Surprise, Surprise

July 22, 2008

Surprise, Surprise

President Bush and other Western leaders were surprised when Russia refused to sanction Zimbabwe in the Security Council. They shouldn’t have been.

On July 8 at the G8 summit in Toyako, Japan, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared his support for a statement calling for "financial and other measures against those individuals responsible for violence" in Zimbabwe. Yet just three days later, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on the country, stating that its internal affairs were not a threat to international peace and security. Moscow's apparent flip-flopping on the issue came as a shock to Western leaders. George Bush declared himself displeased and disappointed, while Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to the UN, remarked, "The U-turn in the Russian position is particularly surprising and disturbing." British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called the veto simply "incomprehensible."

So what caused the U-turn? And should it really have come as such a surprise?

For one, as the Russian Foreign Ministry has argued, while Moscow did agree to support certain measures against Zimbabwe, Medvedev made no explicit promise to support UN sanctions. Still, as Miliband noted in a statement on July 15, a possible resolution and its terms were "widely discussed" and Russia had "sufficient opportunity" to address any hesitancy. The backtrack came because, as Khalilzad put it, "something happened in Moscow."  

No one knows exactly what happened when Medvedev returned to Russia, but we can make an informed guess. One likely explanation lies in the new power-sharing arrangement between the president and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. While Medvedev is responsible for setting the country's foreign-policy agenda, Putin has the authority to implement it. According to the independent Russian newspaper the Moscow Times, Medvedev was reluctant to even sign the G8 declaration. The former president's hand in Russia's eventual veto should not be discounted.

Another argument that has emerged in the press following the veto is that Russia's own election processes, as well as those of some of its friendlier neighbors, share some similarities with the recent elections in Zimbabwe. Though Russia certainly has not made use of widespread violent intimidation, the same cannot be said for its neighbors, and the Kremlin has been criticized by the West for manipulating key elections to assure desired results. Perhaps Moscow feared that its approval of sanctions against Zimbabwe could set a precedent for Western interference in its own domestic affairs or those of its allies down the road.

But while this theory no doubt holds some truth, it still does not fully account for the fact that Moscow indicated its flexibility during the G8 summit, only to change its course in a matter of days. The question that needs to be asked is: what happened during that time?

A look at Condoleezza Rice's travel itinerary may hold some of the answers. On July 8- the same day Medevedev agreed to support measures against Mugabe's regime-the Secretary of State arrived in Prague, where she signed an agreement to place a U.S. missile-defense radar system in the Czech Republic, a move strongly opposed by the Russian government. The same day, she reiterated Washington's support for Georgia in its confrontation with Moscow over the separatist region of Abkhazia. By July 10, Rice had moved on to Tbilisi, where she indicated that the Kremlin had provoked violence in Abkhazia and made an announcement that the United States intends to stand by its allies and protect its interests. On July 11, Russia vetoed U.S.-backed sanctions against Zimbabwe.


Granted, Washington has openly stated that the missile-defense system is intended to protect against a possible threat from Iran, and Rice's statements in Georgia also referred to attacks by Tehran, not by Moscow. But the Russians have made clear that they are not convinced that the defense system is not aimed against them. (Dmitry Rogozin, Russian Ambassador to NATO, recently said during remarks at The Nixon Center that when it comes to this matter, "We feel that we are being deceived.") And the fact that Rice's announcement about Washington's intentions to defend its allies was made in Georgia must have also sent an alarming message to the Kremlin.

So the fact that Moscow changed its tune perhaps should not have come as such a shock to the West. Medvedev was ambiguous in his original commitment at the G8 summit because sanctions against Zimbabwe are not necessarily in Russia's national interest, nor do they reflect Moscow's perspective. If the U.S.-Russia relationship was a true alliance, the Kremlin may have delivered on its word just to help out a partner. But when one country feels threatened by another it just promised to support, friendly cooperation on issues contrary to one's own interests can hardly be expected to follow. Western leaders often seem to proceed on the assumption that they both set the agenda and can chose to cooperate on issues in a piecemeal fashion-yet when others follow suit and choose to pursue their own interests irregardless of what the West wants, Washington inevitably ends up stunned and disappointed.


Brooke Leonard is a staff member at The Nixon Center.