For the past two decades, Russia has been forced to absorb a bitter harvest related to economic sanctions and other actions imposed by the United States and its allies on various nations, and it made little difference whether or not those actions were approved by the United Nations Security Council. That is a reality worth noting in thinking about Russia’s recent Security Council veto of the U.S. proposal to ratchet up sanctions against Syria’s Assad regime, locked in a bloody struggle to survive against a growing anti-government protest movement.
Consider, first of all, the sanctions on Iraq following the 1991 Desert Storm operation that reversed that country’s Kuwait invasion. Russia tried for years to weaken those sanctions in order to gain access to debts owed by the Saddam Hussein regime for armaments and other goods supplied by Russia before the war. The United States and its NATO allies ignored those requests. Then there were the sanctions imposed by President Clinton and NATO on Serbia—without any U.N. approval. That was followed by the bombing of Belgrade and other cities of Serbia, a traditional Russian ally—again without any U.N. approval. The angers unleashed in Russia by these actions caused a surge in anti-Western attitudes there.
In addition, we must not forget the 2003 invasion of Iraq led by the United States and NATO–against the protests of Russia, Germany and France. That war has cost tens of thousands of allied and Iraqi lives, absorbed nearly a trillion dollars of U.S. money, and left the country in a state of uncertainty as to its fate following the final, full departure of U.S. and allied troops. Finally, particularly fresh in the Russian memory are the dubious actions of the United States and NATO (particularly France and the UK) in Libya. Russia abstained when that matter came up in the Security Council, and it later regretted that it didn’t employ its veto prerogative. That’s because the United States and European powers far overstepped the resolution’s scope, which as written was to protect innocent lives from retaliatory violence from the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. Instead, those powers promptly pursued an overthrow of Qaddafi, with unclear consequences for the country as well as for the surrounding region.
In the case of Syria, it should be noted that Russia has material interests in that country that are harmed by Western-imposed sanctions. Russia’s only Mediterranean military base is in Syria, and it has enjoyed mutually beneficial trade relations over the years with the Assad regime. But in this case, Russia was motivated largely by its unease over the unpredictability unleashed by the so-called Arab Spring. In the Russian view, the protest movements that fall under this rubric are not likely to lead to the establishment of democratic governance, in the Western mold, but to the opening of a path to power for nationalists and religious extremists with potentially colossal consequences for the stability of the region.
These negative consequences could affect, first and foremost, America’s main allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia. If I believed in conspiracy theories, I might wonder if there wasn’t a secret pact among Russia, the United States and Israel whereby the vetoes of Russia and China were cast, with prior knowledge of all, to spare Washington the consequences of a destabilized Syria while allowing the United States to appear, to its own people as well as to the world, as a fighter for democracy. In fact, I don’t buy into conspiracy theories. But the fact remains that uncertainty and instability in the Middle East are already incredibly high without further actions generating more of it. Consider Egypt. It is obvious by now that any resolution of the political struggle there, short of military dictatorship, will pose a huge challenge for the United States and Israel—as seen already in the recent anti-Israel protests in that country.
Today it seems clear that Russia’s opposition to the Iraq war was correct and that the United States would have been better off had it not been enmeshed in that adventure for the past eight years. And it is equally clear that Russia also was correct on Libya when it suggested that a United States already facing major instability in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates might not want to create one more destabilized zone in Muslim North Africa.
Likewise, there is no reason to scold Russia, or China either, for those Security Council vetoes. Perhaps instead they should be thanked for seeking to ensure that the Middle East zone of instability remains as contained as possible and doesn’t spread to other nations on the brink. At the end of the day, greater stability serves the interests of the United States as a global power with a strong interest in preventing global chaos, perhaps in particular if that chaos poses a serious threat to its key ally in the region, Israel.
Andranik Migranyan is the director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York. He is also a professor at the Institute of International Relations in Moscow, a former member of the Public Chamber and a former member of the Russian Presidential Council.