From Soft Security to Hard Security in the Black Sea Region – Does the osce Fit?

In: Security and Human Rights
Hanna Shelest Director of Security Programmes, Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism”, Kyiv, Ukraine,

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The article analyses the security transformation in the Black Sea region through the prism of threats and approaches flux, making an additional focus on the osce role in the regional security affairs. It comes from the assumption that whereas security threats have been evolving, demonstrating its fluidity in terms of the soft and hard power perspective, the osce remained with the realm of 1975 in terms of its approaches towards the Black Sea security. The main research questions are: How has security perception changed in the Black Sea region for the last three decades? Whether the osce is a security actor in the Black Sea region? Can resilience-building be a smart security response to the current challenges?

Transition of Security and Threats

The world in general, and the Black Sea region in particular, has witnessed a transition of security threats. First, it refers to issues of securitisation – which security challenges we prioritise. Second, it is a question of threat identification – whether they are covered by the soft or hard security domain. Security is in flux and so are the threats. Bearing this in mind, the turmoil of the Black Sea politics in the last 30 years is a perfect sample for analysis. It demonstrates both how hard security, which had been undermined by the soft security challenges, has been evoked again without being properly addressed by the littoral states and international organisations, and how different security threats are transforming and flowing between the hard and soft security domains.

This article will look at the transformation of security perceptions in the Black Sea region, their transition from the soft security domain to the hard security and vice versa. Based on this, we analyse how the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (osce) fits this transformation process and what type of power it may represent in the region. Our hypothesis is that within the last decades the osce, which unites all countries of the region, has not transformed itself in response to the existing changes in security needs. It continues looking at the Black Sea security from the 1975 European security order perspective, prioritising dialogue over international law, so allowing itself to be trapped. Even more, it prefers to concentrate on soft security when countries of the region experience hard security threats. As the osce is involved in all conflicts in the Black Sea region and is usually the first reference point in times of a crisis, it is important to study whether it can adequately respond and meet the expectations of the participating states.

However, as “expectations” is a subjective notion, and it derives from perceptions and misperceptions, as well as constructed realities, we will need to start from the “security” understanding in different regional states. Still, we will conclude with a reflection on the smart security approach based on the resilience concept, which could be a way out from the current osce state of incompetence in the Black Sea region. Hence, the main research questions will be: How has perception of security changed in the Black Sea region over the last three decades? Is the osce a security actor in the Black Sea region? Can resilience-building be a smart security response to the current challenges?

As Mary Kaldor states: Security is an ambiguous term that can mean both an objective, say safety from violence, and an apparatus ranging from military forces to locking doors.1 But except for the general ambiguity of the term, certain cultural and linguistic particularities emphasise different characteristics of what we mean under the security. The Russian and Georgian languages are coming from the negative basic condition: the existence of threat and danger. The Russian language refers to security as “bezopasnost”, literally meaning “without danger”, as do the Georgian synonyms of “usaprtkhoeba” – “without threat” and “ushishroeba” – “without danger”. The Ukrainian language uses the word “bezpeka”, the meaning of which has a different resonance – “without troubles”, containing the same roots as words “light-hearted”, “guarantee”, “unconcerned”. The same meaning is found in the Bulgarian language “bezpechen”. If the Russian envisages an adversary presence or dreadful conditions, so Ukrainian and Bulgarian emphasises the condition of comfort and safety, a certain carefreeness. The Turkish “güvenlik” also has more positive attitudes in its associations being correlated to words “trust” and “confidence”. What is interesting is that Turkish language usage of the words in the meaning of “security” has changed within the 20th century from “mudafaa” (in the meaning of defence, confrontation against an attack) to “güvenlik” (having the roots in “feeling confident”, “courage” and “safety”, so transforming from the confrontational to more positive construction.2 The Romanian language “securitate”, same as English “security” or its variations in other Romance and Germanic languages, is derived from Latin, so bearing a meaning of “free from care”.

While at first sight, these considerations sound purely linguistic-academic, they have nevertheless align with the mental map and decisional patterns seemingly followed by policy makers in the Black Sea region and their perceptions of security. Attempts of the littoral states to create a security community within the region, emphasising issues of confidence, state of safety and comfort, were faced by the Russian perceptions, which were based on unconscious fears of the possible attack to be defended against or strike first to prevent what had been seen as a possible escalation. This perception of security, described above as a necessary state of opposing the adversary, affected the Russian view of regional security. After the end of the Cold War, it still needed to have an “adversary” against which to consolidate its security instead of searching for mutually cooperative conditions, and nato became this “adversary” again.

The Cold War era prioritised the hard security stand-off between the Warsaw Pact and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (nato) in the Black Sea region. While nato had not seen itself as a part of the Black Sea region, it still could project its military power via Turkey due to its littoral status and control over Bosporus. The changes to the security situation due to the Soviet Union collapse somehow transformed this perception of security among politicians and experts, but not completely. The last decade of the 20th century witnessed two parallel processes. On the one hand, there was a rearrangement of forces, as Russia and Ukraine were dividing the Black Sea Fleet, while Romania and Bulgaria searched for nato membership. All this was seen as a continuation of the hard security priority in the Black Sea.

On the other hand, despite the eruption of conflict in Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, the rhetoric and political discourse about the region had been moving towards a soft security agenda. These conflicts were addressed predominantly through confidence-building measures or tackling issues like trafficking, human rights, transnational organised crime, etc. The launch of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (bsec) facilitated this transition, as the new regional arrangement lacked any security component and social-political challenges received their overmastering attention.

What Merje Kuus writes about the Baltics is also true for Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region – since the second half of the 1990s, “security has become framed not in “hard” military terms but in “soft” societal stability and quality of life terms3”. Step by step, the ideas of human security prevailed in political discourse. Political stability, human rights, energy, and societal security became the main topics of consideration. The resolution of the so-called “frozen conflicts” was seen predominantly through a human security prism rather than a classical military stand-off. The Russian-Georgian war of 2008 did not influence the situation significantly; it influenced the perceptions of security in the region even less. The August War was mainly seen as a continuation of the early 1990s developments without long-term consequences, just as a crisis within a protracted conflict.

The securitisation of the soft-security issues was a trademark of the 2000s. Energy security, organised crime and trafficking, environmental challenges, political stability – all were named among the top priorities of the security agenda for the Black Sea region. Energy security at some point de facto drifted from soft security to hard security domain. Such issues as organised crime and trafficking have been seen as the most challenging threats. The eubam mission established in 2005 on the Ukrainian-Moldova border was aimed to deal with smuggling and trafficking as main challenges due to the unresolved Transnistrian conflict.

Merje Kuus debates that “One could indeed argue that security concerns have not contracted, but have expanded as security has been reconfigured into a “soft” societal stability issue”.4 However, later history demonstrated that beyond this expansion, the regional countries actually turned their attention away from the classical security concerns. It is difficult to find a solid political analysis in the 2000s – early 2010s about military or navy balances in the Black Sea region, national security strategies or military doctrines analysis. This problem concerned both littoral states and the third actors.

The 2014 Russian military actions in Crimea resulted in its occupation as well as later developments in Donbas and the Black Sea – Azov Sea militarisation. These events returned the regional discourse to the old pattern of the “hard security” prioritisation. Since November 2018, after the illegal capture of three Ukrainian navy boats near Kerch, the situation has deteriorated further, when principles of the safety of navigation and respect for the international treaties have been undermined, while provocations in the maritime domain became more frequent.

Buzan and Hansen, in their “The Evolution of International Security Studies”, pointed out that the term ‘security’ came to supplant terms like ‘war’, ‘defence’ or ‘strategy’ only after 1945 in both policy-making and academic circles.”5 The Black Sea region witnessed an opposite process after 2014 when the security terminology was supplanted by a defence one. This is clearly manifested in the national security doctrines and concepts of the Black Sea states, but also in the increased number of military exercises, where the scenarios have been clearly identifying development in defence capabilities. For example, Ukrainian strategic documents adopted in 2014–2020 demonstrated a clear return to the issues of protecting territorial integrity and sovereignty of the state as a priority, emphasising defence and military security contrary to the societal security priority stressed in the 2000s. However, the 2020 National Security Strategy of Ukraine was already developed in such a manner to combine both state and human security as top priorities and interdependent categories.

In 2016, the authors of the “Hybrid Peace” report6 wrote that “For too long, nation-states have relied on military forces as the main tool of security harking back to an era when territory changed hands through military force”. Their study proposed a change of tactics to deal with cultural and societal issues that could bring peace and conflict resolution. The problem with this concept for the Black Sea region is that attempts to accommodate such a strategy without comprehending that there are still states that may consider the use of military force for territorial change or to secure their spheres of influence, will lead to misunderstanding and affect their preparedness to develop defence instruments and capabilities for self-protection.

Moreover, within the last seven years, we can also examine the transition of threat perception – what was in the soft security “basket” has transferred to the hard security one. Cybersecurity and information security no longer belong solely to technical or political domains. Due to the manner in which cyber instruments and information operations are used, they are identified as “weapons” in the latest versions of the military or national security doctrines of European states. For example, in its 2015 Military Doctrine, Ukraine named cyberspace as the fifth domain of warfare.7 So cyber and information security threats came to a hard security domain. At the same time, energy security left the hard security discourse.

The term ‘lawfare’ started to be used more often regarding the Black Sea. The information security component has dominated the so-called hybrid war discourse for some years. However, manipulations with the international law, or the use of it with the aim to create a security concern, is what we can observe increasingly often in the Black Sea region. The illegal restriction of navigation,8 “war of exercises”,9 attempts to legitimize the occupation of the territorial waters – all their manifestations were packaged around legal norms and international treaties’ clauses that were not created for use in such a manner. For example, in April 2021, Russia announced the closure for navigation of the foreign navy and other state vessels in a certain maritime zone 24/7 until October. While having such a right legally under the unclos in case of, for example, military drills, the suspension of innocent passage must nevertheless be temporary under the Convention. The combination of a closure that extends 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for six months is not considered temporary.10

This fluidity of threat perception led to the situation where hard security and soft security challenges become so interconnected that one cannot separate them. The covid-19 pandemic demonstrated a clear example of such transformation and interconnection. As Vedika Rekhi writes, “There is unprecedented volatility in the global security structure with a lack of international cooperation to tackle the crisis. Newer geopolitical rivalries have cropped up, and the concept of national and international security today is undergoing a massive transformation.”11

Moreover, the different cultural (linguistic) identifications of security unconsciously influenced policy formulation and threats perception in the region. While some countries have been trying to create conditions in which they feel safe and comfortable (for example, increasing cooperation with international organisations that could bring this “safety”), others have been concentrating on real and imagined threat countermeasures. Whereas Turkey proposed the launch of the Black Sea Harmony Operation and Romania initiated the Black Sea Forum, the Russian Federation named nato enlargement as a threat to its national security.12

osce and the Black Sea Region

The role of international organisations in the security domain varied within the last decades. None of them had a clear regional strategy for the Black Sea region. Even the EU “Black Sea Synergy” (2008) cannot be considered to be one. Moreover, except for the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization (bsec) and the BLACKSEAFOR (the Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Group established in 2001), none of the other European organisations or initiatives covered the Black Sea region. Despite the littoral states being nato and EU members, these organisations considered the region to a greater extent as just their neighbourhood. The osce, compared to the other two regional organisations, encompasses all regional states but is still seldom perceived as a regional player.

An important question remains whether there is any role for the osce in the Black Sea region. To answer it, we should start by defining what type of power the osce represents, especially when we talk about the Black Sea region. It definitely does not represent a hard power despite the word “security” in its name. Regardless of the priorities set in 1975, the later instruments such as the Vienna Document, or participation in conflict resolution, the osce lacked the main tools for persuasion and accountability of its participating states. The inability to enforce the Istanbul Summit decision about Transnistria, the failure to secure a presence in Georgia after the 2008 Russian-Georgia war, the powerlessness to ensure the monitoring of the security situation in Crimea and the Sea of Azov demonstrated inconsistency between principles and instruments of the organisation’s work.

What the authors of the Berlin Report wrote in 2016 about the EU is also true about the osce today: “Hybrid Peace is what happens when 20th-century peace-making is applied in contemporary conflicts. […] Up to now, the EU has focussed on top-down peace-making, humanitarian assistance and post-conflict reconstruction”.13 The osce, instead of dealing with the conflict resolution and searching for ways to restore territorial integrity and sovereignty of the states or at least openly condemn acts of their violation, restricted its role to be the external observer and monitor, undermining its value for the participating states. So, when the countries of the Black Sea region had been returning to the hard security threats discourse, the osce remained within the soft security domain, emphasising political stability, elections security, and human rights, leaving territorial integrity on the backstage.

The normative power of the osce has also been decreasing in the Black Sea region. One of the reasons is an inability to apply this power, to control the fulfilling of the obligations taken by the participating states. The best example of such an inability is the 1999 osce Istanbul Summit Declaration,14 particularly its Article 19: “Recalling the decisions of the Budapest and Lisbon Summits and Oslo Ministerial Meeting, we reiterate our expectation of an early, orderly and complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova. In this context, we welcome the recent progress achieved in the removal and destruction of the Russian military equipment stockpiled in the Trans-Dniestrian region of Moldova and the completion of the destruction of nontransportable ammunition. We welcome the commitment by the Russian Federation to complete withdrawal of the Russian forces from the territory of Moldova by the end of 2002”. In 2021, the Russian troops and arms stockpiles are still in Transnistria, significantly affecting the situation on the ground and the peace process. The osce has not been able to monitor the ammunition destruction fully, thus giving many reasons for experts to claim that the destruction did not occur as announced, in addition to those stockpiles that remain in Cobasna, which Russian still refuses to withdraw or destroy.15

The situation worsened recently with the new round of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in autumn 2020 when the osce was de facto excluded from the peace process. The Minsk Group co-chairs format, which had already been weak, as the three co-chairs predominantly had their own tracks regarding the conflicting parties and the conflict management process, appeared unprepared and dysfunctional for coping with the crisis development. After the ceasefire agreement negotiated by the Russian Federation, which included the deployment of Russian peacekeepers, the role of the osce in the security configuration in the Caucasus is tending to be irrelevant.

The Russian-Ukrainian case also gives substantial examples regarding the decrease of normative and operational power in the region. Excluding the Donbas situation and the Special Monitoring Mission (smm) work there, one can analyse the Black Sea perspective. For example, although the osce smm mandate covers the whole territory of Ukraine, the osce has not managed to perform monitoring of the Crimean Peninsula and the Ukrainian territorial waters, where a lot of provocations have happened. The Mission office in Odesa deals with ethnic rights monitoring or environmental concerns – the issues important for the general osce activities, but not the special monitoring status that originated in the March 2014 Permanent Council Decision. At that time, some concerns of the Organization referred to the post-revolutionary developments and possible spill-over effect from the Crimean situation, so the launch of the office in Odesa was justified. After seven years, the security challenges have evolved, but have not been reflected in the mission mandate or operational presence.

The first two tasks stated in the osce smm mandate, according to the above-mentioned Permanent Council Decision, are: Gather information and report on the security situation in the area of operation; Establish and report facts in response to specific incidents and reports of incidents, including those concerning alleged violations of fundamental osce principles and commitments.16 Despite numerous incidents in the Ukrainian territorial waters, including the Sea of Azov, smm still concentrates its activities solely on the land domain. As Deputy Minister Dzhaparova stated: “Since the osce smm in its activities adheres to the principle of ‘we report what we see,’ the theme of the occupation of Crimea and its consequences is not adequately reflected in the mission’s reports. The smm also does not have the proper technical equipment to monitor activities at sea and the corresponding fixation of specific restrictions on freedom of navigation in the Azov-Black Sea region”.17

Reaction to the November 2018 Kerch Strait incident also demonstrated the weak potential of the osce capacities in terms of the Black Sea security supervision. At their annual osce Ministerial Council meeting, Foreign Ministers failed to take any concrete measures to de-escalate the Azov Sea crisis, despite a joint plea by osce Secretary General Thomas Greminger and osce Chairperson-in-Office, Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi,18 expressed in the National Interest article.

One of the osce problems is that it prioritises dialogue over international law in its rhetoric. Appeasement went first ahead of principles. In the above-mentioned article, two diplomats called “for both sides to show restraint and demonstrate diplomatic wisdom. The safe release and return of the detained Ukrainian ships and crew would be a critical first step.”19 There is no word in the article about Russian violation of international law, no word about the annexed status of Crimea, no word that Ukrainian ships were not violating any international norms by sailing from one Ukrainian port to another one, and that incident happened in neutral waters (the Russian misdoing was later confirmed by the respective decision of the Hamburg Tribunal20). Undermining the right of the state to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity, allowing them to neglect the principles of the international law or to use treaties’ clauses selectively, weakens the osce position as a security actor rather than facilitate a consensus search.

It would be easy to say that due to the consensus principle, there is no possibility to introduce decisions that would reflect the security situation in the Black Sea region because the Russian Federation can block them. Such issues as the militarisation of Crimea, the Black Sea environment challenges due to the attempted annexation, idp rights in Georgia and Ukraine, language and minority rights, not-withdrawn Russian military forces from Transnistria, borderisations in Georgia – to name just a few – are those issues that were regularly reported at different levels within the osce structures not only by Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine but also by many partner states. These issues are perfect examples of the security threats transition from the soft to the hard security domain that we described in the first part of the article. Moreover, from the Black Sea region, only the Transnistrian and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts got some attention within the recent osce Ministerial Council decisions. If, as the Secretary-General stresses: “The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe can provide a wide range of tools to reduce risks, prevent incidents, de-escalate tensions, rebuild confidence and prevent any conflict,”21 why has been no search for the proper instruments that could have a positive impact on the above-mentioned problems in the Black Sea region?

As Mary Kaldor describes, “Each [security] culture involves a specific set of components – these are defined as narratives, indicators, rules, tools, tactics, forms of finance, and infrastructure.”22 She extrapolates this to four types of security culture – geo-politics, new wars, liberal peace, and the war on terror. While the basic assumption could be that the osce in the Black Sea region should come from the “liberal peace” security culture that envisages global stability as the main narrative, peace agreements as rules, and peacekeeping and peace-building as tactics, in reality, the main narrative of the geopolitical culture – deter major war – is dominating, as well as a priority to state-to-state diplomacy. At the same time, not having the “tools” of this type of security culture – namely regular military forces, advanced weapons systems, economic sanctions – the osce has an operational dissonance between vision, goals, and tactics.

Continuing to look at the Black Sea security from the 1975 security order perspective, the osce can trap itself. When the security threats transform, it is possible to adhere to your principles but to re-evaluate your approaches. In the case of the osce’s activities in the security sphere in the Black Sea region, it appears that the approaches remain static, while the principles adapt.

Soft Security – Hard Security – Smart Security

The question still remains: how, in these turbulent and volatile conditions, can security be increased in the meaning of Turkish and Ukrainian languages’ understanding – as a state of confidence and comfortable conditions? As risks are becoming less and less predictable, it is almost impossible to be in a state of total defence or constant readiness. Building resilience as an asymmetric response to the evolving threats that undermine both soft and hard security in the region can be seen as one of the possible solutions.

While the osce has been actively using the word “resilience” in its communication, there is no clear strategy or at least basic requirements set from the institutional perspective. Does it take a more security-oriented approach as nato or a more societal-oriented one as the United Nations? It remains unknown.

The resilience concept in its current framework aims to respond to both the state and human security needs. According to the 1994 Human Development Report, “The list of threats to human security is long, but most can be considered under seven main categories: economic security; food security; health security; environmental security; personal security; community security; political security23 “or what later turned into the concept of three freedoms – freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom to live in dignity. When correlating this list with the existing resilience-building approaches (e.g. nato basic requirements), we can say that it tries to incorporate both state and human security, as their interconnection in terms of new challenges becomes more feasible.

nato is another security actor in the Black Sea region that is developing its resilience concept with a focus on the region. So, it is worth studying the Alliance’s baseline requirements, stated at the 2016 Warsaw Summit, and cross-check where the osce can be an actor facilitating the Black Sea resilience as well. Hence, nato’s requirements for civil preparedness include: 1) assured continuity of government and critical government services; 2) resilient energy supplies; 3) ability to deal effectively with the uncontrolled movement of people; 4) resilient food and water resources; 5) ability to deal with mass casualties; 6) resilient civil communications systems; 7) resilient civil transportation systems.24 nato refers to Article 3 of its founding Treaty: “the Parties, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack”25 as a starting point to conceptualise “resilience.” At the same time, the osce lacks such a conceptualisation.

The Helsinki Final Act does not contain a single occurrence of the words “resist” or “resilience” in its text. Neither Charter of Paris for a New Europe (1990) nor Istanbul Summit Document (1999), nor Astana Summit Declaration (2010) use these terms or consider the concept, even if basic requirements for a resilient society by their spirit are closer to the osce priorities rather than nato ones.

When in June 2021, nato emphasises that, “The foundation of our resilience lies in our shared commitment to the principles of individual liberty, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law”,26 it resonates with the osce Strategy to Address Threats to Security and Stability in The Twenty-First Century presented in 2003, where “Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law is at the core of the osce’s comprehensive concept of security. […] it is clear that the osce’s comprehensive approach to security, covering the politico-military, economic and environmental and human dimensions retains its full validity and should be maintained and further strengthened”.27

At the same time, whereas nato-EU cooperation on building resilience is happening, no such cooperation has been announced between nato and the osce. The Alliance defines its cooperation with the osce as “Allies attach great importance to the role of the osce in fostering dialogue, building trust, and upholding the rules-based international order…. the two organisations play complementary roles in building security and maintaining stability in the Euro-Atlantic area”.28 The osce, in turn, defines this cooperation as occurring in the following spheres: “Combating transnational threats, including terrorism and cyber threats; Border management and security; Disarmament; Small arms and light weapons; Confidence- and security-building measures; Regional issues; Exchange of experience on the respective Mediterranean Dimensions,”29 As we can see, neither resilience nor the Black Sea region is among the priorities of their cooperation.

Since the announcement in 2003, the osce response to security has not changed significantly – “The overall capacity of osce to identify, analyse and take co-ordinated action in response to threats needs to be further consolidated. More attention should be paid to the early warning functions in the Secretariat, institutions and field operations, and follow-up to early warning should be strengthened”.30 At the level of the strategic concept, the osce remains in the 1970s. While threats are developing and transforming, the osce rests with the same set of priorities and instruments. Whereas a comprehensive approach to security embraced in the founding and strategic documents would allow for smooth adjustment and transformation of response approaches, nothing like this has happened. Monitoring and reporting, conflict negotiations and arms control – all envisage a reactive approach. Early-warning and good governance development can be seen as preventive but still insufficient.

The osce became a hostage of its own rules in the Black Sea region. When existing conflicts required reference to the main principles of the osce, it was not able to go further than monitoring and reporting functions, thus diminishing its own authority in the region. Resilience-building, which concentrates on the issues well-developed within the osce structure, can become an essential strategy for the institutional reconsideration of its own role in regional security. However, to present an added value, the osce should audit its ability to secure international norms and principles adherence by its participating states and minimise the risk of manipulation with the international law.

Resilience can become a necessary smart security element where the osce will be able to find its role in the Black Sea region configurations. Since both concepts are making a step ahead of the classical division between soft and hard security threats and responses, they may be important for a better response to the security challenges of the present and the future. If security is in flux, the response mechanisms should also be adequate and flexible. In the cybersecurity sphere, we cannot foresee all possible viruses due to their constant evolution, but we develop a system under which the network will recover quickly and smoothly with minimal damage. So too should be the approach in the hard security sphere.


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M. Kuus, ‘Security in Flux: International Integration and the Transformations of Threat in Estonia’ in Demokratizatsiya, No. 11, 2003, p. 575.


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