Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Russian Politics Part 2: The UNSC Veto

In the wake of the failure of the UN Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government, analysts have offered up a variety of reasons behind the Russian and Chinese decisions to veto. Erik Voeten posted a succinct summary two days ago and followed up yesterday with an extended rebuttal to the Libya "precedent" made by a number of writers and bloggers. I agree that perceived NATO overreach in Libya is a very weak story for why Russia and China vetoed. The Russian government's suggestion that it was "duped" by the text of the UNSC's resolution on Libya is highly specious given its generally realpolitik foreign policy. Erik elaborates on this further in the post. I would add that Russia's behavior with regards to arms control - the fact that it has consistently sought binding over non-binding nuclear reductions agreements (START vs. SORT) - also shows that it certainly does not attach much importance to unenforceable declarations.

The rest of the blogosphere has more or less finished dissecting both countries' general motivations for opposing both the resolution and any substantive action against Assad. However, I am more interested in the possible domestic dimension behind the veto, an explanation that has been thrown around but not developed much. I know less about Chinese internal politics, so I'll focus on Russia.

There have been a few explanations offered for why the Russian government had some sort of domestic political interest in vetoing the resolution and all are general variations on a theme: Putin and his cohort are facing increasing pressures on their political survival and the Syria veto sends a signal that benefits them vis-a-vis opposition forces.

Walter Russell Mead suggests that the veto is meant to boost Putin's reputation as a hardliner, look good domestically, and co-opt the increasingly agitated ultra-nationalists:
First point: domestic politics. Putin is running for reelection, and although the clueless MSM (the ones who thought the Egyptian revolution was all about liberals and tweeting) instinctively sees the issue as a contest between Putin and liberals, the opposition that worries him is on the right. They are ultra-nationalists and fascists steeped in crazy-think conspiracy theories and full of fear and hate.
I mentioned two weeks ago that Putin is likely to continue ratcheting up his confrontational rhetoric in the run-up to the Presidential elections (with the caveat that I was also skeptical as to how effective it will be). Certainly there's a logic behind the "tough talk," but I think Mead is conflating the rhetoric with the policy here.  Putin doesn't need the veto in order to bash the West. As in the Libya case, Russia could have abstained while continuing to voice its objections to interventionism. Any reputational costs that would have resulted from failing to stand up to a "NATO intervention" would have been negligible as it's clear that the likelihood that Western powers will independently use force against Syria is very low (compared to Libya). Certainly the  veto helps the spin, but it is in no way essential given the Kremlin's vast media resources.

More importantly though, Mead also overstates the extent to which those nationalists dissatisfied with Putin care about the government's foreign policy. As Igor Torbakov noted in a post on EurasiaNet, the nationalists that would be attracted to such shows of strength are already squarely in the government's camp. The ones that pose a threat to Putin are the cultural nationalists who are already staunch anti-statists.
Nationalism in Russia has undergone a dramatic shift lately, one that Putin, apparently, has been slow to catch on to. Two competing strains of nationalism have always existed in the country – one that can be described as imperial, or statist nationalism, the other ethno-cultural. The first worshipped the state, its power and international prestige; the second glorified the nation, its culture and faith. Throughout Russian history, statists have tended to hold a pragmatic view of nationalism, seeing it mostly as an instrument to strengthen state institutions and bolster the authority of the ruling class. As such, statists have traditionally favored territorial expansion, followed by efforts to assimilate minority groups. 
Radical ethnic nationalists, on the other hand, see no place for non-Russians in the state. This strain of nationalism, naturally, has caused particular problems for imperialists, whether they have been Russian tsars, Soviet commissars or Putinists advocating “managed democracy” and relying on energy policy to expand their influence in the near abroad.
In recent years, economic hardship has boosted the popularity of ethnic nationalism at the expense of the imperial variety. This trend is underscored by the growing popularity of the slogan “Russia for the Russians.” Putin, who clearly aligns himself with the imperial school, has been reluctant to acknowledge this trend. Instead, he has tended to oversimplify the rise of ethnic nationalists, casting them as trouble-makers whose ideas could encourage the disintegration of the Russian Federation.
In essence, the Syria veto would only "boost" Putin's popularity among those Russians who already accept his  tough foreign policy credentials and therefore, are already likely supporters.When it comes to getting the nationalist vote, Putin has either done enough (in the case of the "statist" nationalists) or can simply do nothing.

So I'm unconvinced by the popularity argument since it seems to only explain the rhetoric and not the policy. But what if the goal is not to gain popularity, but simply to show strength? Facing an increasingly vocal protest movement, Putin may be seeking to dissuade additional protesters by signalling his staunch commitment to staying in power, whatever the costs. Assisting a leader who is actively repressing protesters may be a veiled threat to the Russian opposition that similar actions will be taken by the government if their protests go to far.  Michael Weiss and Julia Pettengill made this argument last week in Foreign Policy:
These demonstrations, coupled with the general weariness at the decline of living standards and increasing state corruption, have raised the possibility that Putin may not secure a majority in the first round of voting, a contingency he has acknowledged as possible -- though it would no doubt be politically disastrous for him and his ruling United Russia party. As a consequence, Putin is attempting to shore up his reputation as an unyielding strongman abroad to detract from the increasing perception of weakness at home.

Putin has not had a significant foreign policy standoff since the 2008 Russian-Georgian War, which was billed as an effort to reclaim Russia's "near abroad" from creeping Western and NATO influence. He opposed, but did not veto, the Security Council's authorization of a NATO-imposed no-fly zone in Libya last year. He now appears to be compensating for that acquiescence by backing a friendly tyrant and showing a wobbly electorate that Russia won't be pushed around by American and European democracy-promoters.
On face this makes sense and may indeed be part of the Putin government's reasoning behind vetoing the UN resolution and backing Assad. However, it too is a poor explanation for the simple fact that supporting a foreign government does very little to make its threats against the protesters more credible. At best it's just more costless talk - it doesn't actually make it more difficult for Putin to concede to protest demands.

James Hollyer and Peter Rosendorff's research on why autocracies that practice torture ratify the Convention Against Torture (CAT) is particularly relevant here. Their theory is that dictators want to convince domestic opposition movements that they will not resign from power without a fight, thereby decreasing the expected benefit to protests and lessening their number. The "badass" theory of torture (to use James Vreeland's phrase) suggests that autocrats use foreign policy tools to constrain themselves in order to make their threats more credible. They can certainly talk tough, but protesters have no reason to believe them, so leaders must make an actual commitment. This is where the CAT comes in. By signing the CAT and then proceeding to torture, leaders signal that they have no easy escape route once faced with protests. They can't resign and flee to an Italian villa because the CAT's principle of universal jurisdiction ensures that they will face prosecution upon losing power. The goal is to show protesters that there is no conceivable way that they can win short of a massive, protracted fight, thus deterring protests from developing in the first place.

So does Putin look more like a "badass" after the veto? Not really. Maybe supporting Assad creates some reputational costs for backing down, but that's true of all of the aggressive rhetoric being issued from the Kremlin. Putin is certainly committed to supporting Assad, especially given the extensive economic and political ties between Russia and Syria, but as far as Russian protesters are concerned, this does not increase the actual likelihood that Putin will crackdown on protesters. The government is no more committed to repress now than it would be if it had not backed Assad. There is no new credible threat.

This is not to discount the potential for costless threats to be meaningful. Backing Assad certainly makes Putin look like a tougher leader, even if there's no substantive reason to believe that he is. Polling done in December by the Levada Center suggests that the message may be working. 43% of respondents think that the government will do everything in its power to avoid a recount of the Duma elections while only 17% believe the government will accede to the protesters demands. Moreover, 43% of respondents think that protesters should back down if the government turns to tougher measures to crush the protests while only 16% think that protests should continue. Its important to also note the large number of respondents who are "unsure" - 40 and 41 percent in both polls. While it's unclear how these individuals would answer if pressed further, the early polling does show that a significant number of Russians think that the government is likely to increase its repressive measures against protesters and that protesters should subsequently back down - precisely the deterrent effect that the government wants. However, its obviously impossible to determine whether Syria factored into the public's reasoning, and given how little attention Russians paid to Libya, it may be safe to say its influence was rather small.

Ultimately, I am skeptical that domestic politics played a key role in the decision to back Syria. Or more specifically, there may be domestic incentives to support Assad, but increasing Putin's popularity or showing strength to the opposition are relatively minor. The real "domestic politics" explanation for Russia's backing of the Syria government likely has more to do with the commercial interests of those with strong ties to the Kremlin. Syria is one of the last remaining dedicated clients of the Russian arms export industry. Moreover, Russian companies have concluded an extensive series of oil and gas contracts with Syrian state energy enterprises. For example, Stroytransgaz, which recently renegotiated its contract with the Syrian Gas Company, is owned by Gennady Timchenko, one of the key "new oligarchs" connected to Putin. Vetoing the UNSC resolution may simply be good backroom politics, but I'm doubtful that Putin's Syria strategy will have much effect on the ongoing opposition protests.

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