The Colombia Peace Agreement and the Paris Climate Agreement may have brought cause for celebration to the United Nations General Assembly’s 71st session, but the ongoing strife between Russia and the United States? Not so much. In the past two weeks alone, both countries managed to violate their own ceasefire in Syria and neither side is claiming responsibility for an airstrike last Wednesday that killed four UN medics near Aleppo.
As high-level meetings continue at the General Assembly this week, Russia and the US are playing the Blame Game, which was nicely illustrated at Sunday’s emergency UN Security Council meeting on Syria, where US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power called Russian meddling in Syria “barbarism” that is costing civilian lives. Power’s Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, shot back, reminding US officials of their blunder a week earlier, when US-led coalition bombers, intending to hit ISIS targets, instead killed 60 Syrian soldiers and wounded 100 more.
This back-and-forth isn’t new. “If you look at the workings of the Security Council, for example, where Russia is also a permanent member, it’s been very hard for us to make progress on some of these key geopolitical challenges and that’s been frustrating,” said Assistant Secretary of State Bathsheba Crocker at New York University last Thursday. Crocker heads up the State Department arm tasked with representing the United States in international fora like the United Nations.
“Russia has frustrated that [progress] for the past many years in Syria in particular, with the use of its veto,” she said.
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Last year, Russia’s veto power in the Security Council was widely implemented and criticized for halting resolutions on Syria that it viewed as detrimental to its relationship with President Bashar al-Assad, as well as multilateral action in Ukraine to act on Russia’s ongoing military campaign in the east of the country and its unlawful annexation of Crimea.
In turn, some diplomats came out in support of reforms that would enlarge the size of the Security Council and limit the use of veto power. Not surprisingly, Russia—one of the five permanent members of the council, along with the US, France, China and the UK—is vehemently opposed. And judging by its slow pace and perfunctory efforts to revamp the council, the US isn’t too keen on restricting its influence in the UN either.
With or without Security Council reform, it must be recognized that Russia is an important player on the global stage and a country with which the US must engage, Crocker said.
“It’s an issue in U.S. bilateral relationships which is deep and important and has been very challenging in recent years,” Crocker said, adding that, despite obstacles, Secretary of State John Kerry has remained committed to working with Russia.
Kerry has openly expressed exasperation with the Russian government. At a Security Council Session on Syria last Wednesday, he said that when it comes to Syria, Russia is operating in a “parallel universe.”
Although the State Department has lauded increased U.S. involvement and leadership in the UN under the Obama Administration, peace efforts are undermined by tensions between the two world powers,which have proved unable to strike lasting agreements that will help foster peace in some of the world’s most unstable regions.
It is also the first time in the history of the UN that both the US President and the UN Secretary-General will leave office in the same year. “It does make it feel that there is a real sort of potential for even more tumult,” Crocker said.
While in one sense this is a time of change for multilateral diplomacy, the shakeup won’t extend to all players.” I don’t think we should be expecting a transition in leadership in Russia any time soon,” Crocker added with a wry smile.
Photo from United Nations Photo (Flickr).