Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 173

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov arrived at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York yesterday with his eyes seemingly set on two sets of international issues. One of those–whether intervention by the world community is justified in situations entailing gross abuse of civil rights–is a topic on which Moscow has mixed feelings. It is also at the center of the General Assembly’s discussion agenda for this, its last session of the twentieth century. The other set of issues–involving cooperation among nations against international terrorism–is a cause more recently embraced by Moscow. It comes in the face of mounting unrest faced by Russian security and military forces in the Caucasus and a series of deadly bombing attacks in Russia itself.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan kicked off the discussion on humanitarian interventions by the world community during remarks yesterday which opened the General Assembly debate. Some of his words were probably pleasing to Moscow insofar as they suggested that approval by the UN Security Council should be a prerequisite to any military intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state by international military forces. This is precisely the point Moscow repeatedly argued in its criticism of NATO’s air campaign against Yugoslavia earlier this year.

Other aspects of Annan’s remarks, however, may have pleased Moscow less, regardless of whether it is willing to say as much publicly. The UN secretary general suggested, for example, that the claim of national sovereignty can neither justify criminal behavior by states against their own populations nor guarantee the inviolability of their borders under such circumstances. “If states bent on criminal behavior know that frontiers are not an absolute defense, if they know that the Security Council will take action to halt crimes against humanity,” Annan said, “then they will not embark on such a course of action in expectation of sovereign impunity.” He argued further that the Security Council must offer a credible threat of force to ensure that governments take such standards of behavior seriously (Reuters, September 20).

In defending Belgrade over the past year, Moscow has generally emphasized the primacy of national sovereignty over considerations of human rights. It also repeatedly disputed the efficacy of the threatened or actual use of military force as a means for NATO–or the world community–to bring peace to the Balkans. Moscow’s mantra during the long weeks of negotiation which preceded the NATO air war was that the Kosovo conflict could be resolved only “by political means.” Russian officials, who never explained in any detail what that meant, also argued that Russian diplomatic efforts were more likely to bring a settlement to Kosovo than were NATO’s threats of military attacks.

During the recent Security Council discussions which led to approval for deployment of a UN peacekeeping force to East Timor, Russia chose to accent the importance of the Security Council’s role in such endeavors and voted in favor of the peacekeeping mission, but chose not to get involved in the military operation itself (Itar-Tass, September 13). At the same time, professed Russian concerns about national sovereignty issues have also undoubtedly risen to the fore in the face of Moscow’s continuing military crackdown on separatists in the Caucasus. Russian government and military officials have long claimed fear that NATO might use such a development as a pretext to launch an attack on Russia itself–under the guise of a humanitarian mission.