A two-day meeting of the parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has kicked off in Vienna amid harsh criticism of Russia's war in Ukraine and a boycott by Ukraine's delegation on the eve of the first anniversary of Moscow's invasion.
Austria granted visas to several Russian delegates to attend the meeting as it started on February 23, despite calls by dozens of countries for Moscow's envoys to be banned from the Vienna-based OSCE, prompting widespread criticism, including from senior U.S. lawmakers.
Ukraine and Lithuania are boycotting the gathering of representatives from the 57-member pan-European security body, which started one day before the anniversary of Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that started the deadliest and most devastating conflict in Europe since World War II.
It was the first time that members of the Russian State Duma have journeyed to the European Union in an official capacity since being sanctioned for supporting the war, notably by voting in favor of seizing the four Ukrainian territories of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhya.
The Russian delegates have faced harsh criticism from the outset, as a Slovak member delivered a statement on behalf of the boycotting Ukrainian delegation.
"They [the Russian delegates] are not here for genuine dialogue nor for cooperation. They are here to spread their propaganda," the Ukrainian statement read, adding, "They are here to try and justify the war crimes they have committed and desecrate the principles of international law and human decency."
The assembly's president, Swedish lawmaker Margareta Cederfelt, added to the criticism, saying in her opening remarks, "Today some parliamentarians are aiding and abetting the crime of aggression."
Cederfelt said she felt sympathy for "the fact that some members find it unbearable to sit in the same room as the aggressors."
But she called on participants to use the two-day gathering as "your opportunity to stand up for Ukraine and to confront the lies from the aggressors."
Austria's decision to allow the Russian delegation into the country triggered protests despite Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg's explanation that it was his country's diplomatic obligation to allow participants from member states to attend the meeting.
The previous two meetings of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly -- in July in Birmingham, England, and in the Polish capital, Warsaw, in November -- were held without Moscow's participation as both times the Russian delegation was denied visas.
Representative Steve Cohen (Democrat-Tennessee), a member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission leadership who is attending the Vienna meeting, acknowledged Austria's reasoning behind the move to allow the Russians in, but told RFE/RL on February 22 that the visas should not have been granted.
"Russia has violated every part of the reasons for this meeting to happen at all. And I think when a country goes that far, that maybe that they shouldn't be permitted."
In a separate interview with RFE/RL on February 22, Joe Wilson, a Republican Congressman who heads the Helsinki Commission, said allowing Russia to attend the meeting sends "the wrong message to the world."
The OSCE, the post-Cold War successor of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, is involved in issues such as arms control, promotion of human rights, media freedom, and the monitoring of free and fair elections.