Russia’s veto of a UN Security Council resolution on Syria goes far beyond mere protection for a close ally and arms buyer — it showed Moscow’s determination to crush what it sees as a Western crusade to use the UN to topple unfriendly regimes.
The same holds true for China, which followed Russia’s lead and joined Moscow in its second double veto to strike down a European-Arab draft resolution that would have endorsed an Arab League plan for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to transfer power to his deputy to prepare free elections.
Russia’s move, analysts and diplomats say, was a diplomatic counteroffensive responding to an unusually active period for the UN Security Council. Last year, the 15-nation panel twice adopted resolutions authorizing “all necessary measures” — diplomatic code for military force — in Libya and Ivory Coast.
Libya and Ivory Coast were also the first time the council invoked the Western-backed notion of the “responsibility to protect” civilians threatened by their own governments.
In both cases, UN-authorized military intervention led to the ouster of the countries’ leaders. Former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was killed at the hands of rebels who overthrew him in a six-month civil war and former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo is now in a holding cell at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Russia and China did not stand in the way of UN action in Ivory Coast or Libya, whose civil war was initially the bloodiest of last year’s Arab Spring uprisings.
However, while Western governments and human rights groups welcomed enforcement of the concept of the “responsibility to protect” civilians, Moscow and Beijing did not hide their disdain for an idea they equate with violating states’ sovereignty, which the UN was founded to protect.
In the case of Libya, Moscow was infuriated by the decision of France and others to supply weapons to rebels in violation of a UN arms embargo, while NATO appeared to be providing crucial air support for rebel offensives against Qaddafi’s forces.
Russia accused the US and its European allies of tricking fellow Security Council members and using a mandate to protect civilians as a cover for providing support to Libyan rebels and ousting Qaddafi. It was, in short, “regime change.”
Russia, which abstained from last year’s March 17 vote authorizing the use of force in Libya and allowed it to pass, vowed not to let that happen again in Syria, a key weapons-export destination and host to Moscow’s only warm--water naval port outside the former Soviet Union.
“I see the Russian veto this week as the latest manifestation of their rejection of the proactive, norm-enforcing Security Council that has emerged in the past decade,” said George Lopez, a professor at Notre Dame University.
“The Libyan case was the final straw for the Russians, hence their October veto of the first Syrian resolution,” he said.
The second veto on Saturday was more of the same.
The Russian veto goes beyond alliances, revenues from arms sales and Syria’s considerable strategic importance for Moscow. It goes to the heart of a deep split between Russia and China, on the one hand, and the West on the other, on whether the UN should intervene in internal domestic conflicts.
Russia’s and China’s support for non-interference should come as no surprise, analysts say. Some Western governments and many human rights groups accuse both Moscow and Beijing of suppressing dissidents at home.