Why Did Russia and China Veto?

by Erik Voeten on February 6, 2012 · 12 comments

in International Relations,International Security

Last weekend Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that sought to address the violence in Syria. The vote was 13-2. The resolution did not authorize the use of force or sanctions but merely condemned the violence perpetrated by the Syrian government and endorsed an Arab League plan that required Assad to yield power. There were numerous last minute attempts to finesse the language in order to bring the Russians and the Chinese on board but they were ultimately unsuccessful.

So why did the Russians and Chinese veto such a weak resolution that had virtually unanimous support from other countries? The act leaves them open to criticism that they are at least partially responsible for the continuation and apparent intensification of the bloodshed.

The formal defense is that the Russians and the Chinese have always opposed Security Council resolutions that interfere in the domestic affairs of states. Any resolution calling for domestic regime change should thus be blocked. While it is true that especially the Chinese have rhetorically always been committed to that position, there is also a record of over two decades of Security Council resolutions where they could be persuaded to not exercise their veto power. These include but are not limited to resolutions authorizing the use of force to establish regime change in Haiti, authorizing International Criminal Court investigations in the Sudan and Libya, and many other resolutions on Bosnia, Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Afghanistan.

The proper question to ask, then, is why not this time? The most obvious answer is that the absence of leverage. This has two parts to it. First, as I have argued elsewhere (pdf, non-gated), much controversial Security Council activity in the 1990s and 2000s should be understood against the backdrop of credible threats to act without Council authorization. In the Libya case, various NATO powers gave clear signals that they were going to act even if the Council would not approve. On such occasions, it may be better for opposing powers to play along and cut a side deal where they benefit from the authorized intervention.

I have read suggestions that the Chinese and Russians were surprised and appalled by the way in which the Libya resolutions were interpreted as legitimizing military intervention. This is an extremely naive interpretation. Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s current foreign minister, was Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN for a decade. He orchestrated many deals and understood full well what the implications were of the Chapter VII vote on Libya. Similarly, no-one accuses the Chinese of not understanding the wheeling and dealing that goes on at the UN. What they were surprised and upset by was how Libya negatively affected their interests. It did not bog down NATO powers in a costly war and all the spoils of victory appear to be going to the NATO powers. China and Russia want to avoid a repeat of that. They also can get away with that because there is no credible threat at the moment that the West intends to take forceful action to end the violence.

Second, it is by now well-documented that Security Council members who played along with US plans can get nice boosts in foreign aid (pdf, non-gated, gated), or favorable World Bank (pdf, non-gated, gated) and IMF packages (pdf, non-gated, gated). There is ample documentation that such deals benefited China and Russia greatly in the 1990s. Yet, these countries do not need such packages anymore. This is one piece of evidence in favor of the thesis that it has become at least slightly more difficult for the U.S. to get its way. Stephen Walt attributes this to five decades of American stupidity (see here for Daniel Drezner’s response) but this is one case where good-old-fashioned changes in relative power are important (or really: it is about changes in the absolute power of especially China).

Anyway, these answers aren’t complete. There is also complicated domestic politics stuff in both countries that plays a role. Further thoughts on that are much appreciated.


Joshua Tucker February 6, 2012 at 12:38 pm

Erik: One thought about the Russians. I think that ever since the Orange Revolution, the Kremlin has been worried about a similar event taking place in Russia. For years, that paranoia seemed unwarranted, and thus the willingness to occasionally tolerate UN Resolutions that seemed to suggest one’s sovereignty was not absolute within one’s borders when there were other interests at stake. Now, however, that possibility looks a little more real in Russia, and the Kremlin may have decided that the bar for such resolutions has gotten moved a lot farther back.

Erik Voeten February 6, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Yes, I think that falls squarely within the “domestic politics stuff” I so eloquently referred to…….

Andrew Gelman February 6, 2012 at 1:14 pm


This all makes sense, but I don’t think it makes sense to frame it as “U.S. plans” and the U.S. “getting it’s way.” The 12 yes votes from non-U.S. countries, and the involvement of the Arab League, suggests there are good reasons for that Security Council resolution, irrespective of the position of the United States.

Erik Voeten February 6, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Andy: I was referring to the Walt/Drezner debate but you are of course correct.

Layla February 7, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Of course! This whole UNSC resolution only appeared after the failure of the Arab League’s observer mission in Syria. The Arab League decided to take their plan to the Security Council, perhaps spurred on by activists on the ground in Syria to “internationalize” the situation, i.e. refer it to the UN.

arin February 6, 2012 at 3:30 pm

I think you are like blind prisoners of a monkey cage.

SteveLaudig February 6, 2012 at 8:57 pm

When it comes to vetoes the U.S. holds the record for its master err client state Israel. The U.S. has never constrained itself as a result of UN action it can hardly be heard to complain so now. the list of US invaded countries [either solo or in concerted action with others] is quite long beginning as long ago as the Hawaiian Islands, the U.S.’s babystep to foreign imperialism.

Liu Chang February 6, 2012 at 11:03 pm

If Russia and China votes Yes, international community can intervene their domestic affairs. For example, the world (UN particularly) will intervene into China internal affairs and helps Autonomous states such as Tibet become independence countries.

Rex Brynen February 7, 2012 at 12:18 pm

The Chinese veto can be quite easily understood if seen in light of the Russian veto. China typically does not like to cast a sole veto unless the issue pertains to core Chinese issues. In the Libyan case, Russia abstained, leaving the Chinese no Russian veto to shelter behind. In the Syrian case, by contrast, Beijing had company with Moscow.

The core question, therefore, is why Russia abstained on UNSCR 1973 (Libya) but vetoed the draft resolution on Syria. I fully agree that the argument that Moscow was “surprised and appalled by the way in which the Libya resolutions were interpreted as legitimizing military intervention” holds little water–even the most junior UN neophyte understood what the “all necessary measures” language in para 4 meant in 2011.

Much of the explanation lies in the very different way that Moscow viewed Libya and views Syria. Qaddafi had substantially diversified his relationships westward, and was viewed by the Russians as neither particularly friendly or at all reliable. The Asad regime, by contrast, is by far Moscow’s closest relationship in the Middle East–indeed, its only surviving close relationship. The press often points Russian naval access to Tartous as evidence of this (although it is not a Russian naval base at all, but rather access to a rather small Syrian naval dock), but this understates the extent to which Russia likely views a continued close relationship with Syria as important to exerting a degree of influence in the region. A post-Asad regime, by contrast, is likely to be quite anti-Russian (much as post-Qaddafi Libya has been).

Add this to Russian concern about Western interventionism and democracy promotion, and the Russian veto becomes quite understandable.

Layla February 7, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Good analysis, Erik, but I think you didn’t account enough for the relationship between Moscow and Damascus. I agree with Rex: this is not just about Russian-US relations, but also about Russian arms deals with Syria, its base in Tartous, and perhaps most importantly, its relationship with Iran, Assad’s strongest ally in the region (and partner in his brutal crackdown on the Syrian people). As one Syrian activist Ammar Qurabi put it on Al-Arabiya TV yesterday, “Syria today is being [indirectly] ruled by Iran.” By standing by Assad, Russia is attempting to maintain and/or strengthen Iranian interests in the region.

Of course, I also agree that for other reasons, Russia is threatened by Arab spring’s impact, i.e. protests in Moscow, etc.

José Lourenço February 12, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Acredito que o veto da Rússia e o da China contra a tentativa de derrubar o governo de Damasco, quaisquer que sejam os motivos que devem estar por trás desta decisão, foi uma atitude acertada. O imperialismo ocidental foi longe demais em sua ânsia de derrubar regimes que não lhes agrada. Se, apesar deste veto duplo, os imperialistas ainda provocarem a derrubada do governo sírio, é um sinal inequívoco que eles não respeitam nenhuma decisão da ONU. Por falar em violar as decisões da ONU, é bom lembrar que os EUA vetam todas as resoluções da ONU que vão contra o Estado de Israel no que diz respeito à questão palestina. Os EUA e seus lacaios europeus, desde a Segunda Guerra Mundial, não sabem fazer nada mais do que provocar guerras de agressões contra países que não seguem seus ditames. São tantas a guerras de agressão desencadeadas pelo imperialismo: Guerra contra a Coreia, Guerra contra o Vietnã, Guerra contra o Iraque, contra o Afgeganistão, contra a Lìbia, guerra contra a Sérvia, para só citar as mais sangrentas.

Dan February 13, 2012 at 7:38 pm

“é bom lembrar que os EUA vetam todas as resoluções da ONU que vão contra o Estado de Israel no que diz respeito à questão palestina”

A ONU passa 95% do tempo obsecada doentiamente com a questao de Israel. Gracas ao bom deus que os Estados Unidos da America sao um pais iluminado que defende a unica democracia no Oriente Medio chamada Israel. Alias os EUA fizeram muito bem tirando a sua contribuição à UNESCO apos esta ter se precipitado (como fez o Brasil) em aceitar o Estado da Palestina. Fora burrice, fora anti-semitismo, anti-americanismo terceiro mundista velado como o da sua mensagem!

O fato da Russia e da China terem vetado esta resolução é coerente com o fato destes dois países serem grandes violadores de direitos humanos dentro de seus proprios territorios, historica e atualmente, e de terem varios contratos de vendas de armas para a Síria. Realpolitik as usual.

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