Russia’s Veto Diplomacy

The overuse of veto rights — such as blocking three United Nations Security Council resolutions on Syria — has reduced Russia’s international standing and contributed to its growing isolation. Unless the Kremlin becomes more pragmatic and softens its dealings with other nations and institutions, the country will see its influence further erode.

Last month, Russia and China angered Western and Arab countries by vetoing a Security Council move to impose economic sanctions on Syria if Bashar al-Assad’s regime failed to implement an international peace plan. In February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized an earlier veto by Russia and China of a resolution condemning the Assad regime’s crackdown on its own people as a “travesty,” and said that “friends of a democratic Syria” would take action. They have, and now Russia is at the margins of international planning for a post-Assad future and assistance for Syria.

Russia has sidelined itself before. In 2011 the Kremlin opposed international military action in Libya to protect civilians and aid opponents of Muammar el-Qaddafi. (Vladimir Putin, then the country’s prime minister, likened the effort to a “medieval call for a crusade.”) During the lead-up to the war in Iraq, Russia’s drawn-out support for Saddam Hussein in the face of his regime’s growing international isolation alienated many Iraqis. In neither country today does Russia enjoy much gratitude or influence.

Negative diplomacy has harmed Russia elsewhere. In 1999, it vetoed U.N. authorization of military action to force the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, leaving NATO to intervene to halt Slobodan Milosevic’s repression of the province’s ethnic Albanians — over the Kremlin’s vehement objections. More recently, Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, which President Putin admitted last week was preplanned, and its recognition of the “independence” of the separatist areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, aroused widespread condemnation.

By preventing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from working in the rebellious North Caucasus, Moscow forgoes a valuable tool to foster reconciliation in a region that presents a rising threat to Russia’s territorial integrity.

Moscow’s use of natural gas exports as a political weapon against Ukraine and Belarus has caused European customers to see Russia as an unreliable supplier and pursue alternatives. Abuse of the former Russian pipeline monopoly has caused Caspian energy producers to find alternative ways to reach world markets.

Other powers employ negative diplomacy, but without isolating themselves. Although the United States has vetoed more U.N. Security Council resolutions since 1972 than any other permanent member, often to forestall criticism of Israel, Washington maintains good ties with moderate Arab states. China is also not reticent to exercise its veto power, but a substantial economy and rising foreign aid and investment ensure that Beijing retains broad influence.

Russian diplomacy is not all negative. Moscow encourages efforts to avert the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, such as cosponsoring the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. Russia also facilitates logistical support for NATO forces in Afghanistan. On the Arctic Council — which includes the United States, Canada and other Arctic coastal states — Moscow cooperates on environmental and scientific research, conservation and maritime search and rescue efforts. And it supports the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea as the basis to resolve boundary disputes in the resource-rich Arctic Ocean. Long ambivalent about the World Trade Organization, Russia has finally become a member, the last large economy to join.

What separates Russia from China and other powers is the weight of negative diplomacy in its overall foreign engagement. Since resuming the presidency in May, Putin has reinforced this direction, perhaps most notably by his continued support for the increasingly brutal Assad regime. Not surprisingly, these and other actions have left Russia with a diminishing list of friends.

There is no question that the world community would benefit from a strong, more cooperative Russia. Moscow in turn could increase respect for Russia’s international status by building democracy, strengthening its economy, forging mutually beneficial ties with others, and emphasizing the tools of soft power. In the international climate of the 21st century, even the greatest powers can achieve their goals only by attracting allies and partners. Russia is no exception.

Denis Corboy, a visiting senior research fellow at Kings College, London, served as European Commission ambassador to Armenia and Georgia.William Courtney served as U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia, and special assistant to the president for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia. Kenneth Yalowitz served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.

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