Having sacrificed so much credibility over Syria, Russian officials will face chilly receptions at the UN and beyond for some time to come.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, salutes to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AP
Since 2011, Russia has played a deft diplomatic game over Syria, albeit one that has allowed a brutal civil war to drag on at great human cost. Moscow has oscillated between taking a hard line in defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and periods of partial cooperation with the U.S. over limiting the conflict.
In doing so, Russia has prevented the fall of Assad, reasserted itself as a power player in the Middle East and achieved the “Russification” of the United Nations Security Council, as American diplomats have shaped their diplomacy to keep cooperation with Russia over Syria going.
Recommended: "The return of Cold War thinking in Moscow and Washington"
This has frustrated America’s British and French counterparts, who traditionally align with the U.S. in most UN diplomacy, but have found themselves reduced to bystanders in many serious talks on the Syrian war.
At the beginning of this year, it looked like Russia could build on all this maneuvering to secure a political settlement in Syria that – despite continuing debates over Assad’s future – would largely favor Moscow’s interests. In its desperation to close out the Syrian war, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama seemed willing to make further concessions to get a bargain. Such an agreement might not only have consolidated Russia’s interests in Syria and the broader Middle East, but also allowed Putin to present himself as a statesman.
But he has not taken this course. Instead, Russia has used diplomacy as a cover for a new military push in Syria that seems set to culminate in the destruction of the rebel-held areas of Aleppo. In the short term, this may play to Moscow’s advantage, by significantly strengthening Assad’s position in the run-up to the U.S. presidential transition in 2017, reducing the next administration’s options for intervention.
Yet the price of this short-term gain is high. The military drive has caused even American and European officials with a strong belief in cooperation with Moscow to reconsider their assumptions. In the European Union, Germany and France are tilting towards a harder line. On the U.S. side, Secretary of State John Kerry is still wearily attempting to find new diplomatic openings with Russia, but the Obama administration as a whole is adopting a sterner tone. U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton promises to be more hawkish still.
The chance for Putin to act the part of a statesman this year – thereby repeating his remarkably successful handling of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis in 2013, when he averted U.S. airstrikes on Syria – has slipped away. Moscow seems to have calculated that it will gain more from a show of force than a compromise.
It has certainly got the West’s attention and its boldness may in part pay off. Some significant EU members, such as Italy, are still arguing for a relatively soft response. Although certain Arab and Western diplomats have convened a series of meetings at the UN to condemn Russia’s behavior, they will have little real impact. Putin may nonetheless have overplayed his hand.
Even if Russia ultimately comes to a deal with the U.S. and its allies over Syria, Moscow has squandered a vast amount of trust with its main diplomatic counterparts. Even China has avoided siding with it in the UN Security Council over Aleppo. Whereas Secretary Kerry has been willing to risk considerable political capital to maintain Russia’s goodwill over Syria, U.S. officials are likely to be more much more skeptical.
In future crises, Moscow is likely to find that Western diplomats treat its views with cynicism, and will be much less inclined to grant significant concessions. This will be true in multiple settings, but relations are liable to grow especially difficult at the UN, where the Americans and Europeans may now unite to reverse Russia’s increased influence in the Security Council.
Expect to see further Western efforts to isolate Russia on resolutions over Syria and other crises, forcing it to use its Security Council veto, and drive more wedges between Chinese and Russian diplomats in New York. This will play to Russia’s long-term detriment.
Moscow’s privileged position in the UN is an important part of its great power status, and its clout in the institution offers a cheaper and less risky form of influence than adventures such as the Syrian mission. President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov underlined this through their skillful use of the UN over Syria. That is, until this year. They may soon regret throwing away their accumulated diplomatic capital for Aleppo.
If tensions between Russia and the West escalate further – meaning more U.S. and EU sanctions on Moscow, more covert jousting in cyberspace and perhaps even some sort of military stand-off over Syria – both sides may eventually have to return to the UN to de-escalate the situation.
Incoming UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who managed to secure the backing of Moscow and Western powers through a smart campaign this year, may find that one of his first tasks is to help Russia in this reconciliation process. But it will be a slow, unhappy effort for all concerned. Having sacrificed so much credibility over Syria very quickly, Russian officials will face chilly receptions at the UN and beyond for some time to come.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.