Vitaly Churkin, permanent representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, attends an Aug. 30 U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.
Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, is a well traveled and educated man. He holds a doctorate, speaks four languages and has spent a lifetime representing his country’s interests in all kinds of interesting places and diverse forums.
But if history is any guide, to be a successful Russian ambassador to the United Nations you really need only learn to say one word, again and again: “no.”
In the last year, Russia and China have used this word to effectively put the brakes on any serious U.N. sanctions or action against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Russian-led vetoes are proof of the country’s influence, but have also served to neuter the entire international body and caused some to question the point of even having a United Nations.
In the 67-year history of the United Nations, Russia has cast more veto votes than any other Security Council member. Its 128 vetoes account for nearly half of all vetoes in the council’s history, more than the number cast by the United States and Great Britain combined.
While the veto gives Security Council members outsized power, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that Russia’s love affair with the no vote actually weakens the country’s standing and takes entire council’s influence down a peg as well.
“Russian power, in many respects, is reflected through their capability of having the veto in the Security Council,” Albright told us. “But ironically, what it does is make the Security Council less relevant. … By just doing a block, they take themselves out of having a leadership role in multilateral diplomacy.”
George A. Lopez, a professor at Notre Dame specializing in the U.N. who also served on the U.N. Panel of Experts for Security Council sanctions on North Korea from October 2010 through July 2011, said he thinks that the vetoes in and of themselves do not weaken the council any more than the “frequent vetoes of the U.S. protecting Israel.” But he added via email that “the vetoes have sparked more and more critique from mid-level U.N. nations, many of whom would be on the council permanently themselves if the council was reformed to reflect in its membership and voting the more accurate global balance of power and influence. So there is greater impatience, cynicism, and symbolic actions at the General Assembly level due to these vetoes.”
The vetoes also can have negative, unintended consequences for Russia. “The time that was very difficult with the Russians was over Kosovo,” said Albright. “We wanted to have a U.N. mandate for the atrocities we were finding.” The then-secretary of state didn’t want to produce a resolution that would only be batted down by the Russians in the Security Council (“I didn’t want us driving into a cul de sac on this”) so she took a trip to Moscow.
Once there, the Russians “made it clear that they were going to veto anything we brought forward.”
Albright and then-President Clinton were forced to take the issue out of the Security Council and into a venue where the Russians effectively had zero leverage: NATO.
The outcome was exactly what the Russians had been hoping to avoid with their threatened veto, a victorious NATO bombing campaign in the Rodina’s backyard.
Why do the Russians veto more than any other Security Council member state? Lopez thinks that when it comes to recent history, it comes down to a difference in philosophy.
The Russians, and to some extent the Chinese, both claim that “they are trying to save the council from doing what it should not, and is prohibited in International law, from doing — intervene in a civil war by taking sides with rebels. Moreover, they claim, the over-zealous actions of the U.S. for Israel and the U.S.’s new attitude toward ‘revolution’ and the overthrow of long-time leaders … must be resisted if the integrity of the U.N. and the Security Council as ‘neutrals’ is ever to be saved.”
Albright said that Russia isn’t always a nay-sayer, despite its historic voting record. The Russians, she said, “have been quite helpful on Iran” possibly because “people are genuinely nervous of the direction that the Iranians are going in. … People are concerned of the potential of Iran being a nuclear power.”
She said that initially she saw the possibility of Russia playing a more positive role, that they saw themselves as part of the solution as opposed to just the blocking aspect of it. But she said the Syria problem is more complicated than the one Iran presents, given that the Russians have had a long and close relationship with al-Assad and they have a naval port in northwestern Syria, on the Mediterranean.
Still, said Albright, on Syria the Russians “are betting on the wrong horse.”