The Russian Federation truly is the successor state of the Soviet Union when it comes to working the levers of the United Nations to its benefit. From its position as a permanent member of the Security Council, it gains both the prestige that comes with such a lofty place in the international system and a platform to tweak the great powers of the world whenever it wants.
For months, Russia been reluctant to expand “humanitarian corridors” to deliver aid in Syria amid the fierce fighting occurring daily. Earlier this year, Russia did begrudgingly join the rest of the Security Council when it unanimously agreed to pass a resolution demanding that the Syrian government allow unrestricted access of aid workers to deliver food, medicine, and other crucial supplies. But the resolution was watered down from its original version. And in the months since, the Council has heard repeated reports of Syria’s refusal to adhere to the terms of the resolution, with no sign that Russia wants to pressure Syria to do better.
At the same time, Moscow has been urging the United Nations to take stronger action in Ukraine. Since the crisis began, Russia has called several emergency meetings to discuss the issue, despite evidence that they’ve been fueling the violence. Russian ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin went further on Monday when he introduced a resolution “demanding parties establish humanitarian corridors in order to allow the civilian population who wish to do so to leave safely the areas of hostilities and ensure the unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in South-Eastern Ukraine.”
If you’re confused by the disparity between these positions, you’re not alone. And Russia is more than fine with that. Moscow’s decision that it likes humanitarian corridors so much that it was going propose humanitarian corridors of its own in Ukraine — despite the fact that in Syria literally millions of people have been forced to flee their homes and rely on aid for their survival, whereas in Ukraine the effect of the violence there has had a comparatively minimal impact — is part of Russia’s willingness to jab at its fellow Security Council members whenever possible. The Russian mission would say that it’s pointing out hypocrisy; outside observers would more likely call it trolling.
In introducing its new Ukraine resolution, Russia has come up with yet another diplomatic situation in which in either outcome, it can say that it won. For months now, Moscow has argued that Kyiv has either lost control of its countrymen or that the interim government is launching unwarranted attacks against the oppressed Russian-speakers in the east. If the full Council approves the resolution and its calls for ending hostilities, Russia has scored a messaging win. If the resolution fails, however, Churkin can say that the West is no better on Ukraine than Moscow is Syria — especially if that failure comes in the form of a veto. While this would be a false equivalency, it’s one that Moscow would have no problem promoting.
The Russian Federation’s move on Ukraine comes amid the latest push to ensure that millions of Syrians receive the humanitarian aid that they desperately need. In his latest monthly report on the implementation of February’s resolution, which observers have read as calling for the delivery of aid without the Syrian government’s consent, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called on the Council to “urgently consider what steps it will now take to secure compliance with its demands.”
In response, members of the Council drafted a new resolution on Syria, one that would “authorize deliveries into Syria at specific points from Turkey, Iraq and Jordan to reach millions of Syrians in opposition-held areas.” The draft from Australia, Luxembourg, and Jordan, diplomats said last Thursday, would be under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which clearly makes Council resolutions binding on U.N. members. But Russian foreign minister — and former U.N. ambassador — Sergey Lavrov on Monday made clear to reporters that when it comes to Syria, while aid is always up for discussion, “these issues must not be politicized or used as a pretext to inflame passions and mobilize public opinion in support of the need for foreign interference in the Syrian crisis.”
Lavrov continued to dump cold water on the prospects of the new draft resolution, subtly reminding the listeners of Russia’s ability as one of the permanent members to veto any proposal before the Council. “These attempts are made primarily by trying to include citations of Chapter 7 … in Security Council decisions,” he said. “I think that is unacceptable, because we know what plans those who make such proposals have.”
“This is just a tease,” Richard Gowan, head of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation said of the Ukraine resolution in an email to ThinkProgress, agreeing that “Russia is deliberately mimicking Western ideas for corridors into Syria as part of a broader strategy to equate the two conflicts.” Gowan pointed to similar Russian appeals to humanitarian principles in the past, such as raising the lives lost during NATO’s bombing of Libya to distract from Syria in 2011.
Russia also just so happens to be the President of the Security Council for the month of June, taking up the title that rotates alphabetically among the 15 members. Speaking to reporters in his first press conference of the month on Tuesday, Churkin continued to insist that the two resolutions had nothing do with each other. “We do not oppose any corridors anywhere,” Churkin said. “In fact speaking about Syria we’ve been advocating local peace arrangements which are exactly about this – about stopping fighting in a given area and allowing people to travel for humanitarian purposes, allowing humanitarian assistance to come in.”
The arrangements to which the ambassador was referring were put into place to stop the fighting in the Old City of Homs, one of the areas the civil war has most ravaged. That deal, however, has been criticized as the result of the Syrian government’s starvation tactics and is seen by Western members of the Council as a poor model for future negotiations.
Despite its canniness, Russia’s latest move on Ukraine does have the potential to backfire. “Since the beginning of the crisis, Russia has been struggling to present the situation in Ukraine as a humanitarian crisis, in which Russian speakers are in particular danger,” David Bosco, an assistant professor at American University, told ThinkProgress in an email exchange. “This gambit is consistent with that effort, but it runs the risk of highlighting Russia’s isolation on the Council.”
This could lead to a renewed tit-for-tat between Russia and the other permanent members, Gowan warned. “If Moscow forces the West to veto a resolution on Ukraine, the US and Europeans may push back with a tough resolution on Syria that Russia will then have to block,” Gowan said. “It is tragic to see humanitarian aid turned into a big power football like this.”
Russia’s stance on Syria is well-documented, given the fourth veto it recently issued over the conflict. And the ability and efficacy of Russia’s diplomats to influence decision-making has been well-noted in in the past and this goes without mentioning the fleet of actual Internet trolls Moscow has begun gathering lately. But it’s really the determination to plow forward with its own framing of an issue, an endless determination to poke and prod at the West whenever possible, and the constant reminder that it remains a force to be reckoned with militarily, that keeps Russia in the running as the international community’s top troll.