Russia’s annexation of Crimea is unlikely to lead to a new Cold War; Russia is simply too weak to compete on a global level. But there is a serious risk that the United Nations could revert to Cold War-era gridlock.
In the euphoria of the Cold War’s end, Presidents Mikhail S. Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush envisioned a “new world order” in which the United Nations would emerge as the guardian of global security. Even during the low points of their relationship, the United States and Russia have kept this vision alive by preserving the United Nations’ role as a convener of collective action. In recent years, the Security Council has served as a vehicle through which Washington and Moscow translated their mutual interests, however minimal, into concrete steps to address conflicts in Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, Russia is most likely to retaliate on issues like Iran, Syria and Afghanistan — three fronts where American strategy has relied on understandings with Russia to enforce nonproliferation standards and fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, has warned that Moscow might “raise the stakes” on Iran since the “historic importance” of the Crimea situation is “incomparable” to the nuclear issue. Russia could, for example, defend Iran in the Security Council or even complicate Western military planning by offering enhanced air defense or other capabilities to Iran in violation of United Nations sanctions.
Mr. Putin could also double down on his backing of Bashar al-Assad’s regime despite having brokered a Security Council agreement to disarm Syria of chemical weapons. And the Northern Distribution Network — the route running through Russia and Central Asia, which the United States uses to transport some of its supplies as it withdraws from Afghanistan — gives Mr. Putin a pressure point against NATO.
The threat of Russian intransigence in the Security Council, however, is not cause for the West to waver in the Ukraine crisis.
Instead, the United States should impose further sanctions against Russian officials, increase support to regional allies (including the restoration of American missile defense commitments and the movement of NATO forces into Eastern Europe), provide military assistance to the Ukrainian government, and arm forces willing to resist a Russian occupation of Eastern Ukraine.
Left undeterred, Russia would be emboldened to pursue absolute hegemony in the region at tremendous cost to the United Nations’ credibility and ideals — not to mention the independence of countries along Russia’s frontiers.
The risk of a potential anti-Western campaign by Russia in the Security Council also calls for heightened American engagement in Iran, Syria and Afghanistan, where modest but energetic initiatives would show Mr. Putin that the West does not depend on the United Nations alone to secure its objectives.
America and its allies could pursue bilateral talks with Iran to address nuclear issues as well as sponsorship of terrorism and human rights abuses. If there is progress, the West could eventually offer carrots such as allowing Iranian gas exports into Europe, which is extremely dependent on Russia for its energy.
Greater assistance for the moderate opposition in Syria would improve the likelihood of negotiating a political settlement in which the country’s sects and ethnic groups either share power or are guaranteed autonomy in a decentralized, federal system.
The priority Moscow places on upholding the United Nations’ legitimacy was evident in the aftermath of the 2008 war in Georgia. In private discussions, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei V. Lavrov, admitted to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Russia had intended to expand its military operations beyond the areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and oust Georgia’s democratically elected leader, Mikheil Saakashvili.
I was the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations at the time. When I revealed these Russian plans to the Security Council, my Russian counterpart, Vitaly I. Churkin, accused the United States of practicing “Trotskyite diplomacy.” After a forceful exchange, and without further escalation by either side, Mr. Putin’s government quickly decided to “normalize” matters and return to business-as-usual in the Security Council.
Tensions in Ukraine need not stalemate the Security Council. If Mr. Putin encounters sufficient American resolve, he will avoid the temptation to challenge the West in an institution that ultimately empowers an increasingly isolated Russia.
Zalmay Khalilzad was the United States ambassador to the United Nations from 2007 to 2009.