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.