At U.N., Russia Is Now the Indispensable Nation.
By Richard Gowan, March 2, 2015,
Is Russia a rogue power bent on ripping up the international rulebook? Or is it a master of diplomatic brinksmanship with an uncanny knack for turning multilateral negotiations to its advantage? Commentators in the United States and Europe increasingly fear that Moscow is set on a destructive course. Yet Western diplomats at the United Nations are frequently impressed by their Russian counterparts’ maneuvers.
|Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov |
addresses the Security Council,
Last month, the Russians pulled off two small diplomatic coups in the Security Council. Shrugging off tensions over Ukraine and Syria, they initiated a resolution in early February aimed at cutting off funding to the so-called Islamic State (IS) and other Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq. If Moscow was trying to signal that it could still play nicely at the U.N., it was also warming up for a bigger and more controversial diplomatic bid.
On Feb. 13, the Russians tabled a resolution supporting the so-called Minsk II agreement on a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine agreed with France and Germany the day before. While this looked like another conciliatory gesture, it had distinctly unpleasant overtones.
While the council discussed the draft text, pro-Russian forces continued with the bloody siege of Debaltseve, ignoring the cease-fire. By the time the council adopted the resolution on Feb. 17, Russia had effectively shown off its ability to rewrite the terms of the deal. Moreover, as Security Council Report, a think tank that follows U.N. diplomacy closely, observes, Russia ensured that the resolution made no mention of its annexation of Crimea or its proxies’ disregard for a previous cease-fire signed in Minsk last September.
The Western members of the council had refused to dignify that earlier agreement with a resolution or even an official statement. They may have calculated this time that it was necessary to play along with Moscow to improve, however marginally, the chances of Russia actually honoring the cease-fire. Refusing to pass a resolution would have both allowed Moscow to claim that Kiev’s friends in the West were trying to obstruct peace, and offended the French after President Francois Hollande personally engaged in the Minsk talks.
It is unlikely that Russia’s recent resolutions will have major long-term consequences. U.N. sanctions are only a small, if useful, part of the international campaign against IS. And the fate of the latest Minsk deal will be decided in the Kremlin, not in the Security Council chamber. But this little spurt of Russian diplomatic activism also sent an important, but possibly deceptive, message about Moscow’s continued readiness to work through the U.N. with the U.S. and the West.
This was a rare positive message in a period when, despite President Vladimir Putin’s decision to negotiate with the French and Germans over Ukraine, Moscow has been showing off its military capacity to threaten NATO more generally. In simple terms, the Russians appear to be saying, “We can threaten your territory with nuclear war, but we can cut multilateral deals at the same time.”
But is Russia really interested in using the U.N. as a strategic framework for balancing its relations with the West, or is its behavior merely tactical posturing?
Early in the Syrian war in 2012, I argued that the Security Council was Russia’s “last bastion of power in the international system” thanks to its veto power there. Even this looked like a waning asset. Russia had threatened military action against Kosovo in 1999 and opposed the Iraq invasion in 2003, but the U.S. and its allies resorted to force in both cases anyway. Moscow also waived its veto over the Libyan campaign in March 2011, instead abstaining in the vote authorizing a no-fly zone.
The Syrian crisis offered Russia a last chance to show that it could shape events at the U.N., and it has done so mercilessly. Moscow has sunk a series of Western resolutions targeting Damascus yet managed to reinsert itself into the diplomatic game every time, mainly be persuading the U.S. that the two powers could still work in tandem.
The Russians gave nominal support to Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi’s various efforts to end the conflict, yet only applied a minimum of pressure on Damascus, effectively rendering the two U.N. envoys’ efforts worthless. Moscow did step forward to negotiate a deal with the U.S. over the Syrian chemical weapons crisis in 2013, and acquiesced to Security Council resolutions demanding humanitarian access to the country last year. But it has consistently been unwilling or unable to turn these limited deals into the basis for any more general cease-fire or peace deal.
Moscow might claim that events on the ground in Syria have vindicated this obduracy. With global attention now focused on IS, the U.S. and European governments have grudgingly accepted that the Syrian government is likely to stay in place. U.N. officials have been trying to negotiate a limited cessation of hostilities in Aleppo on the regime’s terms. This accords with Russia’s vision of how to end the war. And while Syria will ultimately emerge as a brutalized wreck, Moscow’s friends are still likely to cling onto power.
So in contrast to its apparent weakness at the U.N. just three years ago, Russia is now in a comfortable position in New York. It has “won” over Syria, or at least shown that it can stymie the West in a major crisis. It has managed to get the U.N. to back its diplomatic strategy in Ukraine, despite widespread doubts over the long-term credibility of the Minsk II agreement. By being helpful over IS, it has indicated that it can still find common ground with the West on shared dangers.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made just this point on a visit last week to the Security Council, where he once served as an ambassador. In a speech on the state of the U.N. charter, he complained at length about U.S. efforts to use the U.N. to “rubber stamp” its interventions in cases such as Kosovo and Libya. But he closed by noting that terrorism was one threat that could be “resisted collectively.”
Western diplomats will presumably want to find more opportunities to work with Russia at the U.N. on terrorism, although Moscow’s efforts to assert itself in its neighborhood may eventually make even this level of cooperation unsustainable. But for now Lavrov can take satisfaction from the fact that while Russia is explicitly challenging the bases of the international order, it is still an indispensable power at the United Nations.
Richard Gowan is research director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His weekly column for World Politics Review, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.