UN Veto Poorly Handled

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Whether by accident or design, a badly thought-out decision on an international issue of minor importance to Russia has renewed the confusion in Western capitals as to who is really in charge in Moscow.

The Group of Eight leaders are scratching their heads in bewilderment having seen President Dmitry Medvedev agreeing to a G8 statement on Zimbabwe, only to be followed several days later by a Russian veto in the United Nations Security Council of a resolution to impose sanctions on Robert Mugabe's regime.

The G8 statement on Zimbabwe was quite explicit about the group's intention to take "financial and other measures" against the Zimbabwean officials responsible for violence, but Medvedev said that the measures would not necessarily be sanctions.

British officials did not hide their plans to seek authorization by the Security Council to put pressure on Mugabe and his cronies by freezing their bank accounts and imposing travel bans. It is obvious that both Prime Minister Gordon Brown and U.S. President George W. Bush spoke to Medvedev about this in Japan and were clearly encouraged to think that Russia would go along when he agreed to the G8 statement.

But just days after the summit ended, Russia joined China in vetoing the UN Security Council resolution and introduced a rather bland package of sanctions targeted at Mugabe's inner circle.

The Russian leadership might well have been guided by a host of valid reasons for making the decision to veto the UN sanctions.

When Medvedev returned to Moscow and read the British draft of the resolution, it might have occurred to him and others in the Kremlin that Moscow was being asked to impose economic sanctions on a sovereign country for electoral fraud. This is the first time Security Council economic sanctions were applied in a situation in which global peace and security were not threatened. This was an international precedent that Medvedev could not stomach, and from a legal perspective he is correct. What country and their leaders would be next in line for UN sanctions because of their "undemocratic elections"? Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan or Russia?

Moscow might also have been enraged by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's signing of the missile-defense radar agreement with the Czech Republic just as Medvedev was at the G8. That, understandably, was taken as a major snub and might have produced an equally understandable desire to retaliate where possible.

What the Kremlin obviously hadn't considered -- or, worse, consciously dismissed as a minor concern -- was that the veto decision would be interpreted in the G8 capitals as a sign that Medvedev, having originally agreed to the G8 statement, got back home and was overruled. My guess is that this was not the case, but the damage was already done, since many were led to believe that Medvedev did not have the final word.

This public relations disaster could well have been prevented had the policy planning team around Medvedev put the entire picture together and foreseen the likelihood of a U.S.-British move to introduce the UN resolution immediately after getting a Russian agreement to a rather toothless G8 statement on Zimbabwe. They had clearly been warned it was coming.

There were two decent ways out of this mess. One was to block the G8 statement altogether and make Russia's opposition to sanctions clear from the start. If Moscow never intended to go along with the sanctions, it should have been more adamant about this at the summit. In that way, Medvedev would have come across as a straight shooter who makes his positions clear.

The second option was to have abstained in the UN Security Council vote and let China alone veto the whole thing. That would have had the effect of making it clear that Moscow was maintaining at least a semblance of solidarity with the G8 consensus position.

Russia's new G8 sherpa Arkady Dvorkovich and Russia's very experienced G8 political director, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak, bear the blame for misjudging the situation around the G8 statement on Zimbabwe and the likely diplomatic follow-up to it at the UN. They should have guided Medvedev out of the trap that was set for him in Japan.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin should have intervened to prevent a decision that was likely to undercut the international standing of his successor. He has a clear stake in ensuring that Medvedev is Russia's sole agent abroad, whose word to other world leaders is, indeed, final.

Vladimir Frolov is president of LEFF Group, a government relations and PR company.