Since Russia and China vetoed the UNSC resolution on Syria, a lot has been said about the “disgusting and shameful” decision to “align…with a dictator.” Unsurprisingly, much of the western scorn has been directed at Russia – but without any real understanding of why Russia decided to veto the resolution. To be sure, the resolution was aiming to condemn the actions of a reprehensible government that had effectively declared war on its own people. However, the Russian decision to reject the resolution makes perfect sense from a Russian point of view. Western press has chastised the Russian government, but Russia simply acted to support its own national interests while allowing morality to take a back seat. Looking at such a position out of context, it looks pretty heartless – and perhaps it is. However, this is what governments do; they protect their own interests while allowing their moral compass to guide them only when such action is not detrimental to their interests. Every government has taken the same path (how many UNSC resolutions on Israel/Palestine has the United States vetoed?) Moreover, after what happened in Libya, it was easy to see these vetoes coming.
There are a number of very understandable reasons why Russia refused to agree to the UN resolution. First of all, the upcoming Russian elections have left Putin campaigning not against the left, but against the right. Like anywhere else, this means that Putin must prove himself to be a strong nationalist; domestically, it makes sense for Putin to take a stand against the west. The veto looks strong and does not actually risk Russian (or the government’s) interests. Moreover, there are the significant political and financial links that Russia has to the Syrian regime as well as arguments that this veto will lead to a new Cold War type proxy battle between Russia and the West for influence in the Middle East.
Yet, the most interesting argument being made – for me at least – is that Russia is rejecting the international consensus on Syria because of how the intervention in Libya evolved into a regime change operation. Russia abstained from the UN vote on Libya because it was assured that this international intervention was humanitarian, not political. When it turned political, it eliminated the willingness of Moscow to agree on other examples of what Russia may consider ‘messing with domestic affairs.’ This is the most interesting argument for me because, well, I made it. A long time ago. Last year, I repeatedly noted that one of the major consequences of the Libyan intervention would be future could-have-been interventions:
If economic considerations and a fear of setting precedents were not enough to push Russia, China et al. towards the intervention veto, the evolution of the Libya intervention/regime change operation certainly breaks that camel’s back. TheRussian opposition to the western UNSC resolution on Syria and the submission of the competing Russian resolution is proof enough that – as Joshi says – “Libya is one of [the pro-interventionists’] last hurrahs.”
The expansion of the Libyan intervention into a regime change operation clearly upset many of the BRICS countries – particularly Russia, who was very vocal about its displeasure. Now Stephen Walt is asking whether “victory in Libya will cause defeat in Syria” [though, looking at the mess in Libya, it certainly doesn’t feel like victory…] Paul Pillar and Joshua Foust pile on as well. From Walt:
But what if the Libyan precedent is one of the reasons why Russia and China aren’t playing ball today? They supported Resolution 1973 back in 2011, and then watched NATO and a few others make a mockery of multilateralism in the quest to topple Qaddafi. The Syrian tragedy is pay-back time, and neither Beijing nor Moscow want to be party to another effort at Western-sponsored “regime change.”
Of course, there are many reasons why Russia vetoed the resolution, and not one can be taken independently, but it seems to me that the results in Libya certainly played a role. I find it odd that so many in the west are acting shocked that this resolution was vetoed. The writing was clear and the outcome was predictable.
Photo from the Liberal