Monday 13 February 2012

Russia's Syrian Veto

Joanna Christou

Russia vetoed the UN resolution on Syria, provoking widespread condemnation. Washington Post

On February 4th, Russia and China vetoed a United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution which would have condemned the Syrian government’s violent crackdown on its people and backed the Arab League’s plans to end Bashar al-Assad’s regime and promote elections. Condemnation of the veto has been loud and clear, particularly - but not exclusively - from the West. Hillary Clinton said the veto was a ‘travesty’, William Hague called it a ‘great mistake’, while the head of the Arab League branded it ‘unacceptable’.  Publicly, Russian officials have claimed the reason was the lack of forethought on how to deal with armed opposition groups. But when considering the background factors two things become evident. Firstly Russia is protecting its interest and secondly its foreign policy is still swayed by a Cold War-esque mentality which pits Russia against the US.  
In many ways, perhaps the veto should not come as a surprise. The Russian regime itself has a strong history of cracking down on dissidence, with Chechnya representing the most violent instance. And while the condemnation of the UN-led strikes on Libya last year were more muted, Russian unease with the situation was apparent. It abstained on the vote which authorised all necessary measures to be used in Libya, and later on was vocal in criticising the UN of overreaching its mandate. 
Obviously financial interests are also a big part of the equation. Arms trade represents a large source of income for Russia, which has delivered an estimated US$4billion of arms to the Syrian regime, while its overall investments in the country are estimated at US$20billion. Beyond this, Syria is an old Soviet ally and in recent years the Kremlin has been keen to hang on to old friends. This factor conceals another, perhaps more important reason behind the Russian stance on Syria, namely its persistent paranoia over the US-led international order.
Admittedly, the word paranoia is a strong one, but it does seem fitting when one takes into account the rhetoric currently emanating from Russian officialdom. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov branded western reactions to the Syrian veto as ‘bordering on hysteria’. And now, Putin has openly accused the US of inciting the Russian protests. All of this points to a little more than just a deep distrust of the west.  Yet, it is the Kremlin’s policies which give the clearest indications of its perceptions of the world.
Since Putin’s accession to power, and continuing with Dimitri Medvedev, Russia has constantly sought closer ties with the Middle East which has been viewed as an effort to curtail US dominance. The Kremlin has links with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and arms deals with Syria, Palestine and Iran. Arms deals have represented an important source of trade with other states including China, Venezuela and India – all of whom aside from the latter have complicated relations with the US to say the least. In fact, Russian co-operation with Iran on nuclear matters has often drawn the ire of the West. Beyond this, in the last decade or so Russia has persistently sought to impose its dominance in its neighbourhood. Its military operations in Georgia in 2004 and the gas wars with Ukraine are apt illustrations. In fact, when at the Munich security conference in 2010 Vladimir Putin openly criticized the US of trying to establish a ‘unipolar’ world, with ‘one master’. There was no clearer an indication of Russian feelings. This all points to a Cold War-esque mentality which is influencing Russian foreign policy. 
Since the Sino-Russian veto bloodshed has ensued in Syria. This image is from the besieged city of Homs. Sky News
So, it is obvious that the Kremlin is uneasy with the US’s dominance. This leads us to another question, what should the West, particularly the UK, be doing in order to ease Russian fears and to promote a less aggressive Russian policy? 
UK-Russian relations have not been smooth sailing in recent years, with the extradition disputes surrounding Boris Berezonsky, the espionage saga (including the involvement of a somewhat comical spy rock) and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London, all having caused very public tensions. William Hague’s open criticism of the Syrian veto is now but another example. 
Obviously Hague’s reaction is justified and represents continuity in British policy regarding humanitarian interventions, with operations in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya all having been supported by the UK. Quite tellingly, Russian support was overt only in the case of Afghanistan. The common denominator here is the US-UK special relationship and their constant support for one another’s policies, which must only heighten Russian perceptions and anxiety. What this highlights is a growing need for western states, the UK included, to connect with Russia on a bilateral basis, outside the auspices of fora such as the Security Council which only add another layer of mistrust and paranoia to the mix. 
David Cameron’s trip to Moscow late last year was a step in the right direction. Security, trade, investment, science and innovation were identified as key areas for co-operation. What is needed is growing engagement in these areas and continued co-operation at a bilateral level and now is a perfect time. The Arab Spring has startled the Kremlin and has already brought the downfall of old allies (Mubarak and Qaddafi) and problems at home. Engagement on a one-on-one basis would allow the Russians to feel like an equal partner and help dispel fears of growing isolation whilst slowly building trust.
Ultimately, the Russian veto on Syria is regrettable. While the bloodshed continues, Lavrov is in Syria attempting to negotiate a transition to power mirroring the failed efforts of Turkey just a few months ago. The fact that Russia has gone against the Arab League’s wishes in this whole fiasco is but another indication that its perceptions of the world are influencing its policies. It is now time for the UK to start dealing with Russia alone on a more regular basis with the simple aim of re-building ties and instilling some trust in what is a relationship with a great deal of baggage. This could eventually result in, at least, some reasonable debate and, at best, growing co-operation on the issues that really matter.

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