Russia’s Weak Bargain?: Invoking the Indivisible Security Principle


Huseyin Oylupinar

Academic Adviser for Eastern European Affairs,

Foreign Policy Institute


“Our possibility to get [security guarantees] is not exhausted,” said Sergey Lavrov on February 14, 2022, at a meeting with Vladimir Putin, signaling that diplomacy yet not consumed. While Europe appears to be on the verge of war and all focused on military capacities and deployments of Russia and Ukraine, many have lost sight of a new Russian diplomatic charge.

I observe that the Russian diplomats’ defense of their demand for security guarantees from the west follows a cut-stone homogenous narrative that leaves no flexibility for negotiation. Nevertheless, Russian foreign policy strategists habitually search for an internationally-agreed concept or norm to use as a basis to jolt and confuse the professedly value-laden political rhetoric of the western countries, which they perceive, articulated to criticize and tame Russian aspirations. Such Russian diplomatic moves also create the false impression that policy-makers in Moscow are spending diplomatic efforts to communicate on the basis of international norms.

Being one in many of such Russian jolting attempts, this new one comes with occasional references to “indivisibility of security,” arguing that the west is violating the principle by supporting Ukraine and keeping NATO door open, which, thereby, makes Russia insecure. This latest Russian “diplomatic” effort hinges upon how Russia diplomatically charges forward unless military commanders replace diplomats. Focusing on the Russian invocation of the indivisible security principle, scholars, experts, and diplomats can envisage what comes next between Russia on one side, and the NATO allies on the other.

Let us have a look at the principle of “indivisibility of security”. It appears once in the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (1975), and once in the Charter of Paris for a New Europe (1990). The formulation in 1990 is as follows: “Security is indivisible and the security of every participating State is inseparably linked to that of all the others. We therefore pledge to co-operate in strengthening confidence and security among us and in promoting arms control and disarmament.” The concept appears only once in the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security (1997): This time the formulation is somewhat awkwardly different: “Proceeding from the principle that the security of all states in the Euro-Atlantic community is indivisible, NATO and Russia will work together to contribute to the establishment in Europe of common and comprehensive security based on the allegiance to shared values, commitments and norms of behavior in the interests of all states.”

In its “diplomatic” attempt, the Russian administration does not appeal to the documents above. However, refers to these two following documents of OSCE: The Istanbul Document of 1999, where the “indivisible security” is strikingly mentioned nine times. Nevertheless, a particular principle, marked in bold, is invoked frequently by Sergey Lavrov and his diplomats while they appeal to the principle of “indivisibility of security.”

Each participating State has an equal right to security. We reaffirm the inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance, as they evolve. Each State also has the right to neutrality. Each participating State will respect the rights of all others in these regards. They will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other States. Within the OSCE no State, group of States or organization can have any pre-eminent responsibility for maintaining peace and stability in the OSCE area or can consider any part of the OSCE area as its sphere of influence.

The second document that the Russian administration refers to is Astana Commemorative Declaration towards a Security Community (2010). This document has five mentions of“indivisible security,” and this particular one comes with the principle of respect for human rights and fundamental rights attached to the concept of “indivisible security”:

We reiterate our commitment to the concept, initiated in the Final Act, of comprehensive, co-operative, equal and indivisible security, which relates the maintenance of peace to the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and links economic and environmental co-operation with peaceful inter-State relations.

None of the documents elaborate on what precisely the “indivisible security” means or should be understood.[i] Yet, the contexts within which the concept appears to suggest a principle that the security of a signatory state is linked with the security of every other signatory state. Therefore, cooperation between states is argued to be essential on shared values that are binding in the documents. Eventually, perception of the security is such that the insecurity in or of one participating state can affect all negatively through the board, and insecurity can take over the entire signatory state geographies.

Let us now step back and explore the motives of the Russian administration in invoking “indivisible security”. At this time of high tensions in international politics, pro-Ukraine countries, in defense of Ukraine’s hypothetical NATO membership, refer, much to the dislike of Russia, to the norm that a country can freely choose and join alliances. When viewed from the traditional balance of power perspective, a country joins an alliance to protect itself from a powerful, dominating state or alliance. Within the same spirit, it is an essential and characteristic feature of the current state system to sanctify and protect state sovereignty and territorial integrity. More so, if suffering an unprovoked attack, a state seeking allies and joining alliances are justified and serves the most fundamental norm of the international system, i.e. state sovereignty and territorial integrity. This essentiality is anchored in the UN charter stipulating that the states “shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”

Nevertheless, Russia’s unprovoked land-grabbing of Crimea and effectively keeping Donbas under its control has violated the basic norms of the international system to which Russia has committed. Ukraine, a country that lost parts of its territory to a dominating regional hegemon, turns to other countries and establishes a partnership with an alliance (that is NATO) to balance the threat, avoid complete submission, and further dismembering of its sovereign territories. Russia, on the other hand, denying the fact that it has violated the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, takes a diplomatic refuge in another norm set in stone within the OSCE documents in regulating the interaction of states, the indivisibility of security, to counter-argue Ukraine seeking membership in a defense alliance.

Ukraine’s yet not projected, uncharted, and rather presently unreal membership in NATO appears for Russia that the indivisibility of security is violated simply because Russia feels insecure with Ukraine’s seeking alliances and support of partners against a country that effectively invades and dismembers parts if its sovereign territory.

Russian administration propagates that the allies and partners of Ukraine are conflicting themselves as they deny the “indivisibility of security” principle while defending Ukraine’s right to join alliances. It looks diplomatically amateurish to invoke “indivisibility of security” while having occupied parts of a neighboring state and deploy 130.000 strong army on the borders of that country. Yet, do not get deceived. It is not that Russian diplomats are amateurish, this is a conscious diplomatic strategy to give the impression in international circles that Russia is a norm-upholding state and tries to communicate with the west on those terms. This is also a “logical” continuation of the Russian denial of the fact that they are militarily, politically, and economically involved in the formation and survival of the so-called LNR and DNR, and the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. As a peacemaker (!) and an arbitrator (!) in Donbas helping Ukraine resolve its “civil war” and a protector (!) of Russian speakers in Crimea, Russia considers itself entitled to invoke indivisibility of security.

This is a strategy that certainly will not provoke diplomatic communication or a discussion, and is essentially not aimed to be so. Once refused, refuted, or ignored by the west in invoking indivisibility of security, the Russian administration will use the grounds to defend that the “west” is refusing diplomacy, undermining international norms, and alienating Russia to the point that Russia is forced to resolve the question beyond diplomatic tools.

[i] Russia is a signatory state or inherited the responsibility of the signatures placed by the USSR in all of the documents mentioned here.