In the years of crisis and decline that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, three things enabled Russia to hold on to its status as a great power. The first was the large stockpile of Soviet nuclear weapons that confirmed it as America’s only serious counterpart for the purposes of strategic arms control. The second was its natural abundance of oil and gas that provided a platform economic recovery in the boom years that coincided with Vladimir Putin’s first two terms in the Kremlin. The third was the decision to recognise Russia as the legitimate successor to the Soviet Union in its role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Although conveniently forgotten by those who argue that the West took advantage of Russia when it was weak, the willingness of the other P5 countries to ignore the letter of the UN Charter in Russia’s favour set the stage for the recovery of its global influence in later years. It meant that Russia would continue to belong to the exclusive club of veto-wielding powers, giving it an automatic right of consultation in any major international crisis and a large measure of impunity for its own actions. Just imagine how different some of the signature crises of the last quarter century would have been without the Russian veto – the Balkans, Iraq, Georgia, Syria and Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, Russia’s official foreign policy doctrine lists the maintenance of the UN as “the principal organisation regulating international relations” as one of its top priorities.
The goals of Russian policy-makers at the UN have changed significantly over time. In the early post-Soviet years there was continuity with Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision of strategic partnership with the West. That started to change in 1994 when Russia used its first substantive veto to block stronger international action in Bosnia. A greater willingness to assert Russia’s separate national interests evolved under Putin into an open challenge to the post-Cold War security order based on a rigid defence of sovereignty. Perceiving the West’s democratic interventionism to be a threat, Russia insisted that the principle of non-interference should take precedence over the UN’s mission to defend human rights and maintain international peace and security.
That priority has now been supplement with another. With the seizure of Crimea, the proxy war in Eastern Ukraine and now military action in Syria, Russia has arguably become the most interventionist member of the Security Council. The goal of containing Western ‘adventurism’ is therefore matched by the need to stifle criticism of its own interventions. One consequence of this is that the Kremlin has exercised its veto power more often since 2011 than in the three preceding decades, most recently to block an international tribunal to prosecute those responsible for shooting down of Flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine last year.
The emergence of a more competitive and antagonistic dynamic in P5 relations is an important part of the background to one of the most important decisions the UN is due to take next year – the appointment of a new Secretary-General. In theory the decision is made by the General Assembly on a recommendation from the Security Council. In practice it is constrained by the ability of the P5 countries to veto any candidate that fails to meet their requirements. In the worst-case scenario the appointment could become a political football that hampers the ability of the UN to function for years to come, much as the tussle over the reappointment of Trygve Lie did in the 1950s.
The process is made more interesting by the fact that under the principle of regional rotation the next Secretary-General is supposed to come from Eastern Europe, a region that loosely equates to the old Communist bloc. This includes many countries that today have less than cordial relations with Moscow. To the surprise of some, Russia has been firm in its view that the rotation principle must stand and the Ban Ki-moon’s successor must be an Eastern European. In part, it aims to restore lost diplomatic capital by positioning itself as a good team player within its home region. It may also want the UN to be run by someone who is culturally familiar and understands the Russian mindset.
Not everyone who thinks they fit that last description is likely to be acceptable. Early favourite Dalia Grybauskaitė, the current President of Lithuania, certainly understands Russia, but not in the way her opposite in Moscow would prefer. Others may suffer by association. Kristalina Georgieva, the Bulgarian economist currently serving as Vice-President of the European Commission, is actively campaigning for the UN job. However, with EU sanctions on Russia likely to be renewed next week, the timing is awkward, as is her association with George Soros. The billionaire philanthropist is regarded in the Kremlin as something akin to an enemy of the state, which may be one reason why informed observers understand that the Russians have told the Bulgarian government that they are not prepared to support Georgieva.
The two candidates thought to have the best chance of securing Russian approval are Irina Bokova, the current head of UNESCO, and Danilo Turk, the former President of Slovenia. Both are on friendly terms with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Bokova first met him as a student in Moscow in the 1970s and Turk preceded him as President of the UN Security Council when they were both ambassadors there in the 1990s. They also both come from countries with which Russia has generally constructive relations: Bulgaria because of its strong cultural ties and Slovenia because it wasn’t part of the Soviet empire and therefore has no axe to grind.
Russia would ideally like the next UN Secretary-General to be someone who shares its outlook on the big international issues of the day, like Syria and Ukraine. It almost certainly won’t get that, not least because any successful candidate will have to dodge the threat of an American veto. The best it can hope for is someone willing to act as an honest broker in mediating disputes between the P5. In the atmosphere of mutual suspicion and recrimination that now characterises debates within the Security Council, a candidate able to command the trust of all concerned may prove hard to find. Yet it remains the minimum requirement for a Russia that understands the importance of the UN and is determined to protect its international status. Next year is going to be interesting.