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Premium Conversations | Decoding UN, Ukraine and India’s record in the UNSC

Mar 08, 2022 07:36 PM IST

Richard Gowan, UN director of International Crisis Group, spoke about the UN’s return as a key theatre in the ongoing conflict, and whether Ukraine will make the UN more effective or more dysfunctional, among other key issues facing the UN today

Washington: The United Nations (UN) has emerged as a key site of the diplomatic battle over Ukraine, with the UN General Assembly (UNGA) passing a historic resolution backed by 141 members deploring Russian aggression. India has abstained on all Ukraine-related votes at various UN platforms since the end of January, when the issue was first brought up in the UN Security Council.

As the UN director of International Crisis Group, a research and advocacy group focused on conflict, Richard Gowan has a ringside view of multilateralism in action. (GCSP/YouTube) PREMIUM
As the UN director of International Crisis Group, a research and advocacy group focused on conflict, Richard Gowan has a ringside view of multilateralism in action. (GCSP/YouTube)

As the UN director of International Crisis Group, a research and advocacy group focused on conflict, Richard Gowan has a ringside view of multilateralism in action. He spoke to HT about the UN’s return as a key theatre in the ongoing conflict, whether Ukraine will make the UN more effective or more dysfunctional, what the positions taken by member states say about fault lines in global politics, the role of China in the UN, and India’s position in UN – over Ukraine, but also, more broadly in the UN system.

What’s the significance of the UNGA vote on Ukraine?

It is symbolically important. It shows, once and for all, that Russia's efforts to try and frame the political narrative around this war, and suggest that somehow Ukraine is at fault in this crisis, have failed at least as far as the UN is concerned. This is an almost unprecedented show of sympathy for Ukraine from other states. It is embarrassing for the Russians, at least for the Russians working at the UN. We have to be realistic, though, that this is a war that is being fought very brutally on the ground. And what really matters is the fighting in Ukraine rather than the diplomacy here. And I think we also have to be realistic that President (Vladimir) Putin, judging by all his public statements, probably simply doesn't care what the UNGA says about him. Evidently, his view of world order is a Russian nationalist view of world order. And I doubt he really cares whether countries in Latin America or Africa are voting against him.

Russia’s efforts to frame the political narrative around the war have failed.

What do the voting patterns in the UNGA tell us about the current fault lines in global politics?

Firstly, if I were the (Joe) Biden administration, I would be feeling quite happy with these outcomes because, after quite a long period of talk about the US losing influence in the UN system, especially in the (Donald) Trump era, we have seen that when the US really puts its energy into getting a coalition together at the UN, it can do so. And we know that the US administration, right up to President Biden, was lobbying other countries around this vote. We have pretty solid information that Biden called at least one wavering state to bring it on its side. And this US pressure worked – it worked better in some regions than others.

It's striking that in Latin America, where countries have always had a strong attachment to international law, we see a very strong majority in favour of the resolution. In Africa, the result was more divided. There was essentially a 50:50 split between African countries that supported the resolution and then those that abstained or didn't vote at all, with Eritrea actually being one of the few that backed Russia. A lot of African member states simply didn't feel they had enough at stake in this conflict to offend Moscow. There has actually been quite a lot of resentment in the African press and African social media about the West giving more attention to Ukraine than it is to the horrible crises on the African continent.

The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a resolution demanding that Russia immediately end its military operations in Ukraine. (UN Photo/Loey Felipe)
The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a resolution demanding that Russia immediately end its military operations in Ukraine. (UN Photo/Loey Felipe)

Coming around to Asia, the most intriguing abstentions were China and India. China, it seems to me, is very deliberately adopting a low-profile in this crisis. It doesn't want to break off with Russia. It needs Russia as a partner at the UN. But, equally, it doesn't want to take the reputational damage of being seen to be an accomplice to this war. And so it is sort of trying to steer a narrow path between Moscow and Moscow's critics. And then you have India, which can't afford to alienate Russia completely in New York, but, I think, has also taken some reputational damage because of its sort of neutral position over the crisis. Nonetheless, India has so many equities with Russia, including security cooperation, arms sales, balancing China, that I don’t see New Delhi fundamentally shifting its position on this crisis even if there are more debates and more votes at the UN.

A lot of African member states simply don’t feel they had enough at stake in this conflict to offend Moscow.

You offered an understanding of India's predicament. Within the UN system, is there sympathy for India’s predicament or is there a degree of impatience and annoyance?

I think if we take the long view, not going all the way back to (Jawaharlal) Nehru, but if we take the long view, I would say that India's stance in this crisis is roughly what I would have expected. I recall India's previous term on the Security Council in 2011 and 2012. It started with the Libyan crisis and the beginning of the Syrian war. And in both those cases, India did essentially triangulate between the West and Russia, tended to abstain on controversial resolutions, and, in many cases, actually seemed to be quite sympathetic to Russia's line over what was going on, especially in Syria. And so this is all of a piece with that.

It has been interesting during India's current term on the council. When its term began, quite a lot of Western diplomats were hopeful that, given the warming of ties between the Biden administration and Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi’s government, you would see India aligning itself a lot more with the US and the P3 in New York. And we haven't seen that. We haven't seen that over Myanmar. We haven't seen it over a lot of other issues. Generally speaking, whatever its calculations in Asia, India does seem to find itself closer to Russia and China on a lot of issues in New York than Western diplomats would have hoped. That's a source of frustration, frankly, to US officials and European officials. But it means that what we have seen over Ukraine doesn't come as a huge shock.

The other point I would add to that is that I do think the Indian mission here is pretty disgruntled with the way the US handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and also the way that the US is behaving over Afghanistan at the UN. The Indians would like to see the US applying more pressure on the Taliban, through the UN, as a way to hurt Pakistan. And, I think, probably the Indians feel that the US has not been sufficiently concerned about India's security priorities. So, why should it put itself out for America over Ukraine?

India does seem to find itself closer to Russia and China on a lot of issues in New York than Western diplomats would have hoped.

I will come back to India in a moment. But do you see this as the return of the UN as an important theatre in the realm of international peace and security? We know that is one of its primary functions, but there is a general narrative about the irrelevance of UN and suddenly we see a lot of focus of international diplomacy at the UN. Is this a moment where the UN can possibly reassert and reclaim its importance? Does it have that space and leverage now?

I think the way word you used there was exactly the right word. And that is theatre. We have definitely seen the return of the UN as an important theatre in international relations. This is one of those moments where the UN's primary value, at least as seen from Washington or Brussels or Kyiv, is really as a stage on which to rally states to publicly condemn Russia. But I think we have to distinguish between the UN as a political theatre and the UN as a mechanism, which could actually either put real substantive pressure on Moscow or provide a framework for de-escalating this conflict. I don't actually see it playing either of those functions right now. Because of Russia's veto power, the Security Council is not going to start passing resolutions that would actually cause Moscow any real pain. The General Assembly vote, as I said, was symbolically important but it doesn’t compensate for Council paralysis.

Equally, we don't really see much sign of anyone, with the possible exception of the French, looking to the UN as a mechanism for de-escalation. The emphasis, at the moment, is really solely on condemning Russia rather than asking if there is some sort of multilateral framework for easing the crisis. If there is going to be a ceasefire, it's going to come out of these bilateral talks in Belarus, it's not going to come out of Turtle Bay. So I am afraid that while this has been an important moment for the UN as a theatre for the international community – whatever that is – to make its voice heard and we did see that, its actual impact on the crisis, whether in terms of coercion or de-escalation, is much more limited.

We have to distinguish between the UN as a political theatre and the UN as a mechanism, which could actually either put real pressure on Moscow or provide a framework for de-escalating.

Let me ask the same question from a diametrically opposite end. Does this crisis, therefore, make the UN far more dysfunctional than it used to be precisely because of what you mentioned, which is Russia's veto. We may see every conflict now getting defined by the US-Russia binary, making the Council more dysfunctional?

This question has been playing on my mind, obviously, throughout the crisis. I would say that, in a certain way, what we are seeing is an acceleration of previously existing tendencies. The Security Council has been on a glide path to irrelevance since the summer of 2011; some would say it has been on a glide path to irrelevance since Iraq or Rwanda. But there has been a sort of a clear decline in the standing of the Council that is not solely attributable to P-5 relations, but is certainly, in a significant part, attributable to P-5 relations. And if you look at the last 12 months alone, we have seen the Council achieve zero on Ethiopia, achieve pretty much zero on Myanmar. This is a pretty dysfunctional body already.

Evacuees cross a destroyed bridge as they flee the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, on March 7, 2022. (AFP)
Evacuees cross a destroyed bridge as they flee the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, on March 7, 2022. (AFP)

I have been asking diplomats and various other UN insiders over the last couple of days, what they think that Ukraine does. And, generally speaking, they assume that although the Council won't deadlock necessarily right now on Afghanistan or on Syria, in the coming months, we will see the toxin spread and it will become a lot harder to get even minimal deals on humanitarian aid to Syria and so forth. People differ over exactly how complete the paralysis will be. If you look at the way that the US and Russia seem to be continuing to work on the JCOPA in Vienna (the nuclear deal with Iran), it is possible that there may still be some significant islands of agreement even if there's a general decline in cooperation. But nonetheless, nobody thinks that this is just a blip and that the P-5 can recover from this easily.

if you look at the last 12 months alone, we have seen the Council achieve zero on Ethiopia, achieve pretty much zero on Myanmar. This is a pretty dysfunctional body already.

Had Putin achieved his war aims in three days or four days, or had Putin gone for a limited military operation that could be, to some extent, discounted like the 2014 operation, then we would have gone back to normal relatively quickly. But this shows very clear signs of being a prolonged war that is going to fill our screens with horrific images of attacks on civilians and war crimes for weeks or maybe months. And in that scenario, I just don't see how an American diplomat can sit down with a Russian diplomat and talk about compromises on other issues. It's just not credible.

How does the change in the political mood in Europe affect the UN?

Right now, European diplomats feel pretty good about what they have achieved. The Europeans played a big role in getting this General Assembly resolution. And I think they are happy that they even got countries like Serbia that were expected to abstain to back the resolution. I also hear from European counterparts that they are really happy about the level of cooperation with the US. So, in the short-term, Europeans are happy enough here. I think, in the longer term, the crisis has three potential effects.

Firstly, assuming that Russia doesn't have a Damascene conversion, this crisis, just like the Balkans was in the 1990s, is going to feed into a European narrative that you can't do anything through the UN. Remember – though it's the footnote right now –a lot of European countries are reassessing their role in the peacekeeping operation in Mali. With the French withdrawal from Mali, a lot of European countries don't think they can safely stay. So, we may be seeing Europeans, sort of, cutting their limited commitments to the UN for a number of reasons.

Secondly, I think that this is going to change the way that European capitals see security. One friend from a European think tank said to me that maybe the future is more Asian, because you know the European assumption that you do stuff through multilateralism, and the European assumption that what happens in South Sudan or Myanmar matters a bit to Europe, is going to come under a lot of pressure. I think a lot of Europeans are going take a much harder view that no, what matters is European continental security as covered by Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty. Sure, they will continue to give humanitarian aid for South Sudan and they will continue to make statements of concern about Myanmar, but they are really not going to be so worried about the rest of the world.

And then the third point is what does the rest of the world think about Europe? Because, right now, if I am sitting in Pretoria or I am sitting in New Delhi, or I am sitting in Seoul, I am not looking at the situation and thinking like, whoa, you know, the US and the Europeans have got a really good grip on the global order. They may be able to get something through the General Assembly, but it doesn't look like this order, which has basically been a European- and US-run order, is delivering very well for the Europeans. And so I think that's a reputational hit for Europe too. And that will play out in discussions in New York in the coming months.

The United Nations building in New York, US. (Flickr/ flickr4jazz)
The United Nations building in New York, US. (Flickr/ flickr4jazz)

Both vis-a-vis the current crisis, but also beyond it, how influential is China within the UN system?

Not as influential as it could be right now because I think China has basically decided to sit this one out. I don't think this is a very comfortable process for China. China was quite happy back in late January when there was the first Security Council meeting on Ukraine to sort of go along with Russia, criticising NATO expansion and so forth. That fits in with China's preferences, China does not, I think, particularly like the reputational costs associated with being seen to be linked to Russia, when Russia is committing such awful crimes in full public view. So I think that China's basic strategy here is to abstain, block any really serious condemnation of Russia, but essentially waffle and keep on sort of saying we do believe in sovereignty, but the case of Ukraine's very complicated. Yes, sovereignty in every country is very complicated. But that's their get-out clause.

But I think that we shouldn't mistake China's reticence in this particular crisis for an overall weakness. I think the overall direction of travel in the UN in the last seven or eight years has been towards an increase in Chinese influence. And China, generally speaking, still aims to exert its influence in forums other than the Security Council. It wants to be a development power. It wants to roll back Western human rights norms in Geneva. When it comes to the Security Council, it does throw its weight around a bit, and certainly more than it would have done 10 or 15 years ago, but still it wants to stay out of most of the big fights. I think that China will continue to build up influence in other parts of the UN system. even if it's sort of ducking a fight in the Council over Ukraine.

China's basic strategy is to abstain, block any really serious condemnation of Russia, but essentially waffle and keep on sort of saying we do believe in sovereignty.

Beyond Ukraine, what's India doing right and what does India need to do differently in the UN system?

India does frustrate other members of the Council clearly with its positions on issues like Myanmar or now Ukraine. But no one could accuse India of being inconsistent in its position. It's always very clear about what its interests are. This has been a very challenging period for India in the Council because you have had two major crises in countries that are in India's immediate space – Myanmar and Afghanistan –that have been normally enormously divisive and where India has not been on the same page as the US. It's been steering a difficult path.

My personal view is that India has probably picked a few fights, or sort of taken very firm stances on issues that it didn't need to. In particular, you will recall that there was a vote in the Security Council on improving the UN's response to climate security in December. India sort of sided with Russia in torpedoing a resolution that basically two-thirds of the UN membership was sponsoring. And I understood it, I thought that was completely a consistent position. India always made it clear it was going to oppose that resolution. No one was in any doubt about it. But was it really good diplomacy to block a resolution that had a lot of support from Africa, and that ultimately was only calling on (UN Secretary General Antonio) Guterres to write a big essay – asking the secretary general to report about climate security. I mean, I thought that was breaking a butterfly on a wheel, if that makes sense.

No one could accuse India of being inconsistent in its position. It's always very clear about what its interests are.

I often don't agree with India's positions, but I do see why, from an Indian perspective, the mission has sort of broken ranks with the US over Myanmar and Afghanistan. I also see why, following those crises, India maybe is perhaps a little less inclined to just go along with the Western position on Ukraine as well. And it's not the only country that has other security priorities. The Emiratis, for example, abstained in the Security Council on Ukraine because they needed Russian support for a resolution that designated or described the Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist organization. And that was just a bigger priority for Abu Dhabi than what was going on around Kiev. So leaving my own policy preferences aside, I think India is sort of standing up for a pretty clearly stated set of national priorities.

Sitting in New York, and observing India in UN, do you think India’s domestic political direction of the last few years has got reflected in its foreign policy posture in any way, or do you see New Delhi as having insulated the two? It does seem that India's external strategic outlook, foreign policy positions, votes in the UN are more or less what you would have expected from a government of a different stripe in Delhi too right.

It's interesting. What would Manmohan Singh have done differently here? So, if you sort of zoom out, this isn't Nehru’s India anymore in the UN – and Nehru’s India too had lots of fights with the US at the UN. So that's been a constant. I have covered the UN since 2005, and back in those days, I read somewhere that India was like the trade union leader of peacekeeping countries. What India wanted normally was what sort of shaped how the big troop contributors to blue helmet missions positioned themselves in UN debates on peacekeeping. I don't think India has that role so much now.

If you zoom out, this isn't Nehru’s India anymore in the UN – and Nehru’s India too had lots of fights with the US at the UN. (HT Archive)
If you zoom out, this isn't Nehru’s India anymore in the UN – and Nehru’s India too had lots of fights with the US at the UN. (HT Archive)

I think there have been a couple of changes. One is India's relative contribution to UN peace operations. And this is not to slight the troops who are on deployment, but, it has been overshadowed by the fact that a lot of African countries are now contributing a lot more troops in UN peace operations. And they sort of have more of an African vision of what they want to do on their own continent. And, also, China has sort of started to position itself as the trade union leader for peacekeeping. China is driving a lot of discussions now in the Security Council about the safety and security of peacekeepers. That's one area where India should maybe push for a bit of a more high-profile role in the next year before it leaves the Council. And I think the US would support that. Even though there are policy differences between the US and India, neither country wants to see China become the dominant force in shaping UN peacekeeping policy. So actually that's one area where I think India could do more.

India can see very clearly that it is not going to get what it wants, which is the Council seat.

So that sense is gone, and India sort of feels a bit more narrowly focused on defending its national interests here. And it doesn't quite have that sort of Nehruvian concern for the South's view that it used to project. So there has been a shift, but I think that that shift was happening anyway. And I attribute a lot of that shift to the fact that everyone, although they would never say it, has sort of realised that Security Council reform is dead, if it was ever alive in the first place. China is now basically blocking all serious progress on reform, primarily because they don't want Japan to get a permanent seat, but also because they don't want India to get a permanent seat either. 

From India's perspective, 15 or 20 years ago, there was this sort of sense that if India was a good citizen, did its work on UN peacekeeping, that would be part of the pathway to getting a permanent Security Council seat. That is now gone.(AP)
From India's perspective, 15 or 20 years ago, there was this sort of sense that if India was a good citizen, did its work on UN peacekeeping, that would be part of the pathway to getting a permanent Security Council seat. That is now gone.(AP)

And so from India's perspective, 15 or 20 years ago, there was this sort of sense that if India was a good citizen, did its work on UN peacekeeping, that would be part of the pathway to getting a permanent Security Council seat. That is now gone. You remember (Barack) Obama went to Delhi and publicly endorsed the idea of an Indian Council seat. Biden might repeat that policy position, but no one thinks the Biden administration, in this moment of crisis, is really going to invest a whole lot of political capital in Council reform, or if it does, it will only be doing it to annoy the Russians. So my sense is that what has changed is not really to do with the domestic scene in India, but more to do with the realities of the structure of power at the UN. India can see very clearly that it is not going to get what it wants, which is the Council seat. And that means that it just has every incentive to push its own national priorities, without caveating them.

What has changed vis-a-vis India’s position is not really to do with the domestic scene in India, but more to do with the realities of the structure of power at the UN.

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