Russia’s Eventful Security Council Presidency

This month Russia takes over the Presidency of the UN Security Council, with Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin at the helm. From a Russian perspective, the timing of their turn at the President’s seat is auspicious. This month’s agenda will be dominated by Ukraine and a question over how to best deliver humanitarian aid to Syria.    

So far, it’s been an eventful presidency, mostly for the verbal sparing that has ensued.  Some observers are noting a degree of hypocrisy in Russia’s seemingly conflicting stances on these two issues.

Churkin invoked loaded phrases like “humanitarian corridor” and said “my colleagues need to respect the fact that the fighting is going on in populated areas” as reasons for the UN Security Council to quickly pass a resolution on Ukraine. He also has warned his colleagues that it was “grave mistake” for them to encourage Kiev to resolve their situation through use of force, sighting “very dramatic reports” from eastern Ukraine.  If that tone and language is familiar, it should be.  It is the same language that has been used for the past three years by the USA and Europe as they pushed for a resolution on Syria.

The irony was not lost on anyone, as one reporter asked “isn’t that hypocritical?” and Churkin simply barked back, “No!”  

As is their right, Churkin more than hinted that Russia would veto — for the fifth time —  a resolution on Syria, this time on the cross border delivery of humanitarian assistance. Russia’s logic on the Syrian border crossing issue is flawed, at best.  Churkin notes that “not only are you requiring Syria should give up sovereignty over its borders, but also its neighboring countries” like Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq.  Churkin stressed that before drafting a resolution based on Chapter VII, it should be decided “whether, in fact, it is going to improve the situation on the ground.”  

It is frustratingly clear that a humanitarian corridor would improve the situation on the ground, but Churkin and Russia are arguing semantics by claiming “Chapter VII [in this scenario] is not about cooperation, it’s about imposition” and that ‘cooperation’ is required by the host country.  

Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, countered Churkin by saying, “If you look at situations where there have been Chapter VII resolutions to enable humanitarian aid [like in Libya and Bosnia], they have tended to be resolutions that have been about the establishment of no-fly zones or the use of force to enable humanitarian operations.”  The draft resolution for Syria would not be as unprecedented as Russia cautions.  It can be argued that it is as essential as it was in Libya and Bosnia and crucial to regional stability given the millions of refugees.   (Of course, this is probably why Russia is so opposed to a Chapter VII resolution on Syria–Moscow does not want it to be a backdoor way for the West to intervene militarily on behalf of the Syrian opposition.)

In the midst of this stalemate over humanitarian access to Syria, the French have floated an interesting proposal: eliminating the veto for resolutions relating to humanitarian aid. This is actually a compromise because Russia would not get to veto the Syria draft, but other western countries would not get to veto Moscow’s Ukraine resolution. The French proposal is one of the most aggressive moves to get Russia on board but it was greeted with a firm “nyet” from Churkin who flatly refused to engage in the ‘deal’ with his Security Council colleagues.  

So, unless something changes under the Russian presidency of the Security Council we are not likely to see much movement on two of the most important global crises — but this is not exactly a surprise to most UN observers.