Archive for ‘Russia’

May 8, 2012

Rough Edges: The Changing Dynamics of the P-5

In the span of a few weeks, Sarkozy is out, Putin is back, and the dynamics of the United Nations Security Council may just be about to get very interesting. Francois Hollande’s victory in the French Presidential election only served to highlight the potential for a shift in the Council’s internal dymanics that 2012 brings. The United Kingdom stands alone of the P-5 in not having to deal with a changeover in government, or the potentiality of such an event, in 2012, thanks to the Fixed-terms Parliament Act of 2011. Of the other four, two have held their elections already, one more of a forgone conclusion than a true race.  The final, arguably most powerful members of the Council, still have several months to go of grappling for power. In spite of these changes, actual and potential, in the upper echelons of their ruling mechanisms, the Permanent Five of the Security Council remain in their seats, constant no matter the guiding foreign policy principles of the individual at the head of the government. Instead, rather than policy, it is the working styles and level of tension between the Five that is prone to be altered the most by year’s end.

Though it was the most easily foreseen shift, the one with the greatest likely repercussion on the Council is the return of Vladimir Putin to the de jure leadership of Russia. While many, myself included, had hoped that Dmitry Medvedev’s Presidency was more than just a placeholder, keeping the seat warm for Putin, that was clearly just a pipedream. With his re-ascendancy, there’s a toss-up for the likely foreign policy repercussions. On the one hand, Putin’s return could lead to an increased antagonism with the West, which Russia under Medvedev had seen wane slightly. The “reset”, already under siege on both sides, could shatter entirely with a more belligerent Moscow flexing its muscles.

Such a restoration would mean that the obstinacy showed by Foreign Minsiter Sergei Lavrov and UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin throughout Medvedev’s rule could be turned up to 11. Lavrov, himself a former Permanent Representative, is decidedly more hardline than his now former President, which means his unleashing could be quite the show in Parliament. In a practical sense, the Council’s current debates centered around whether the norms of sovereignty and humanitarian intervention have shifted may have an even sharper divide in the coming six years, as highlighted in a document signed by Putin yesterday declaring  that Russia will “counter attempts to use human rights concepts as an instrument of political pressure and interference in the internal affairs of states”.

Not everyone is convinced that this is the path that Russia will take in the Council, including on matters such as the Syrian conundrum. Thom Woodroofe believes that with Putin back in command, Russia may still serve as the impetus for peace between Damascus and the opposition. Such an event would be in line with the theory that Vladimir’s antagonism towards the West and the United States in particular during his campaign was a trumped-up act to remind Russians of his toughness. Regardless of its intent for domestic consumption, it may prove more difficult than predicted for Mr. Putin to walk back his rhetoric, as indicated in a CSIS paper on the topic. In either case, the Russian playbook in Turtle Bay is unlikely to significantly change, with the rules lawyering and veto threats that are a staple of Russian negotiation remaining constant; the most noticeable alteration will be the regularity with which these tactics are unleashed and against what broad concepts or minutiae they are brought to bear.

Meanwhile, Francois Hollande’s move to the Élysée Palace is unlikely to set off a scramble to determine France’s new position on the Council. While during the campaign, Hollande made much political hay over the style of Sarkozy’s diplomatic repertoire, the substance lay mostly untouched. The largest change that is likely to come from the shift may be seen in France’s interplay with two members of the Council that it has been in close alliance with over the past year and a half: the United States and non-permanent member Germany. The Germans and French have been working mostly in tandem to end the threat of a renewed Eurozone crisis, with Paris following Germany’s lead in calling for further austerity. That attitude is a large factor in Mr. Sarkozy’s toppling, and Mr. Hollande has made clear that he would prefer to veer away from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s prescriptions for growth. This split over economic matters may spill over into Turtle Bay for the remainder of Germany’s term, as a renewed, though highly moderated, Franco-German tension may be on the horizon.

As for the United States, Sarkozy was often called “Sarko the American” at home for his unabashed desire to ally with the US on most issues. While President-Elect Hollande has given no indication that he means to completely reverse the strengthening of ties that Mr. Sarkozy sought, he has already announced several policies that are sure to rub Washington the wrong way, including an early withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. With regard to working with the rest of the Council on its Agenda, much of that working relationship will be determined once Mr. Hollande names his Foreign Minister and Permanent Representative to the United Nations. French policy itself at the UN will largely remain unchanged, though slightly less sharp in tone. France will still take a keen interest in the affairs of its former colonies in Africa, and Mr. Hollande has made clear that he does not intend to roll back the former Administration’s beliefs on humanitarian intervention. Indeed, Mr. Hollande will likely prove to be almost as tough on Iran and Syria as Mr. Sarkozy himself.

China’s transfer of power is by far the most opaque of those taking place. Few ascendancies are certain, but among those that are include the naming of Xi Jingpeng as the successor of President Hu Jintao. While that may be decided, there appears to be a growing internal power struggle among the Politburo for just who will sit on the Standing Committee which runs China. The discord, borne of the precipitous fall of Bo Xilai, is severe enough to threaten a delay in the National People’s Congress, currently set to take place in September.

While the transfer of power is certain to take place, the effects of the leadership change is less likely to be the cause of any behavioral shifts in the Security Council. Rather, China’s position of non-interference in other states’ domestic matters and reluctance to use the veto are more likely to be tested by the pressures that come with a rapidly expanding role in the international community, with some like Ken Sofer predicting a sharp break from its non-interventionist foreign policy. The former can be seen both coming under stress in the situation between Sudan and South Sudan, as China seems to be reluctantly accepting its large role as a peacemaker, and fortified by China’s stance on Syria. This growing role will also put to the test China’s relationship on the Council with Russia, as the two often pair together to block what they see as overreach by the West.

Finally, the United States at the present only faces the potential turnover of power. President Barack Obama, who has made a firm point of emphasizing the United States’ role in and desire to work with the United Nations, is currently up for reelection, facing former Governor Mitt Romney as his challenger. Should President Obama come out on top, the largest change would come should he name Ambassador Susan Rice as his new Secretary of State, leaving the UN PermRep seat open.

But should Mr. Obama lose in November, a break from the past four years is inevitable. Mr. Romney, while unlike some of his colleagues in the Republican Party maintains that the United States should remain in the United Nations, is not a big fan of the organization. During the Republican primaries, Gov. Romney especially castigated President Obama over what he saw as a betrayal of Israel at the United Nations, saying that Obama went to “the United Nations and castigated Israel for building settlements. He said nothing about thousands of rockets being rained in on Israel from the Gaza Strip.”

Likewise, Mr. Romney has been scornful of the use of United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran to halt Tehran’s nuclear program. A President Romney would surely scale back involvement with the UN, and likely heed advice to withdraw US membership from the UN Human Rights Council among other bodies. In practice at the Security Council, such a shift would see the majority of Western causes raised more frequently by the United Kingdom and France, with the United States stepping back. The US would be most involved at the Council to increase confrontation with Russia and China, as Gov. Romney has labeled Russia the United States’ number one ‘geopolitical foe’ at the United Nations.

The membership of the Security Council is constantly in flux, as five states rotate on and off at the start of each year, allowing a complete turnover every two years. But the Permanent Five stand apart, not just for the veto, but the continuity that their presence brings to the Council. Some states are chosen by the regions more often than others to take their place among the elected 10 (E10) states on the Council, but a ban on consecutive terms prevents the ascension of de facto permanent members to stand on par with the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russian Federation. The continuity of policy that these states bring to the Council through that permanency can still be upset and sent off-kilter by disruptions in the working patterns and inter-Council dynamics that have come to be developed. 2012 comes hot on the heels of a year shaken by seismic changes in policy; this year, it’s the implementation of those policies and the way each member of the P-5 works with the other four that will bring the most trouble to Turtle Bay.

February 4, 2012

Et tu, People’s Republic? Et tu?

I have coverage of this morning’s Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria up at UN Dispatch. If you’ve been paying attention to my last few posts here on how Syria is faring at the UN Security Council, you’ll know that the Russian veto came as no surprise to me. A disappointment, yes. But not a surprise. China on the other hand managed to surprise the hell out of me. When I first began hearing rumors of a double veto, I was definitely shocked. The meme that’s existed since the People’s Republic took over the seat from Taiwan, that China will likely abstain on a draft where it the situation is not in China’s backyard and doesn’t authorize force over the will of the state in question rather than veto, may finally be dead.

The reasons why Russia opposed this resolution are known to be numerous, legion even, mostly based around its arms sales and the use of its naval base at Tartus. China’s motivation for vetoing the resolution was overlooked entirely this week. Throughout the last several days of negotiations, not a peep was said about China having substantive issues with the draft. Not one journalist picked up rumors that Li Baodong’s vote would be anything other than an abstention, or if they did I missed the article. I don’t fault them though, as even the United Kingdom’s Mission was completely without warning:

Yes, we were surprised by the Chinese veto, particularly as they did not express any particular concerns about the text over several days of negotiations. So we thought that they were able to accept the text that was put into blue by the Moroccans.

China’s choice to make its strong opposition to the draft public strikes me as odd. A China who abstains on this draft while Russia vetoes would have the exact same outcome without the public grief that Russia would have gotten. China’s objections would never come to fruition as Russia had already tanked its chances of passing. Why is Beijing inviting bad publicity in the Arab World at a time when ties were beginning to strengthen?

There are two reasons I can think of for China to choice to cast a veto rather than abstaining: the first, that Russia was in the end wavering unless it had support in vetoing, which would forced China to come out against, lest provisions in the document China didn’t accept passed through unopposed. Given Ambassador Churkin’s attempts to amend the text in the minutes leading up to the vote, I doubt this would be the case.

The second is that China is sending a message to members of the Arab World that are less sure about Qatar and the Arab League”s new policies: “We won’t come for you next”. If and when new protests rise up, requiring the members of the GCC to use enough force that the issue makes it to the Security Council, China would veto intervention and continue arms sales. Given how cynical I feel right now, this seems more likely to me, but it still doesn’t square with China’s usual affirmation of the usefulness of regional bodies in solving regional issues. The main reason everyone expected China to abstain was that the request and basic structure of the draft came from and supported the League of Arab States.

No matter what the reason behind it, China seems to be getting less blame than Russia over this, by far. Still, I get the feeling China has likely miscalculated. Things are going to get worse in Syria before they get better. And should Assad fall, as the many new members of the Free Syrian army recruited based on this veto will strive for, the new government will remember who helped keep Bashar in power. Even if the Arab League plan is somehow implemented, the new members of the unity government will still need someone to blame; China has graciously volunteered to keep Russia company in this regard.

January 17, 2012

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.

December 26, 2011

Time’s Up: Call Russia’s UNSC Bluff on Syria

More members of the League of Arab States’ observer mission are arriving in Syria today, ostensibly to pressure Damascus to halt its crackdown on protesters and the general civilian population which has been taking place since March. This mission already is in trouble, with reports of tanks firing on Homs coming across the wires, and France pressing the observers to make it their first stop.

Meanwhile, the UNSC sits dormant, frozen on how to proceed on Syria, with the clash growing more and more public. The chief instigator of this paralysis is the Russian Federation, still seeking to punish the West for its regime change in Libya. China, while also irked by the move, has been largely silent on the matter of Syria, leading me to believe that if presented with a viable option for promoting stability in the country, it would either abstain or vote in favor of the proposal, provided Russia do the same.

Russia has submit several versions of a draft on Syria now, but the Western powers have had their complains about it, namely that it doesn’t go far enough to inflict damage on Damascus. Russia counters that the West is simply pushing for regime change again. So if I were a member of a Western power’s mission, I’d say it is past time to have Russia put its money where it’s mouth is. They claim that their main interest is restoring peace within Syria’s borders. If they really want to pass their draft on Syria, then let’s do it. We’ll even accede to some of their demands, because that’s what P-5 equality means thanks to the veto.

I would recommend the US, France, UK, Germany and Portugal dropping the threat of sanctions as a demand for the resolution. Completely drop it as a non-issue. You know why? Because all of Syria’s major trading partners except for Russia and Iran are already sanctioning the state. Iran is dealing with its own economic problems relating to sanctions, so why waste our breath and political capital on not even implementing sanctions, only threatening them for non-compliance? Just drop it.

Also to be given up on, though much more painful: demands that Russia amend the language to place more of the onus on the Bashar al-Assad government. It’s tough to swallow, but swallow we must to get anything done. Russia isn’t going to allow a straight condemnation without also mentioning “extremists” attacking state institutions, so let them. It should Western policy to condemn these attacks anyway,  even if they are against a hated regime.

I would even recommend allowing Russia’s horrendously phrased and entirely unneeded clause stating that “nothing in this resolution shall be interpreted as authorization of the use of force” to be in the final draft. If Moscow wants it so badly, they can keep it. NATO isn’t moving towards using force in any event, nor are any states itching to unilaterally take down the Syrian regime. And it would be a nice save of face for Russia after their fury over SC/1973. So let the Russians celebrate those victories. But not without a cost.

First,  this resolution should be enacted under Chapter VII of the Charter, to give it the full weight and force of international law; no hedging from Assad and his government, no stipulations. Hard and fast, this is what is required of you. Article 40 should also be cited as the authorization for the Security Council putting its full support behind the Arab League’s observer mission. Full stop.

The regime should allow for full access to any and all areas that the observer mission requires in fulfilling LAS Resolution 7442, with or without prior notice to the Syrian government. To aid this mission, the UNSC should request member-states provide material support, including unarmed helicopters to transport observers across Syria, to prevent delays by the Syrian security forces which would be providing the ferrying and “security” of observers otherwise.

The West should request, in exchange for dropping its sanctions demand, that a preambulatory clause be added “noting that the LAS sanctions on Syria will not be lifted until the League has determined that the Syrian state is upholding its commitments”, or similar language. As a preambulatory clause, it merely describes the situation at present without authorizing or threatening new sanctions or even directly condoning the LAS sanctions as an operative clause would. This point is less important than the others and could be dropped if need be to garner final passage.

Finally, members of the IBSA coalition, India, Brazil and South Africa, have previously offered their services as monitors as well, a move that Russia has supported in previous statements and under the auspices of the BRICS alliance. The West should include a clause seeking the support of the Arab League for members of these relatively neutral, yet powerful in their own right, states to join the official LAS mission and report to the Security Council their findings.

Taken together, these steps would allow for several things to happen simultaneously. They would allow for the Russians to come away with a win in the Security Council that actually allows action to take place that the West wants to see happen. They would move to assure a successful Arab League mission to fully document what’s going on in the ground in Syria, something I’ve expressed my doubts about in the past. And they would allow for short-term action to be taken that actually puts Assad on notice as the West seeks, empower regional organizations as China and Russia want, and bolster the role of the rising Middle Powers as IBSA seeks.

So if I were a Western diplomat, this would be my first move after everyone returns to Turtle Bay from Boxing Day festivities. It’s time to call Russia’s bluff. Either they want to be constructive members of an international solution to the troubles in Syria, or they’re stalling for time for the Assad regime. Cards on the table, Russia. What are you holding?

December 5, 2011

Backblog: Russia Delivers Missiles to Syria

Over the course of the last week, I was engaged in helping put on a Model United Nations conference for high school students. I’ve been with the group for over seven years now, serve on their Board of Directors, and love it to death. But it also means that for about five days every year, I’m almost utterly cut off from the daily news. So when I was actually able to take a second and skim the international section, I was able to take note of what I saw as an interesting development. Unfortunately, while I was able to jot it down, I wasn’t able to find time to post my thoughts. So here they are, slightly edited. Afterwards, I’ll throw in my two cents on some more recent developments since I wrote this piece last Thursday.

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The Russian Federation announced today that it has followed through with a previous sale of supersonic cruise missiles to the Syrian Arab Republic. The deal, which was completed in 2007 to the tune of $300M, provides 72 Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. From the AFP article:

“The missiles, which operate as part of the Bastion mobile coastal defence system, will be able to protect Syria’s entire coast against a possible attack from the sea. Each Bastion system is equipped with 36 cruise missiles as well as truck-mounted radar and other equipment.”

The United States and other Western governments have been pushing Russia to cut ties with the al-Assad regime, particularly in light of the recently released report on Syrian human rights abuses presented to the UN Human Rights Council. Rather than withdrawing support, Moscow has seemed to move closer instead to Damascus.

While the sale was completed before the current uprising began, the delivery of the missiles themselves to Syria is a crucial show of support to the government in Damascus. A cancellation of the sale would have indicated a wavering in Russia’s stance, an opening which would be seized upon the UN Security Council by Western powers seeking to mirror Arab League sanctions on Syria. Instead, a veto of any strong action against Syria seems more likely than ever.

Further, the delivery of anti-ship missiles can and should be read in the same light as Russia’s deployment of warships off the coast of Syria: a deterrent against intervention. Turkey is reportedly if not moving to take unilateral action against Syria should the crackdown against protestors not cease, at least considering such a move if Ankara deems it absolutely necessary. A Russian threat to back Syria in defending its borders would cause any power to hesitate in launching a humanitarian intervention.

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Since then, Syria has offered to accept the observer mission the Arab League previously mandated inside its borders, on the condition that the sanctions regime imposed upon it be lifted. Much to the Arab League’s credit, the offer has been strongly rebuffed so long as the crackdown continues. Simultaneously, Syria has conducted live-fire exercises of several of its missile systems, in a move that was surely intended to deter Western governments from considering intervention, much in the same manner as the Russian ships’ presence. The Arab League’s steadfastness gives hope of swaying China into the abstention column on the Security Council in the coming weeks, but my pessimism on Russia remains, as will be made clearer in a forthcoming post.

November 22, 2011

Syria and Russia: Together against the world

In a post a few days ago, I speculated on when we would hear the Russian Federation finally say “Do svedanya” to Bashar al-Assad and allow for action in the United Nations. Today contained both a glimmer of hope for the prospect of that occurring and a curbstomp to the face of that chance.

Hope first. The Third Committee of the GA today had before it a draft resolution on Syrian human rights abuses initially drafted by several European states. The revised version can be found here. As noted in my previous post, several Arab states were thought likely to join on as sponsors, and that they did. Saudi Arabia, Morocco Bahrain, Jordan and Qatar were all original sponsors of the draft; during this morning’s debate, Kuwait joined on as well. Several states expressed hesitancy to support the draft, primarily those in the Non-Aligned Movement and led by Cuba, due to its singling out one state in particular’s rights abuses. The term “country-specific resolution” was thrown around a lot, as well as pleas to utilize the Universal Periodic Review process in the Human Rights Council rather than GA3 to deal with human rights. It’s worth noting that the loudest voices prior to the vote were those who have either had human rights charges level against them by the body or were extremely likely to.

The Syrian delegate, in attempting to fend off the measure, stated that the end goal of the Arab Spring is to bring about a “new Middle East, to be led by Israel”, which would then launch a new wave of ethnic cleansing. So there’s that. In the end, despite speeches by the DPRK and Iran against the measure, the final vote was recorded as 122 in favor, 13 opposed, and 41 abstentions. Among the abstentions were Yemen and Lebanon, but as has been noted on Twitter, not a single Arab state voted against the proposal, not even Sudan. Also abstaining were the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, which raised several eyebrows.

Following the vote, much was made of the twin abstentions of the PRC and Russia, calling to mind the twin veto in October in the Security Council. Several articles and blog posts went so far as to call the move a potential shift in the Security Council, which is the spectre of hope I discussed at the start of the post. And here comes the curbstomping.

Following the vote, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin spoke to Kuwait New Agency (KUNA), and had this to say:

“It’s a completely different situation. This does not mean that our position in the Security Council has changed. It does not change our position vis-a-vis the Security Council, that I can tell you,” Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told KUNA following the vote.

Churkin was responding to diplomats who said the overwhelming vote in the Assembly’s Social Committee earlier today on a Syria resolution and the Arab position in Cairo and Rabat would open the door to the possibility of revisiting the Syrian issue in the Security Council in the future.

That certainly was a flush of cold water. While beaten, the sliver of hope is not quite dead yet. While the League of Arab States continues to dither on whether or not Syria is fully suspended and facing sanctions, its member states seem to be indicating quite clearly that what is happening in Syria is unacceptable. Churkin’s statement was in the abstract, however, and not in reference to specific draft resolutions or proposals on the table. We may still yet see a condemnation of Syria’s actions in the Security Council, with the potential of “further actions”. But anything beyond that will require the Arab League to take the first step and/or Russia to stand aside. Considering Russian intransigence and the fact that five days have passed since the Arab League gave a three day extension on its ultimatum, it’s unclear which is less likely at the moment.

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November 18, 2011

Commander Adama’s Simple Rules for ICS Protection

Normal morning, I log into Twitter and start to browse through my stream. I quickly came across an article posted by CNN’s Security Clearance blog. In it, the author reveals that the Federal government is investigating whether an Illinois water treatment plant’s burned out pump was caused by a cyberattack. “What the what?” says I, as I read further:

Joe Weiss, a noted cyber security expert, disclosed the possible cyber attack on his blog Thursday. Weiss said he had obtained a state government report, dated Nov. 10 and titled “Public Water District Cyber Intrusion,” which gave details of the alleged cyber attack culminating in the “burn out of a water pump.”

Such an attack would be noteworthy because, while cyber attacks on businesses are commonplace, attacks that penetrate industrial control systems and intentionally destroy equipment are virtually unknown in the U.S.

Well. This could be interesting. The protection of industrial control systems (ICS) has been a worry of cybersecurity analysts . What makes this story even more fascinating? Weiss claims that the “attack” came from somewhere within the territory of the Russian Federation.

My initial assumption that the attack was funneled in through some external source seems to have been proven wrong in these Washington Post and CNET articles on the topic. It turns out, the ICS in question was managed using software developed by an company that provides supervisory control and data acquisition. This company, unnamed in the articles due to the nature of the report the articles were based around, was itself was hacked several months earlier with dozens of users information and passwords absconded with. The power plant in question has been powering up and down remotely at random, the overall effect of which led to the burning out of a water pump.

So, first of all, whoa. Second, while an important event in the history of American cybersecurity, I don’t think that this is quite on the level of bad that I’m sure many will assign to it. Comparisons to the Stuxnet virus that struck Iran, targeting the programmable logic controllers in its uranium-spinning centrifuges, are inevitable to be sure. But the level of sophistication displayed here is nowhere near on the level of Stuxnet. That attack was clearly designed for a specific purpose, with a specific goal. The Illinois case is much more likely the result of a hacker who has obtained this information playing around with their new capabilities, leading to the burnout in question. If this was a state-based attack, I highly doubt that a single water station in Springfield would be their target.

Further, the two-step process displayed in this attack makes it all the more important, in my book, that proper cybersecurity measures are taken in the private sector. The intruder obtaining the passwords to the control systems certainly made the actual penetration of the system easier. Even with that advantage, though, the hacker should not have been able to gain the remote access that was required to utilize that data. Which brings me to the title of this piece.

In the mini-series that launched the revamped Battlestar: Galactica, the Cylons manage to take out the entirety of the Colonial Fleet, save the titular Battlestar, by deploying a virus across the networked Colonial system. What saved the Galactica, you ask? Commander Adama’s near fanatical resistance to having any networks on his ship’s computers. Period. He knew that computers were necessary, but he’d be damned if they were allowed to talk to each other. It even went so far that in a situation where the Galactica was forced to network its computers together or face destruction, the Commander had to think long and hard on the subject before allowing it. To his credit, the Cylons immediately launched a cyberattack once the networking was completed, so there you go.

Edward James Olmos can teach us a lot through his steely glare. The vast majority of ICS networks are actually very secure, so long as they aren’t connected to the Internet. I understand that remote access is sometimes necessary for the monitoring and management of vital processes when nobody is available in person. But monitoring and actually being able to control and update those systems should be on different networks, the latter of which goes nowhere near the public interwebs. Even those plants that are segregated face danger not from clever ways to sneak in through the vastness of the intertubes, but through the mistakes of those humans who are charged with maintaining and operating these systems. An earlier published Washington Times article concerned with hackers being able to open jail cells remotely was panned, but still holds some truths in its pages:

“But in our experience, there were often connections” to other networks or devices, which were in turn connected to the Internet, making them potentially accessible to hackers, [Teague Newman, Department of Homeland Security] said.

In some of the facilities the team visited for their research, guards had used the same computer that controls the prison’s security systems to check their personal email, exposing it directly to potential hackers, Mr. Teague said.

In many prisons, technical support staff would add connections to enable them to update the system’s software remotely after the ICS systems were installed by security specialists.

Also of concern: the use of flashdrives and portable hard drives. We all have looked from our flashdrive to a computer and thought “Eh, whatever” before plugging it in. Doing so with a system that controls vital elements of key infrastructure, though? That’s insanely risky, even if you are the sort who runs ZoneAlarm on your personal PC. It’s highly likely that Stuxnet itself was first introduced into the Iranian nuclear plants through not through breaking through a firewall in a case of extreme hackery, but through getting passed along until some schmuck stuck his thumbdrive somewhere it doesn’t belong. If we’re actually serious about making sure that Richard Clarke’s declaring that cyberwar is the biggest threat that our country faces is false, we really should start acting like it. For our inspiration, I think we should look no further than the Old Man himself.

Put the Flash Drive DOWN

The face of pure badassery

In that vein, Congress is looking for bipartisan solutions in troubled times, and I think I have one for them. This could be a simple insert into any of the pending cybersecurity legislation on the Hill, or a quick bill to pass. Congress: we should mandate that all workers who interact with ICS should be forced to wear wristbands that read “WWCAD?” or “What would Commander Adama Do?” The picture at left should also be hung in all Federally regulated sites that use ICS to manage their daily affairs. You can thank me later, Congress. You can thank me later.

November 17, 2011

At what point do we hear “Do Svidanjia, Assad”?

Things are getting very interesting in Syria. Whether that would be “good interesting” or “bad interesting” all depends on where you come down on the prospect of civil war, the continuation or dissolution of the Assad regime, and the merits of the Responsibility to Protect. Which is to say that the member-states of the United Nations Security Council is going to be making some very interesting choices soon from the point of view of the Syrian government and protestors.

What is apparent is that things are managing to get even uglier in Syria. Months of protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad have until recently only to months of repression and slaughter by the Syrian government. Yesterday was the bloodiest day of the crackdown yet, with over 90 killed according to observers, adding to the over 3,500 killed since March according to the UN. Despite insisting throughout this period that Assad is sure to survive the ongoing uprising, prognosticators on the future of the state have gotten a few surprises in recent days. These events both make the possibility of the United Nations stepping both more likely and far more remote.

Tilting the balance in favor of intervention is the unprecedented levels of regional isolation the Syrian Arab Republic is currently feeling. While the Arab League has gained a reputation for empty promises and vague gestures of condemnation towards recalcitrant members, on Sunday the League threatened to suspend Syria’s membership and levy sanctions should the violence not stop and a League drafted proposal to monitor the ceasefire not be enacted. Syria attempted to forestall this conclusion by calling an emergency session, but was quickly rebuffed by the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. As of yesterday, Syria has been suspended from the League of Arab States, and has been given a deadline of three days to halt the violence and place the terms of the agreement into affect before sanctions are enacted. Doing themselves no favors, following the announcement of the Arab League decision on Sunday, pro-Assad protesters took to the streets, looting and burning several embassies along the way, causing even greater international condemnation.

As Max Fisher of The Atlantic notes, however, this is no longer a simple case of unarmed protesters being massacred in the streets – civil war is brewing. Armed conflict is most certainly on the rise in Syria, as defectors turn from the Syrian Army in greater numbers, and groups like the Free Syrian Army begin to coalesce. Just yesterday, the FSA launched an attack on a compound belonging to Air Force Intelligence, known for their use of torture in interrogations.  As you can see in the video below, civilians are no longer allowing tanks to move through Syrian cities unhindered.

China has even come out in favor of the Arab League’s machinations, a testimony to its commitment to supporting regional organizations, even when they reach decisions that Beijing may personally be uncomfortable with:

“China supports the AL’s efforts to end the crisis in Syria and has called on concerned parties to implement the Arab League’s resolution at an early date and in a substantial and appropriate way. … Concerned parties should make concerted efforts and the international community should create favorable conditions for the implementation process.”

With this reversal from its earlier position of non-interference, the door may be reopened to bringing the issue of Syria before the Security Council. An earlier push led by the United Kingdom and France ended in a twin veto by China and Russia in October, placing the situation on the back burner since then. Following the Arab League’s threat, sanctions may be on the table again, opposed to the relatively simple condemnation of violence with the threat of sanctions that was considered previously.

This still leaves one very large obstacle, however: The Russian Federation.

Despite the pleas of the Syrian National Council, who met with Russian Foreign Minister and former UN Ambassador Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday, Russia seems determined to support Assad. Lavrov went so far as to call the activity in Syria akin to a civil war earlier today, while maintaining Russia’s position on keeping Assad in power:

“If some opposition representatives, with support from some foreign countries, declare that dialogue can begin only after President Assad goes, then the Arab League initiative becomes worthless and meaningless,” Lavrov said.

His statement speaks strongly to Russia’s concerns about intervention in civil wars, which Moscow tends to view as purely internal affairs. A rising death count won’t soon sway the Kremlin to act; to be completely candid, it’s highly doubtful that if the winner of this year’s Confucius Peace Prize were in Assad’s position that we would not see tanks in St. Petersburg.

Aside from ideological differences over sovereignty, and concerns about losing another foothold of influence in the region, the Russian Federation has many Legitimate Business Interests in place in the Syrian Arab Republic. Russia cancelled $73M worth of debt Syria owed from the days of the Soviet Union, freeing up Bashar to buy even more arms. According to Amnesty International, roughly 10% of Russia’s annual sale of arms goes to Syria; this would presumably include both light and heavy weapons, though the exact amount is difficult to determine, due to Russia’s reluctance to publish the exact dollar or ruble amounts of its weapons dealings. In either case, a sanctions regime against Syria would come at a time where Damascus is most willing to pay through the nose for Russian armaments.

Mark Goldberg at UN Dispatch notes that present day Syria is getting more and more like Libya, circa February this year. As the violence rises and the international community solidifies against Assad, the likelihood of the beginning of intervening, maybe not militarily but at least the issuing of a presidential statement, rises. This may be true, particularly in the event that a draft presidential statement is circulated merely condemning the violence without making a firm statement on President Assad stepping down. The comparison also marks a potential argument against the likelihood of concerted action. Russia’s argument since the moment the first NATO missile struck Libyan territory has been that the alliance has reached far beyond its mandate to use force, and that the eventual regime change that has since transpired was illegal in nature. By raising the spectre that the Russian Federation could be hoodwinked into abstaining on another critical vote under Chapter VII, the odds that Ambassador Vitaly Churkin push back, and hard, against any firm resolution on the matter grows.

The same would hold true of even getting to the nine votes from the Council needed to take action. Resolution 1973 contained the use of force authorization, but the door to that was opened with the unanimous adoption of Resolution 1970. Let’s assume that a British/French draft is tabled with heavy international sanctions against the Assad regime, along the same lines as the European Union’s, modeled after 1970. We have the three permanent Western powers in favor, along with the two WEOG seats, Germany and Portugal, and most likely Colombia as well. Lebanon will be firmly against the move, China potentially abstaining depending on the Arab League’s reaction. Nigeria, Gabon, and Bosnia and Herzegovina would likely be persuaded to go along with the draft as they were in October.  That just barely gets you to nine, allowing the West to act over the concerns of South Africa, Brazil and India. This still leaves Russia in play, however.

What would it take for Russia to reverse itself on Syria, allowing for at the very least an abstention from vetoing a new draft? Heightened isolation of the Assad regime may or may not help Moscow change its tune. A new Human Rights Council report on Syria is due out in the coming weeks. A negative report, which it is almost sure to be, may spur action taken by the HRC, along the same lines of that which prompted Libya’s expulsion from the body.

Also, a new diplomatic move in the General Assembly of all places may open the door for Russia to at least abstain on a condemnation of violence by the full Security Council. The GA, acting in lieu of the Security Council as is their right under the Charter when it is not discussing a matter of international peace and security, is preparing to table a resolution condemning Syria for its violence. Further, the sponsors of this draft include the usual European suspects, but is all the more remarkable for being potentially co-sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar. The full text of it can be found here. A strong vote in first the General Assembly’s Third Committee: Social, Cultural, and Humanitarian, then the full Assembly, would provide an ample smokescreen to allow for Russia to abstain on a condemnation of violence or at the very least a presidential statement in the UNSC.

What it all boils down to, however, is whether these, in the eyes of many, compelling arguments will persuade the Russian Federation to, if not act, not actively stand in the way of action being taken. The veto system was designed to prevent national interests from being over-ridden by the UNSC, this is the way it has always been and will likely always be. But it is quickly becoming clear that one way or another Assad is not going to end his days as the ruler of Syria. The next government will remember who stood behind Bashar al-Assad to his last and treat that state accordingly, and I highly doubt that Russia’s best efforts at mediation so far, as seen in this draft resolution circulated in August, will win them many accolades. Truly, it’s in Russia’s national interest to say “do svidanjia” to Bashar sooner rather than later.

September 26, 2011

The Russian Shell Game Continues

I, like most of the Western world, woke up on Saturday to the news that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev had proposed to United Russia that Vladmir Putin be the candidate in 2012. I believe this seven second YouTube clip from Aladdin accurately portrays my reaction.

Back when Putin first stepped down to become Prime Minister to make way for Medvedev, I don’t think there was a single person who knew anything about Russia who thought it would last. The facts pretty much spoke for themselves:

  • Putin had consolidated too much power in the Office of the President to be comfortable with being Prime Minister, even with the ability to basically run things from the Duma
  • With the phrasing of the Russian constitution that prohibits more than two consecutive terms, it was pretty much inevitable that Putin would return
  • United Russia has been busy fixing elections for itself at every level of government imaginable for years now, so the possibility of another candidate possibly winning the seat is enough of a fiction to make Putin’s return a sure thing

Even though Medvedev throughout the years has shown flashes of independence, notably this year calling for a prevention of “political stagnation” in Russia and a brief schism over Russia’s policy towards the Libyan intervention, it was never entirely sure if those moments were actual schisms with Putin that could lead to Medvedev taking on a stronger role in the partnership, or if they were showmanship to manage to effectively play both sides to the Russian people.

This move to switch roles between them seems to lend itself to the more cynical view. Which isn’t to say that it’s going over entirely smoothly. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin has been forced to resign today, after publicly speaking out against Medvedev’s economic plans and airing his ire over being passed over for the Premiership under the Putin-Medvedev swap.

This is more likely to be a hiccup rather than a bellwether of anything to come in the next year. While some public dissension may spring up from time to time, there is little chance of anything welling up to the point of action being taken against United Russia. Too many alternate parties have been beaten down over the last decade, arrested at any and all attempts of mass rallies, starved of funding, and their supporters driven away from the ballot box or scared into voting for United Russia. Journalists and non-governmental organizations are harassed regularly, and it’s entirely likely that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will be rebuffed entirely from having election observers on the ground in December’s parliamentary elections.

The idea that a government can have enough of any iron fist while still maintaining the facade of democracy most certainly took a shaking this year as the Arab Spring swept the Middle East and North Africa. While the Arab Spring analogy may look pleasant when prognosticating for Russia,  you have to realize that the Russians have gotten very, very good at this game. And unlike those states whose leaders have been toppled and besieged with protests, the Russian Federation has more than enough world power left to keep everyone very wary of being accused of interfering in their internal affairs, leaving them a free hand to do as they wish with their very unique version of democracy. And so the Russian Shell Game continues. Only in this version, Putin is under every shell, leaving everyone a winner in the eyes of the Kremlin.

August 30, 2011

The More Things Change: China and Russia in the UNSC

The UN Security Council bears marked similarities to the US Senate at times. The veto and the filibuster are both tools its respective insitution is known for, and which its users are loathe to give up. Both also have evolved over time, to where they are actually used very little. Instead, the threat of using one is enough to give pause before moving forward with draft resolutions or legislation.

When it comes to veto threats, the Russian Federation and China have made an art of the practice. Every draft resolution that comes before the UNSC faces a veto threat should it go too far, too fast for the Russians and Chinese. This isn’t to say that the United States, United Kingdom and France don’t make threats of their own, indeed the US holds the record for most vetoes since 1991, but they also put forward the majority of progressive drafts, often anathema to the BRICS countries.

It’s surprising to note, then, that Russia and China have in fact been authors of draft resolutions before the Council as of late. Last week, the Russian Mission to the UN introduced its own draft resolution on the situation in Syria. In June, China and the United States worked together on halting the conflict in the Abeyi region of Sudan to produce what would become SC/1990. Could these moves be seen as a shift towards a more proactive strategy at the UN Security Council?

While intriguing, the Syria resolution doesn’t seem to offer up a substantial shift in Russian strategy at the UN. The text itself is balanced to the point of absurdity, seeming to lay the violence at the feet of both the protesters and the al-Bashar government. This sort of ‘sovereignty first’ approach to matters is what is to be expected when Russia actually decided to attempt to head off interventions in what it sees as internal matters.

By presenting this draft, the Russian government can then point back to its attempts at peacebuilding when faced with a much stronger Western-backed resolution like the one offered by the UK and France in June. The draft also has the undertone that Russia is still seeking to be a player in the Middle East beyond its role in the Quartet, as its attempts to mediate in Libya showed.

Don’t forget that Chapter VIII, dealing with regional arrangements, was written by the Soviet Union to allow for action outside the scope of the United Nations. The Commonwealth of Independent states and, at least in part, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization , were developed for this very goal, providing the ability to act in the backyard interests that Russia holds so dear. Even after the embarrassing denial of SCO backing during the 2008 Georgian conflict, these organizations allow for action in the form of multilateral efforts and thus supporting Russia’s position pushing a rule of law-based multipolar world. Any future drafts proposed by the Russian Federation will seek to blame neither party for the issues under discussion or lean firmly on whichever side supports Russia.

China, on the other hand, presents a much more challenging analysis. Russia and China are often on the same side of the many issues that are presented before the UNSC, not because of any lasting ties or fear of Western oppression, but because they truly believe that many internal matters should remain so. Since the fall of the Soviet Union two vetoes issued by China have been tandem with Russia, in 2007 against a draft resolution on Myanmar and in 2008 against a draft on the situation in Zimbabwe. The only two other vetoes, both solo efforts, were against a six-month renewal of the United Nations Preventive Deployment Force (UNPREDEP) in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 1999 and in 1997 against a draft on Central American stability. Neither were particularly world-shattering votes, taken not out of a pressing national interest by Beijing but rather to prove a point about non-intervention.

In the Abeyi resolution, however, we see a departure from the Russian modus operandi, in not only calling for a cessation of violence, but calling for an interim peacekeeping for to enforce it. Rather than preserving neutrality by allowing Sudan and South Sudan to negotiate among themselves, China support and helped draft language calling on the international community to help. While not a drastic shift in policy, it does go further than many would have expected of the PRC.

The Chinese instance of taking part in the drafting of the Abeyi resolution in and of itself is not the harbinger of a more progressive stance and strategy in the UNSC. If the Chinese government wants to be a true player on the world stage, though, it could serve as a starting point. Rather than relying on the status quo or to act as a shield or veneer against encroachment, China could use the Security Council much in the same way that the West does, as an instrument in which to push an agenda. This isn’t to say that such an agenda would be interventionist in nature or change China’s policy towards sovereignty. Rather, what we could see in the future is a China that works to build coalitions to pass resolutions rather than prevent them.

Such a day isn’t anytime near at hand, however. For the near future, China will continue to use the United Nations as a way to keep the status quo in place long enough to ensure it has the room necessary for its peaceful rise while doing its most important diplomatic maneuvering bilaterally and in smaller regional bodies, while Russia does much the same in hopes of recovering and holding onto its Great Power status. For the near future, Russia and China will be erstwhile allies in the Security Council, keeping those around the horseshoe table from enacting too much change too quickly. I can certainly say this: the day that China decides to shift to being the instigator is going to be an interesting day on Turtle Bay indeed.