Field operations

OSCE field operations developed out of the need to address the intra-state and inter-state conflicts that have occurred since the 1990s. The primary focus of the first missions were potential and/or actual conflicts between 1992 and 1999 in the wake of the breakup of the 15 union republics of the USSR, and the six states that composed federal Yugoslavia.


The formation of newly independent states was accompanied by violent conflicts in some formerly autonomous regions within them, which resisted integration with the central governments: in Chechnya in the Russian Federation, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transdniestria in Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, and Kosovo in Serbia. 

Violence also erupted in other new states with mixed ethnicities: particularly in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Other states tottered on the brink of collapse, torn by internal conflict, including Albania, Kyrgyzstan, North Macedonia in the former Yugoslavia, and Tajikistan. 

Between 2001 and 2007, overt violence in the OSCE region seemed to have subsided, but this was broken by a short but intense war in 2008 between Georgia and Russia, and then in 2014 the annexation of Crimea by Russia, and then a sharp turn came with the conflict in and around Ukraine. Questions about the OSCE’s effectiveness in using political commitments rather than armed forces to preserve security in the OSCE area have emerged in connection with its inability to prevent or contain the conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine, in the case when one of its participating States such as Russia has used force to advance its interests.

to use force to advance its interests. On the other hand, it is likely that the mere presence of the OSCE, especially the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (SMM), which has observed and reported on ceasefire violations committed by all parties to the conflict since 2014, and has effectively contained the conflict, prevented its further escalation and minimized loss of life. 

Generations of Field Operations

The function and focus of OSCE’s field missions and operations has changed over time. The first two CSCE field missions were the CSCE Missions of Long Duration in Kosovo, Sandjak, and Vojvodina and the CSCE Spillover Mission to Skopje, which were deployed in September 1992. The first generation of missions were set up between 1992 and 1995 in response to crisis and tasked with preventing the escalation of open conflict (Chechnya, Georgia, Tajikistan), the outbreak of violent conflicts in unstable peace situations (Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine and Minsk), or to address protracted conflicts (PRCIO and Moldova). The second generation of missions were set up in Albania, BiH, Croatia, Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro in the Balkans between 1995 to 2001 to address open conflicts, to address post-conflict security building, and were generally larger with a broader mandate. The third generation FOs were set up from 1995-2000 in Central Asia and Baku and Yerevan, and were smaller, and the latest, fourth generation FOs were established in 2014 and consist of the SMM and the Observer Mission at two checkpoints in the Russian Federation. Over time, several field operations have been closed, in other cases their mandates have been transformed, as the paradigm has in many cases shifted from missions to offices and centers. 

Creation and extension of FOs

The creation of a field operation or the extension of its mandate requires that:

  • Agreement and invitation from the host country concerned

  • The mandate is tailor-made (to the extent possible) to the unique conditions and needs of the host country 

  • The mandate delivers on comprehensive security through the OSCE’s three-dimensional concept and encompasses one or more of the OSCE dimensions

  • A mandate and budget are adopted by consensus by the Permanent Council

The OSCE’s Conflict Prevention Centre (CPC) is responsible for planning the establishment, restructuring and closure of field operations (see more on CPC below).

Field operation mandates, the crucial foundation for their work, are determined through negotiations with the host government, consultations with States, and consensus by the Permanent Council. They may be withdrawn or closed by the host government. Mandates are open-ended or time limited. They are timebound and usually cover the calendar year- are set for twelve months. Exceptions are the Mission in Kosovo, which is automatically extended on a monthly basis without a formal decision through a silence procedure, and through ad-hoc periods: the PCU, which has 6-month extensions, and the Border Observer Mission, which has a four-month mandate. The Open-ended mandates are the Centre in Ashgabat and the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office on the Conflict (PRCiO) dealt with by the Minsk Conference


The size of the FOs varies from around 20 to over a thousand staff. The largest field operation is the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, followed by the Mission in Kosovo. More details can be found in the Survey of OSCE field operations.


A Head of Field Operation (HoFO) is a position normally held by a senior diplomat seconded by a participating State (the exact title depends on the mandate). The post is at the Ambassador level. HoFOs are appointed by the Chair-in-Office (CiO) and report to the CiO (who negotiates with the host country) and the Permanent Council (PC) about their activities, since the FO mandate derives from the PC as OSCE engagements require consensual political support.

Heads of field operations and institutions meet once a year in Vienna in January, in a meeting known as the Annual Heads of Mission Meeting (AHOMM). These meetings provide an opportunity for heads of field operations, representatives of the Secretariat, the Chairmanship and institutions to take stock of OSCE activities in the field, share challenges and lessons learned, compare notes and experiences, and discuss individual, thematic and regional issues, and hot to improve the effectiveness of FO work. There are also two regional HoFO meetings – one in Central Asia and one in South Eastern Europe.

HoFOs lead the OSCE field operations and are able to act flexibly, within their mandate and budget, and to adapt to diverging priorities of pS and to changing conditions on the ground. Almost all FOs have a Deputy HoFO, who are also seconded by an OSCE pS and appointed by the CiO, who manage the day-to-day work of the FOs. They are usually responsible for coordinating the complex operating environment of the FOs, the departments, programmes, and operational work of the FO, and for providing strategic advice on the development, planning and implementation of policies, programs, administration and management, in accordance with the FO’s mandate and objectives. The Deputy also leads the FO in the absence of the HoFO. 

The FOs also have a Chief of Fund Administration (CFA), who is a contracted staff member reporting to the SG and the Secretariat’s Department of Management and Finance (DMF). The CFA ensures that FO resources are used according to all OSCE rules and policies and aligned with the OSCE’s Performance Based Programme Budgeting (PBPR). In addition to the unified budget (UB), FOs receive extra-budgetary (ExB) contributions to carry out specific projects. As the OSCE is operating on zero-nominal growth, FOs are called upon to do more with less, and need to fundraise as they rely on ExB funding for many projects. Note that the SMM and the BMSC (as a flagship project) are ExB funded. 

FO international staff are typically area/subject experts and diplomats seconded by their respective states, except for the CFA and security staff who are contracted. In addition, there are staff, citizens of the host country, who are not subject to the periods of service, and whose contracts can be extended indefinitely upon positive performance reviews. Staff include administrative, political and public affairs officers, as well as interpreters/translators, logistics/transport, security officers. The specialized functional staff varies in size and the roles performed according to the mandate of each particular FO.

The field operations work closely with the Conflict Prevention Center (CPC). CPC supports the FOs, provides them with advice on programmatic, policy, and management issues; and implements common operational and organizational practices. CPC provides mediation and dialogue facilitation, monitors political developments in the field and ensures the information flow between the FOs, the Secretariat and the OSCE Chairmanship.

The Forum for Security Co-operation Support Section (FSC)

The Forum for Security Co-operation Support Section includes the Communications Network Unit. It provides advice and practical support to FSC Chairmanships and helps OSCE participating States with implementing their commitments in the politico-military dimension through capacity-building, awareness-raising and technical assistance. The FSC Support Section also serves as the depository of all military information exchanges among the participating States. 

The OSCE’s field operations in South-Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Asia often co-operate with national governments and the FSC Support Section to conduct on-the-ground assistance in areas such as demining, the control of small arms, the safe management of ammunition depots, and strengthening chemical and biological security. 

The Policy Support Service (PSS) 

The PSS within the CPC is divided into four regional desks covering Central Asia, Eastern Europe, South-Eastern Europe, and the South Caucasus. Each desk is staffed by a team of three Policy Support Officers which provide analysis and policy advice to the Secretary General, the Chairmanship in leading all work on the conflict cycle and supporting the various negotiating formats dealing with regional conflicts. 

Additionally, each PSS regional desk team is responsible for receiving and processing all OSCE Field Office reports, oversight of monitoring, analyzing and reporting on developments in their area and the implementation of the mandates of designated field operations, assisting field operations in implementing policy guidance from the pS and the SG, facilitating the co-ordination of programmes and activities among field operations, the Secretariat and Institutions, organizing regular HoFO meetings in Vienna and in the region, and taking part in consultations with partner organizations on related issues. 

The Programming and Evaluation Support Unit (PESU) 

PESU is the primary point of contact for the CiO and pS’ delegations on programmatic and project management matters in relation to the Unified Budget (UB) process, as well as the Extra-budgetary contributions from pS. PESU is responsible for the Organization’s Results-Based Management framework and policy development, in line with recognized international standards. It advises the OSCE and field operations on implementation of programme and project management as well as Performance-Based Programme Budgeting (PBPB) in the field and by its institutions and Secretariat. Effective programme and project management requires efficient planning, proper implementation, monitoring and evaluation. The CPC defines and implements the OSCE’s management methodology/tools and builds the capacity of staff through training and coaching activities on strategic planning, programme management, project management.

The PESU team is responsible for programmatic aspects related to donor relations, and the design as well as the evaluation of Extra-budgetary (ExB) projects. This role is designated by the OSCE’s Financial/Administrative Instruction #4 on Extra-Budgetary Contributions (FAI 4) and requires that all approved ExB projects meet certain criteria.

Additionally, the PESU team’s assessment process allows for shared accumulated experience among the field operations, institutions and the Secretariat. It also provides institutional memory, ensuring that records are kept, important lessons learned, and that knowledge is passed down through the Organization despite turnover of Secretariat and FO mission personnel.

The Operations Service (OS) 

The Operations Service is broken out into four thematic units: 

  1. The Planning and Analysis team is tasked by the SG and pS as the CPC body responsible for planning and implementing OSCE field missions in line with requirements outlined by OSCE mission mandates agreed on by the Permanent Council. This includes operational logistics, creating standard operating procedures (SOPs) and all other operational requirements to meet the OSCE field mission mandate. It is also responsible for planning the establishment, restructuring and closures of field operations. It also identifies best practices and lessons for the improvement of field operations. 

  2. The Mediation Support Team provides support and advice to OSCE senior officials in its protracted regional conflict mediation efforts. Mediation is provided through a combination of instruments: CiO and his/her Special/Personal Representatives and Envoys (Transdniestrian Settlement Process (Moldova), Geneva International Discussions (Georgia), Minsk Process (Armenia-Azerbaijan/NK)), Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine), and the FOs and OSCE Institutions. 

  3. The Security Sector/Governance Reform (SSG/R) Team focuses on the OSCE principle that states are the primary providers of security to their citizens and that good governance and how states apply security provision, management and oversight are key factors in security stability in the OSCE area. Implicit is that the security sector must be subject to the same standards of good governance as any other public sector and that it should provide security to citizens in an effective and accountable way, within democratic civilian control, rule of law and respect for human rights. The SSG/R team approach to reform takes into account the linkages between all the three OSCE dimensions of security (politico-military, economic and environmental, and human) in its work. The work of the SSG/R team is an integrated part of the OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security. 

  4. The Situation/Communications Room (SitCom) is responsible for early warning and for keeping the OSCE informed about events and situations at all times. The Sitcom provides 24/7 crisis support and monitoring. It tracks emerging and ongoing crises, receives all OSCE emergency and regular communications, and produces daily reports and special reporting (Ukraine Crisis, Afghanistan security, Cyber/ICT security, VRELT and Migration Crisis updates.
 The SitCom acts as the primary link between the FOs and the OSE during “silent hours” and is the Point of Contact for Emergencies and Medical Evacuation and Notification of Casualty (MEDEVAC).
Role of FOs

The OSCE’s field operations are key to the work of the organization, they promote regional stability and security by assisting host countries to put their OSCE commitments into practice and fostering local capacities through concrete projects that respond to their needs. Ministerial Decision No. 3/11 on elements of the conflict cycle, related to enhancing the OSCE’s capabilities in early warning, early action, dialogue facilitation and mediation support, and post-conflict rehabilitation was adopted in 2011 to strengthen OSCE capabilities in early warning, early action, dialogue facilitation, mediation support and post-conflict rehabilitation on an operational level. It also urges pS to implement the UN Security Resolution on Women, Peace and Security UNSCR 1325 by ensuring increased representation of women at all levels in conflict resolution and peace processes, for more sustainable peacebuilding.

The FOs are the OSCE’s primary tool for addressing elements of the entire conflict cycle, they help promote regional security and stability based on the OSCE’s comprehensive and co-operative approach to security. This OSCE approach to security is closely tied to the four stages of conflict regulation: 

  • early warning

  • conflict prevention

  • crisis management

  • post-conflict rehabilitation

Field operations are flexible and can be nimble, can work where other international organizations (IOs) are slower to respond or stuck, they continue their focused work away from the political heat at the PC, and are witnesses, the eyes and ears on the ground. Every CiO has sought to address the most pressing issues from the protracted conflicts in the region. 


The focus of OSCE field operations is on implementing all three dimensions of comprehensive security. OSCE FOs’ mandates vary, are tailor made, and their wide range of activities focus on aspects of OSCE’s three dimensions in keeping with the organization’s comprehensive approach to security. 

FOs maintain their traditional focus on the conflict cycle, including conflict prevention and work with the CPC to support dialogue and co-operation and confidence-building measures (CBMs) to build trust between parties to conflicts. 

Globalization has increased world-wide economic interaction and greater contact, but it has also facilitated environmental degradation, corruption, organized crime, as well as violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism (VERLT) on a global scale.

In the first dimension FOs address transnational threats, which often come from non-state actors, such as terrorism, drug trafficking, migrant smuggling, arms control of the illegal arms trade, especially the spread of small arms and light weapons (SALW) - which kill more people every year than weapons of mass destruction.

OSCE field operations promote economic connectivity, trade, transport and good governance including anti-corruption, in economic and environmental activities in the second dimension, and to combat money laundering. 

In the third dimension, the Human Dimension, the FOs focus on the promotion of democratic practices, on elections, strengthening the rule of law, justice reform, media freedom and development, work to uphold human rights, tolerance and non-discrimination, and to address hate crime.

FOs also work on cross-dimensional issues such as Cyber/Information Communication Technologies (ICT), to ensure gender mainstreaming, the inclusion of youth, democratization, migration, and to combat and prevent trafficking in human beings. 

Project work

FOs support the capacity of the host countries through concrete projects that respond to citizens and their needs, to facilitate reforms and political processes, at the request of the host states. These include initiatives across all the OSCE dimensions to support community policing, promote tolerance and non-discrimination, minority rights, rule of law and legislative reform, press freedom, fight corruption and border management, as well as many other areas. Field operations partner with local and national agencies and institutions, civil society, as well as with other international organizations in order to coordinate efforts and mutually reinforce impact in areas of shared engagement. The OSCE builds networks of professionals to work more efficiently against terrorism, smuggling of small arms and light weapons, and trafficking in human beings.


Field operations keep the OSCE community informed though monitoring and reporting on a daily basis. Field operation reports include regular: Activity Reports-which may be daily, weekly, bi-weekly, monthly or bi-monthly depending on the field operation, Spot Reports, Background or Thematic Reports, and Incident Reports. Reports from field operations are as a rule classified as “OSCE Restricted”, meaning that they are not for general distribution outside the OSCE. The capacity of FOs to provide analytical reports are vital for further planning. The FO reports are crucial to keep the OSCE informed about developments and are the principal method of conveying information from FOs to the CiO, delegations and the OSCE Secretariat.

HoFOs report to the Permanent Council as a rule once a year, apart from Kosovo and Moldova, who report twice a year. The Chief Monitor of the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine and the Chief Observer of the Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk report to the PC on an ‘as-needed basis’.

Delicate position

Field operations are in a delicate position in their efforts to promote cooperative security and manage interdependence in the country where they are working. FOs must ensure that their activities are carried out on the basis of a common agreement and mutual understanding. Over the past 10 years, increasingly States with field operations have associated the presence of FOs with stigma, as if their status as a State is unequal in an organization predicated on equality and consensus. FOs are always mindful of their mandate, and position situated between a host government and civil society, as well as the governments of pS/delegations in Vienna, where pS hold different positions on these issues and reflect them vocally in and outside of the PC. While human rights groups in a country may complain that the OSCE is not being sufficiently forceful in representing their grievances and pressing their demands, host governments may become irritated with the perceived involvement of OSCE FOs into what they consider to be the internal affairs of their own country. 

The OSCE remains neutral and impartial as it establishes contact and dialogues with all sides of a conflict. The presence of OSCE field operations ensures that mediators are familiar with the situation on the ground as well as having possibilities to liaise with local actors. Owing to its quiet diplomacy that operates outside the limelight of international media, the OSCE is accepted, flexible, and particularly effective in situations that are deadlocked and politically sensitive.

OSCE officials and personnel, who must support OSCE commitments and principles to the fullest extent possible while respecting the sovereign rights of the host government, must carefully balance all of these demands. The perceived failure to do so may cause the state hosting the mission to deny the OSCE access or may cause other pS to oppose renewal of their mandates. 

Since the renewal of mandates requires a consensus decision by all participating States, the failure to renew means that a mission must be closed down, even if its continued existence is supported by an overwhelming majority of participating States, and even the state in question. This is unfortunately what happened with some of the OSCE Missions in the South Caucasus.