukraine, did not invite Lavrov then.
"So I decided to together with my colleagues Latvia and Lithuania and also the Ukrainian Foreign Minister not to participate in the meeting in Skopje because I think that instead of sitting there together with Lavrov around the table, Lavrov should be put on trial for war crimes," Tsahkna said.
NO 'BUSINESS AS USUAL'
The situation at the OSCE currently tends to reflect the wider diplomatic reality over Ukraine. While only Belarus regularly sides with Russia at OSCE meetings, this week's absentees worry that Western powers' commitment to supporting Ukraine is wavering.
The United States has been at pains to reassure them while arguing that the OSCE, given the various standards it upholds and which Russia has also signed up 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 U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken would only attend meetings with his North Macedonian counterpart and like-minded countries on Wednesday, leaving before the Ministerial Council 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.
Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin used a virtual meeting of the G20 to give an eight-minute speech in which he called the war in Ukraine a "tragedy" that must end soon.
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, and any meetings with countries other than staunch ally Belarus will be watched closely.
"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," Latvian Foreign Minister Krisjanis Karins told reporters at the NATO meeting.
"We also through our action we are calling attention to what we think is a fundamental problem that does need to be addressed," he added.
(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by Francois Murphy, Editing by William Maclean)