Russia considering time-honored “Cut and Run” tactic from UN’s South Sudan mission

News came across the wire today that Russia is considering withdrawing their 120 peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission to South Sudan (UNMISS), charged with stabilizing the security of the new country. While the number may not seem like a lot, the Russians would also take home their four utility helicopters, which are used for transport from the UNMISS base to points across the country. Russia formerly operated eight helicopters in the state, having already pulled half back in December after incidents of South Sudanese security forces attacking the choppers. From Reuters:

Russia’s U.N. mission said in a statement to Reuters that Moscow was “alarmed” by attacks on utility helicopters operated by the Russian military for UNMISS.

“Recently the situation in providing security to the Russian helicopter crews has been deteriorating,” the mission said.

But a mission spokesman made clear that a final decision on whether or not to pull out of UNMISS had not been made. “Administrative matters pertaining to a new letter of assist (contract with the U.N.) are being discussed by the parties,” the spokesman said.

To cover for the shortage of helicopters in South Sudan, [the UN] said UNMISS would be temporarily using helicopters from the U.N. mission in Democratic Republic of the Congo and a separate Ethiopian stabilization force, called UNISFA, currently in the disputed Abyei region bordering north and South Sudan.

The lack of helicopters has been blamed for the slow United Nations response to the violence that took place earlier this month in area surrounding Pibor. Inner City Press reports that while it is true that Russian helicopters refused to take-off at the request of the mission, that the copters themselves weren’t technically at the call of UNMISS. Rather, they were provided to the now defunct UNMIS, with the agreement between the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Russian government having expired on December 1st. This is clearly the fault of the United Nations Secretariat, but it shouldn’t be an impetus for Russian withdrawal, with the Russians arguing that their peacekeepers are being kept safe.

I sincerely hope that the Russians don’t withdraw from the Mission. Because if they do? They’ll be showing adherence to a time-honored tradition when it comes to United Nations peacekeeping missions: weakness. ‘This mission isn’t precisely what I intended, ergo I must bail’. For a state that prides itself on bucking Western-norms, Russia seems to be lining right up with the rest of the developed world when it comes to providing forces to these missions. Risks are acceptable, so long as its only forces from Uganda or Bangladesh accepting them, never mind that the developed states are the only ones with the technology that can further improve the likelihood of success for the mandates we approved.

I may be called hypocritical, in light of the United States’ continued refusal to commit forces under the banner of the United Nations, instead preferring to call the shots while under the veneer of UN approval. Well, I would say the exact same thing if the was the US who was withdrawing, all other factors being the same. Comparisons to the US withdrawal in Somalia would be unfair, however; in that instance, the unclear mission and overreach by the United States in terms of mandate led to the situation in Mogadishu that prompted withdrawal. The case for Russia to pull the same move isn’t equivalent, as there have been precisely zero casualties. Even the Belgians withdrawal from Rwanda, a state where a genocide was actively occurring, took place after actual deaths of soldiers; the situation here is a product of bureaucratic wrangling and lack of will.

Don’t for a second think that I’m discounting the difficulty inherent in the job of peacekeepers themselves, soldiers from other lands, often times with confused instructions and loyalties. I can’t imagine being deployed to UN operations, knowing that you are potentially volunteering your life in a part of the world where you have no interest in being. But that’s part of the point. The blue helmets know what they are signing up for. Or at least their government does. And it is the government that chooses to withdraw their contributions. It seems to me that it’s almost worse for a member-state to contribute forces, then feign shock when there are actual guns being fired in these locales and a security apparatus in need of reform. It’s right there in the mandate that UNMISS forces are expected to “deter violence including through proactive deployment and patrols in areas at high risk of conflict, within its capabilities and in its areas of deployment, protecting civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, in particular when the Government of the Republic of South Sudan is not providing such security”.  

The United Nations’ forces in the field can’t be taken seriously as a force for stabilization, not when it’s known to everyone with a semi-automatic that a few rounds fired or an incorrectly filed piece of paperwork can cause the withdrawal of key members. And it is the lack of serious, well-trained troops being available at the UN’s call that leads to issues of inefficiency in the ranks and having to sacrifice hastening missions into their intended states or thorough training. It’s a miracle at times when states are actually willing to contribute these forces and a heartbreak when they’re called home prematurely. South Sudan needs all the help it can get if it’s to survive as a newly independent state. Moscow claims that it has not made a final decision on whether to end its participation in UNMISS. I can only hope that I’ll be surprised by their choice.

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