OpinionsRussian diplomacy at the UN: From international challenges to...

Russian diplomacy at the UN: From international challenges to regional crises

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The United Nations has long been the scene for great power rivalry. This certainly holds truth when looking at recent Russian diplomacy at the UN. On the 2nd of November 2021 Russia decided not to sign the Global Methane Pledge  that was proposed as part of the UN COP26 summit in Glasgow. In his press conference US President Joe Biden was critical of both Russia’s and China’s no show at the climate summit, as was UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who nevertheless stressed that this does not necessary mean a complete disengagement on behalf of world leaders such as Vladimir Putin.

On the same day Russia’s UN diplomats criticised the West for their decisions to extend the mandate of the High Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Russia’s position at the United Nations was highly critical of the appointment of Christian Schmidt, suggesting that ‘Demonizing Serbs appears to be the policy of some external parties’ and ‘calling for an equitable discussion on ways to end that outside trusteeship’.

Also in November, at the height of the Belarus –Poland migration crisis, Russian diplomats at the UN were against the West’s criticism against the Belarusian position in this crisis. Russia defended its ally against what several countries at the United Nations called an ‘instrumentalization of the migrant crisis.’ This condemnation came as no surprise considering the established positions that Western countries have taken against Russia and its allies at the United Nations. The institutional organization of the Security Council nevertheless, this time again like in many conflicts between Russia and the West, left the former in the position of delivering a toothless declaration that prevented any real action to defuse the crisis.

COP26: International diplomacy and interested foreign policy

The final pledges of COP26 include commitments to curb climate change through addressing deforestation, phasing out coal and the use of fossil fuels as well as cutting methane emissions by 2030. As the Secretary General highlighted at the end of the COP26 in Glasgow, consensus to address these pressing challenges was of utmost importance. But was consensus between the biggest industrial countries responsible for climate change actually achieved? Take for example the methane deal that has emerged out of COP26. Prior to the summit the United Nations Global Environment Programme had published a Global Methane Assessment which sought to identify ways of mitigating the cumulated effects that such emissions have on climate change. The report identified varied mitigation potential across countries and sectors with ‘The largest potential in Europe and India is in the waste sector; in China from coal production followed by livestock; in Africa from livestock followed by oil and gas; in the Asia-Pacific region, excluding China and India, it is coal and waste; in the Middle East, North America and Russia/Former Soviet Union it is from oil and gas; and in Latin America it is from the livestock subsector’

Despite this, Russia was not a signature to the Global Methane Pledge an initiative that had been put forward by the US and the EU. With an economy highly dependent on the production of oil and gas that amounts to most of methane production around the world, Russia alongside China and India were reluctant to endorse the US-EU led commitments. Whilst Russia agreed to address deforestation, the lack of consensus on such an important aspect such as methane emissions contributed to an outcome document that the Secretary General Antonio Gutierrez described as illustrative of ‘the interests, the contradictions, and the state of political will in the world today’.

Thus if judging Russian diplomacy at the Glasgow summit this ca be summarised as engagement by other means, a type of interested foreign policy that seeks to benefit from traditional and no-traditional allies at the UN.

Bosnia: great power rivalry in the UNSC

It only takes to look at the tandem diplomacy between Russia and China on one specific dossier – namely the long-standing issues of the regional conflict in Bosnia and specifically the vote that has been carried out towards the extension of the EUFOR mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Dayton Accords in 1995 that provided for a single sovereign state composed of the Serb-populated Republika Srbska and the Croat-Bosniak Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The implementation of this agreement has been overseen by the Office of the High Representative of the EU under EUFOR since 2007, also currently known as Operation Althea.

What was supposed to be an annual vote for the extension of the mandate of the multinational force was thus not rid of challenges from Russian diplomacy at the UN. Despite the mission ultimately being renewed on the 3d of November, prior to this both Russia and China had been opposed to this. This is not the first time when Russia seeks this position at the UN, Russia having pursued a similar stance in 2014, when it sought to abolish this position due to the effects that the maintenance of EUFOR have on pushing BiH towards EU and NATO integration.

Following the designation of Mr Christian Schmidt as High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the 22nd of July Russia and China have initiated a draft resolution before the UNSC, proposing the gradual abolition of the Office of the High Representative. Almost a month earlier, in the debate on the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina held on the 29th of June by the UNSC, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya expressed his discontent regarding the choice of Mr Schmidt as candidate. Citing a lack of transparency in choosing the candidate as well as lack of consensus among the Bosnian sides on Schmidt’s candidature he stressed that: ‘The name of the only candidate, who appeared out of nowhere, was confirmed by the Steering Board right away without any kind of discussion. The Board also chose to ignore the views of not only the Russian Federation but of all the Bosnian sides. A logical question has therefore emerged: can we begin work on national reconciliation by provoking an inevitable conflict that threatens to compound the existing differences among the various entities?’

With the Russian-Chinese resolution failing to be voted a new resolution proposed by France on the 3d of November resulted in a watered-down version of the initial proposal that lacked any references to the Office of the High Representative. The support of Russia and China for the adoption of this resolution, followed another debate in the UNSC where Christian Schmidt was not present to deliver his report on BiH before the UNSC. This came amidst on-going criticism from Russia against the West that suggested that the situation in BiH is exacerbated by its protectionist attitude and the external interference in Bosnia, specifically through the functions of the Office of the High Representative.

Russia’s position towards the Bosnia dossier in the UN Security Council is particularly interesting, considering its own challenges. Confronted with its own criticism when it comes to conflicts over sovereignty in the post-Soviet space, Russia has nevertheless made it clear , referring to Western powers in Bosnia that there was a ‘lack of desire to step outside of the image of a guardian of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who has a right to dictate to the Bosnians how they are to build their state and how they are to govern their country.’

Beyond these political commentaries, what mattered was the fact that Russia could rely on the support of China in influencing the extension of the mandate of EUFOR, thus showing the importance of maintaining international allies at the UN as well as the importance of technicalities such as the membership of the UN Security Council, when it comes to escalating or defusing crises. But what happens when the UN cannot act (due to such technicalities) to address purely regional crises such as the migrant crisis at the Belarus-Poland border?

The Belarus – Poland migrants crisis: A regional crisis and a weak international response

Thus, if looking at a third recent dossier, the lines of divisions between Russia and its UN allies and western powers seeking the legitimacy of UN bodies to draw attention to regional turbulences such as the Belarus- Poland migration crisis were very clear. Western nations were yet again in a weak position.

In a Joint Statement delivered by the Permanent Representative of Estonia and supported by Albania, France, Ireland, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States stressed that: ‘This tactic is unacceptable and calls for a strong international reaction and cooperation in order to hold Belarus accountable’ and ‘demonstrates how the Lukashenko regime has become a threat to regional stability.’

The response of Russian diplomacy only exacerbated the blame game against the West and especially the European Union, hinting that it is actually western nations that are responsible for this crisis. The Russian Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Anna Evstigneeva expressed concern that the EU in this case like in many others is using ‘double standards’ and should take responsibility for its own actions, suggesting that in this case a solution can only be found through a dialogue on the same footing between the EU and Belarus.

Russia and multilateral diplomacy

These specific dossiers are illustrative of Russian engagement in multilateral diplomacy, showing various traits that are characteristic of Russia’s foreign policy. They each show the specific interests that Russia is pursuing through its diplomacy at the United Nations as well as the way in which it acts together with various allies that Russia has in UN diplomacy.

In order to understand this aspect the current composition of the Security Council is particularly relevant. Apart from the fact that Russia is one of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, usually benefiting from support from China – another permanent member on important votes – the addition of India as a non-permanent member of the Security Council has brought more weight to Russia’s position at the UN, especially on the climate change dossier.

And proof that the Russia-China-Indio trio was not solely a show of force against the West at the climate summit are both the pursuit of diplomatic actions by Russia outside the UN towards the consolidation of its strategic relations with India as well as we have seen- its actions in tandem with China on various regional and international crises that require responses from the Security Council.

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