However annoying, failure to engage Russia is not an option

UN Photo/Rick Bajornas. Russia and US brief media on Middle East.


By Jochen Prantl

First published in Yale Online16 February 2016.

A strategic objective in engaging Russia must emphasize the profitability of balanced foreign policy in bridging East and West

UN negotiations to end the five-year civil war in Syria and form a transitional government will resume at the end of this month. With 250,000 people dead and more than half of the 22 million pre-war population either internally displaced or refugees, the talks are a litmus test for the key external stakeholders, especially the United States and Russia, to negotiate shared principles underlying peace and order. Russia’s September military intervention in Syria, in support of President Bashar al-Assad, has turned Moscow into a pivotal player in the region. The agenda is currently being set by an alliance formed by Russia, Iran and Assad. The danger of a proxy US-Russian conflict is real. Also, should Iraq request help from Russia in fighting Islamic State, the proxy conflict may escalate into direct confrontation between Washington and Moscow. Russia needs to be convinced that an immediate ceasefire rather than the continuation of war serves its long-term interests.

A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, the crisis has raised serious concerns about global security, especially at a time when the balance of power is rapidly shifting to the East and South. According to a well-cited Harvard study by Graham Allison, 12 out of 16 cases of power transitions over the past 500 years indicate that war is the norm rather than the exception. Resetting political relations with post-Soviet Russia – beyond the selective engagement on Iran and Syria, by building a partnership based on equality and mutual respect – is a matter of priority. The Obama administration’s 2009 reset in US-Russia relations has fallen short of achieving that objective.

Russia has significant capacity to help or hinder global and regional peace. From a grand strategic perspective, three factors stand out:

  • According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s 2015 Yearbook, Russia possesses 7,500 nuclear warheads of which 1,780 are deployed on missiles and on bases with operational forces. It also maintains 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons with lower yield munitions that can be used in the battlefield. Unlike China, Russia’s most recent nuclear doctrine – reaffirmed in December 2014 – permits the first use of nuclear weapons in response to conventional attacks that pose existential threats. At the same time, with the third-largest military budget in the world, Moscow has invested in nuclear and conventional modernization programs, recouping its power projection capabilities in the region and beyond.
  • In 2010-14, the United States and Russia combined supplied 58 percent of all international transfers of major weapons. Almost two thirds of Russian arms exports went to three countries – India, China, and Algeria (SIPRI 2015).
  • Russia has had its own pivot to Asia in the military, energy and trade realms. This has been driven by both the desire to become an integral part of the so-called Asian Century and deterioration of its relations with the West. This strategic realignment may well help Russia to become a force to be reckoned with in the East Asian security order. Notably, a major overhaul will be transforming Russia’s Pacific fleet from its smallest to its biggest naval asset, with implications for boosting regional power-projection capabilities.

Russia, by pursing a balanced foreign policy, could become a bridge between East and West – and profit.

In a nutshell, Russia is still strategically too significant to fail. It retains its permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Russia’s vast geography extends across Northern Asia and Eastern Europe – it is part of both East and West. This geographical position poses challenge and opportunity. It is a challenge since Russia may find itself between a rock and a hard place, excluded from both the West and the East, isolated and encircled. But geography can also be an opportunity, if Russia fully embraces its Eurasian roots and pursues a balanced foreign policy to profit from and become a bridge between East and West. This ought to be the strategic objective of Western and Eastern engagement.

For Moscow, but also for Russia’s neighbors in Europe and Asia, diplomacy needs to be put back on center stage. A strong focus on identifying areas of common interest – including counterterrorism, nuclear and conventional arms control – rather than a divisive exchange about a clash of values and worldviews should top of everyone’s policy agendas.

Failure to engage Russia is not an option. Low oil prices create good conditions for engagement.

Post-Cold War stability depends on the effective renegotiation of “the rules of the game” driving international cooperation in the long-term. Moscow’s military interventions in Syria – and eastern Ukraine – intended to send a strong signal to external parties: Russia acts on its own terms and does not follow rules superimposed by the West. In both cases, Moscow has modified the rules of the game in its favor, changing the status quo without negotiation. Whatever we make of Putin’s politics, failure to engage Russia is not an option. The collapse of global oil prices has created favorable conditions for engagement. With oil and gas accounting for 70 percent of Russian export incomes, its economy is under immense pressure.

The most reliable foundation for a sustainable partnership is to engage Russia on more equal terms within a greater Eurasian security community, to enfranchise Russia in such a way that it will play a constructive role because it has equal stakes and status. This is still unfinished post-Cold War business. Related proposals – similar in their intent but different in detail – have been discussed in Europe and Asia. Ideally, this security community would provide a catalyst for synergies between regional institutions and initiatives such as the European Union, NATO, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and China’s One Belt One Road Initiative.

At the societal level, recent high-level conferences inside and outside of Russia have highlighted the uneasiness of Russian scholars, practitioners and students with the status quo. Among the ones attended by the author: the 10th General Conference of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, Confidence Building in the Asia-Pacific: The Security Architecture of the 21st Century in October in Mongolia; Moscow State University International Congress, Globalistics-2015: Global Governance and Diplomacy in an Unstable World in October; and the Russian Association of Political Science and Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Political Science in the Face of Contemporary Political Challenges in November.

Russian scholars and practitioners, uneasy with the status quo, seek frank exchange and mutual respect.


Discussions reflect a widespread sense of isolation, a sense of betrayal by the United States and Europe, and a sense of detachment from the rest of the world. The breadth and depth of these anti-Western sentiments render them difficult to dismiss simply as a shared delusion of the Russian intelligentsia. These audiences display a worrying preoccupation with the prospect of a third world war, which could potentially erupt over regional flashpoints such as eastern Ukraine and Syria. On the positive side, there is a strong desire – probably exacerbated by the current Western sanctions – for frank exchange, mutual respect, equal partnership, recognition, and for being “a normal modern country.”

A recurrent theme emerging at such conferences is the vital importance of exposing the next generation of Russian scholars and practitioners to the contemporary world, and of exposing foreigners – students and scholars alike – to Russian ideas and thinking. This is the vital entry point for universities in Europe, the United States and the Asia-Pacific, foundations, and public policy institutions to step in and facilitate intellectual exchange centered on mutual understanding and confidence-building. Such initiatives existed even at the height of the Cold War.

As the 19th century Russian philosopher and historian Nikolai Danilevski put it, the essence of progress “is not going in one direction … but in walking all over the entire field of historical activity, and in every direction.” The double-headed eagle in Russia’s coat of arms, looking East and West, suggests just that.


Four things you need to know about the Syrian ‘ceasefire’ agreement

Jeni Whalan

The Syrian agreement announced on Friday is far from a comprehensive breakthrough, but it’s a significant step, particularly if we look at what’s required to successfully negotiate peace, writes Jeni Whalan.

Amid the brutality of Syria’s five-year civil war, it’s easy to be cynical about the latest peace deal. Critics have already labelled it “a sham“, merely “political cover” for Russia and the US, and – more colourfully – “as shot full of holes as an Aleppo apartment building“.

To many observers, it is just diplomatic hot air.

Certainly, the agreement announced on Friday is far from a comprehensive breakthrough. It won’t end the fighting nor ensure that sustained humanitarian relief reaches all those in need. But it is significant step, particularly if we take a long view of what’s required to successfully negotiate peace.

1. It’s not a ceasefire

Technically, the agreement is for a cessation of hostilities to begin within a week, and for the immediate delivery of humanitarian aid to seven priority areas as “a first step toward full, sustained, and unimpeded access throughout the country“.

A “cessation of hostilities” is generally understood to be less ambitious than a ceasefire, particularly as it was agreed not by the Syrian parties themselves but by a group of 17 countries with a stake in the war – chief among them, the US and Russia.

The agreement excludes two main parties to the conflict: Islamic State, which controls territory in Syria’s east, and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate. These two groups will continue to be legitimate targets for parties within and beyond Syria, but their exclusion also means they can continue their attacks throughout the country. Expect both to play spoiler to any tentative cooperation between the Assad government and opposition groups.

2. Forging an international deal first may help a Syrian deal to follow

Peace agreements, particularly in the most difficult conflicts, often begin as deals among international players who then persuade, pressure and even coerce their local allies to comply. This internationally led model was used in the peace deal that ended the Bosnian war in 1995; as Christopher Hill, one of its negotiators, recalled:

First, an international “contact group” agreed on a framework for peace. Then, the parties directly involved in the conflict were brought in to reach agreement within the framework. That may sound patronising, but it worked.

This approach has merit in a civil war as internationalised as Syria’s. While lasting peace must ultimately be Syrian-led, getting these international parties to agree the basic parameters of a deal is an essential first step.

3. Russia can now get (more of) what it wants

Recent Russian airstrikes have decisively tipped the battlefield in favour of the Assad government. As in Ukraine, Russia’s military action makes it better able to get its way on what it sees as core security interests – in this case, continuing rule by the Assad regime.

Much now depends on Russia’s own compliance with the cessation of hostilities. Despite claiming to target Islamic State, the overwhelming majority of Russian bombs have instead pummelled the Syrian opposition, killing over 1000 civilians. If Russia continues to target the moderate opposition groups under claim that they are terrorists, Friday’s agreement will be dead in the water. More likely is that, satisfied with recent advances and cautious about the costs of an expanded military campaign, Russia will be content for now to see its newly acquired advantage play out in the negotiating room.

4. The deal won’t hold, but peace talks must continue

As I have argued previously, the road to a peace deal is always paved with failed negotiations. Ceasefires require continued renegotiation and violations are commonplace, even once a comprehensive settlement is reached.

So what should we expect of this agreement? Hostilities, if they do cease, will resume. Aid delivery, if it does begin, will again be obstructed. Violence will probably flare as all sides seek the most advantageous position before the cessation of hostilities effectively freezes them in place.

But even if the agreement does little more than allow a temporary period of humanitarian relief for people in Syria’s besieged cities, it will have been worthwhile. While Russian airdrops are far from the ideal means of aid delivery, even a brief alleviation of human suffering is surely a positive outcome. More significantly, the deal provides a foundation from which further humanitarian access can be negotiated.

Finally, the agreement should be judged not on whether fighting ceases but whether it allows UN talks to resume, as planned, at the end of the month. It is not a coincidence that its key features address the Syrian opposition’s preconditions for talks. But as John Kerry put it on Friday, much more will be required than simply words on paper.

UN Photo/Mark Garten, Jordan Camp Host to Thousands of Syrian Cross-Border Refugees

We must not give up on Syrian peace talks

First published by The Drum, 5 February 2016

 It’s easy to be sceptical of political negotiations about Syria, especially when talks have already been suspended. But with patience and a herculean effort, peace is possible, writes Jeni Whalan.


Secretary-General meeting with President of the European Council.
Secretary-General Ban-Ki-moon with Staffan de Mistura, his Special Envoy for Syria, during the Syria Donors Conference 2016 in London.

But the road to a peace deal is always paved with failed negotiations, particularly when it must traverse terrain as dangerous as the Syrian war.

The inevitable setbacks that will plague mediation efforts must be met by redoubled international efforts to wrest a diplomatic solution from a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people, forced more than half the population to flee their homes, and left 13.5 million people in Syria in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

No one expected a breakthrough peace deal this week – not the UN mediator ( operating under the spectre of two previous rounds of failed Geneva talks), not the US, not Russia, nor the regional heavyweights variously aligned with opposing sides of the conflict, not the Assad regime (currently laying siege to 15 Syrian cities and denying a ravaged civilian population urgently needed supplies), and not the fragmented opposition factions (under new pressure from Russian airstrikes and severed supply-lines).

No one even expected the warring parties to sit in the same room, let alone talk directly. Representatives of both the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition had declared their unwillingness to actually negotiate, even via the ‘proximity talks’ model (in which the UN team shuttles between the parties).

While we must never take our eye off the end goal, just getting to the negotiating table – or even to separate rooms in Geneva – is significant.

Simply getting the key Syrian players to agree to turn up at all can rightly be hailed a victory by the negotiating team.

With prospects so bleak, it is easy to be a critic. The three-week pause in negotiations is unlikely to alter the overwhelmingly pessimistic predictions; the talks will come to nothing, they will give the warring parties time and new cause to escalate fighting, and they will strengthen the Islamic State.

Yes, these talks have failed to provide any tangible relief from the scale of human suffering in Syria and a ceasefire deal is a long way off. But that’s how peace talks work: slowly, erratically, and usually thanks only to politically serendipitous conditions that have little to do with the civil war itself.

Take the Bosnian war. There too, negotiators attempted to forge peace amid intense fighting, unspeakable atrocities committed by thugs who would eventually be convicted of war crimes, devastating urban sieges, and a massive outpouring of refugees.

The Bosnian war was eventually settled under the Dayton Peace Agreement, frequently invoked as a model for Syria, but only after the failure of 30 mediation attempts and ten negotiated agreements.

Negotiating peace in Syria is a far more difficult prospect. Not since Cambodia has a civil war attracted such focused diplomacy from outside players with such divergent interests. It took a decade of international attention, 15 distinct mediation attempts, and the end of the Cold War before a comprehensive Cambodian peace deal was finally signed in 1991 – including by the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

Lebanon’s second civil war saw 28 mediated ceasefires before a comprehensive peace agreement was signed in 1989.

Convincing bitter enemies to lay down their arms and agree the terms of lasting peace is among the most difficult tasks of international affairs.

Sierra Leone’s conflict ended only after mediation attempts by 55 different negotiating teams.

While we must never take our eye off the end goal, just getting to the negotiating table – or even to separate rooms in Geneva – is significant.

Inconclusive mediation now can still lay essential foundations for a concrete settlement later. Talks allow warring parties to gather new information, reconsider their views of the enemy, and identify potential areas of common ground that can’t be gleaned from battlefield tactics.

Negotiations let parties articulate their case to one another, to their constituents, and to the world at large. Talks have already pushed the disparate Syrian opposition groups to formulate a common position, to negotiate among themselves, and maybe even to develop a united front.

Talking about talks is, in other words, a crucial part of any peace process. For mediators, talks increase their familiarity with the warring parties, making more transparent the political dynamics within each faction and possibly identifying moderate blocs more favourable to negotiation.

Convincing bitter enemies to lay down their arms and agree the terms of lasting peace is among the most difficult tasks of international affairs.

In Syria, it will require a herculean effort. A decisive breakthrough will probably be the result of dynamics far from the devastation of Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus.

But negotiators – and those committed to eventual peace in Syria – must be ready to seize that window of opportunity when it eventually appears.

Australia adds weight in global leadership

ml-artw-leadership-20131028173741200955-620x349 In world diplomacy, the Security Council has been a vital proving ground.

The Canberra Times29 October 2013

Jeremy Farrall and Jeni Whalan

Australia is almost halfway through its two-year elected term on the UN Security Council. Our delegation has acquitted itself well, particularly in the ceremonial role of council president in September. Hopes are high that Australia can build on its 2013 achievements to craft a lasting legacy as a productive contributor to global peace and security.

During the first half of 2013 Australia made solid contributions to the Security Council’s work, primarily in its work as chair of the committees overseeing sanctions against Iran, al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It also worked behind the scenes to coax other council members to support action to address the shocking humanitarian situation in Syria. An example of these efforts was Australia’s sponsorship of an informal briefing for Security Council members by a UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

Australia’s most important test came in September, when we assumed the temporary position of Security Council president. Preparations for the presidency were hampered by the timing of federal elections, which complicated efforts to arrange a flagship high-level council meeting on a theme of Australia’s choosing. As president Australia also faced the considerable challenge of managing differences between council members on how to address the crisis in Syria. Tensions over Syria were particularly high following the August 21 use of chemical weapons against civilians in Damascus.

Despite these challenges, Australia managed to preside over three important high-level meetings and secure the adoption of two landmark resolutions. The first high-level meeting, on September 26, was on stopping the illegal flow of small arms and light weapons. Australia chose this theme to build on its successful efforts earlier this year as chair of the final conference for the Arms Trade Treaty. It was the Security Council’s first formal meeting on small arms for five years and Australia’s leadership ensured that an intensive negotiation process culminated in the adoption of the council’s first ever resolution on small arms.

The second high-level meeting, on September 27, discussed the situation in Yemen, where an ongoing national dialogue process is making progress towards a more peaceful, inclusive transition to democracy, notwithstanding ongoing security, political and humanitarian concerns, particularly in the south of the country.

In the third high-level meeting, late on September 27, the Security Council took its first action in 18 months to address the situation in Syria. In one of its final acts as president, Australia thus presided over the adoption of resolution 2118 (2013), which endorsed the framework agreed by the United States and Russia for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. As Australia’s ambassador Gary Quinlan noted at the time, this was a momentous occasion.

After a successful first year of membership, Australia now has greater diplomatic capital with which to address important global issues that might otherwise escape the attention of the Security Council’s major powers.

While the threat of military strikes against Syria is no longer immediate, there is little respite for the seven million people in need of humanitarian assistance. On October 2, a joint Australia-Luxembourg initiative culminated in a presidential statement calling for all UN member states to contribute with urgency to the ongoing humanitarian appeals for Syria. At $4.4 billion, the Syrian appeals constitute the largest aid request in the UN’s history. Barely half the funding needs have so far been met. A crucial test of Australia’s leadership will be whether it can maintain its commendable record on Syria’s humanitarian crisis, both in and outside the Security Council.

Australia should continue its efforts to improve Security Council transparency and accountability. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) initiative, once championed by Australia, has fallen out of favour with many UN members as an unfortunate consequence of NATO’s over-enthusiastic implementation of the mandate to protect civilians in Libya. One way to restore confidence in R2P would be to develop appropriate accountability mechanisms for civilian protection mandates. Australia should also encourage careful review within the council of recent shifts in UN peacekeeping practice, including the authorisation of ”combat peacekeepers” and surveillance drones in the Congo, a controversial new mission in Mali, and expanded efforts to counter organised crime and terrorism throughout Africa.

Finally, Australia is the ”penholder” on Afghanistan – the nickname for a Security Council member that takes the lead on the issue’s deliberations. With both elections and the ”transition” of NATO-led international operations due in 2014, Australia will play a crucial role in shaping the future role and status of the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA).

Australia has 14 more months on the Security Council, including another turn as monthly president. Australia’s legacy will be shaped by our ability to use this time to promote political and humanitarian progress in Syria, increase the council’s transparency and accountability, strengthen peacekeeping practice and promote a constructive role for the UN in Afghanistan.

Let’s hope our diplomats have the stamina and support to achieve positive outcomes on all these fronts.

Read more:

Will Australia make the most of its Security Council presidency?

UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré. Julie Bishop, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Commonwealth of Australia.

As the federal election calls Australian attention to matters domestic, our diplomats are preparing for one of their most demanding briefs. On September 1, Australia becomes President of the United Nations Security Council.

Will Australia make the most of its opportunity? Or will politics at home overshadow this crucial role?

first published by The Conversation28 August 2013

Jeremy Farrall and Jeni Whalan

The Security Council is the world’s preeminent authority on matters of international security. It is accorded primary responsibility under the UN Charter for identifying threats to the peace and determining appropriate global responses.

The presidency of the Security Council offers a rare opportunity for Australia to promote its foreign policy agenda within this powerful body, usually by focusing the council’s 15 members on a particular issue of concern. Historically, council presidents have used their tenure to tackle such important issues as preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, protecting civilians in conflict, and promoting justice and the rule of law.

September is a big month at the UN. Not only will our diplomats need to contend with the distractions of the Australian election, they also face a demanding list of precarious international situations before the Security Council.

Last week’s allegations that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against civilians will demand the council’s attention. However, the Syrian conflict exposes the deep political divisions between the council’s permanent members. Russiaand China have repeatedly blocked proposals from the United States, Britain and France for action against the Syrian government. Russian support for an independent UN investigation of the chemical weapons attack is a positive move, but is not expected to lead to Security Council consensus on further action.

Meanwhile, the council is also managing fragile conditions in countries around the world. These include the Democratic Republic of Congo, where earlier this year the council authorised the UN’s first combat peacekeeping operation; the Central African Republic, where deteriorating political, security and humanitarian crises have left 1.6 million people in dire need of assistance, half of them children; and Sudan and South Sudan, where violent conflict and humanitarian crises have occupied the council in 17 meetings this year alone.

Further, the council currently oversees 31 peacekeeping and field-based political missions spanning the globe, including the hotspots of AfghanistanMali and Somalia.

Given the international turmoil and domestic election campaign, why does Australia take on the presidency in September? The simple reason is that the Security Council presidency rotates on a monthly basis according to which country comes next in the English alphabet.

Due to our favourable alphabetical position, Australia was actually the first ever president of the Security Council. On Thursday January 17, 1946, the council’s inaugural meeting was called to order by none other than Australian Norman Makin. The presidency is currently held by Argentina, which will hand us the presidential baton at 12.01 am on Sunday September 1. We will then dutifully pass it to Azerbaijan at 12.01 am on Tuesday October 1. The monthly presidential rotation also means that Australia will have a second opportunity to be president in November 2014.

So what can we expect Australia to do in September while it holds the presidency? As president, we will set the Security Council’s agenda, chair its meetings, sign off on formal correspondence and speak to the press as the official voice of the council. Savvy past presidents have also taken advantage of their position to promote Security Council policy refinements.

If Australia’s performance to date on the council is any indication, then the day-to-day business of the Security Council should proceed smoothly and effectively. Our delegation will undoubtedly fulfil its chairing responsibilities diligently and professionally. But it would be terrific if Australia could use its presidency to deliver more durable improvements in the Security Council’s effectiveness and credibility.

The scheduling of national elections for September was less than ideal for our Security Council presidency. Normally, a September presidency would be a golden opportunity to shape the council’s approach to pressing issues of the day. This is because heads of state and government from the UN’s 193 member states will converge on New York in the third week of September for the annual UN General Assemblyleaders’ week.

An Australian prime minister could therefore preside over a leaders’ level Security Council meeting on their favoured cause, with potential attendees including presidents Obama, Putin, Jinping and Hollande, as well as UK prime minister David Cameron. This would represent a full house of thePermanent Five members.

In the past, September presidents have shone the spotlight on protecting children affected by armed conflict (Germany in 2012), preventing nuclear proliferation (United States in 2009) and maintaining peace and security in Africa (France in 2007).

At the time of writing, Australia has still not announced what its flagship presidency theme will be. Insiders suggest that a rabbit is waiting to be pulled out of the presidency hat. It might be promoting a greater role for women in peace-building, protecting civilians in Syria, strengthening the rule of law in countries emerging from conflict or banning illegal trade in small arms and light weapons.

In light of recent Syrian events and Australia’s own historic role in the successful conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention over 20 years ago, this would also be an opportune moment to devote renewed energy to arms control.

Let us hope that Australia makes the most of this opportunity to promote an important theme that will improve the effectiveness and credibility of the Security Council. If we can do this, then we might be remembered not just as a country that worked hard as council president, but as one whose hard work in that position made a difference.