The international community was surprised when Russia called an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Sunday evening to discuss the deteriorating situation in Ukraine. On one level, Russia’s demand for such a meeting might seem odd. It’s military superiority in the region is not in doubt – and last night the UK Ambassador suggested that Russia has amassed thousands of troops in the region, a claim also made by NATO.
The proximate issue was Ukraine’s president announcing that those who have occupied government buildings have to vacate them or face retaliation from the Ukrainian military. It’s this action that Russian Ambassador Churkin repeatedly denounced as criminal and provocative.
Many on the Security Council did not agree with Churkin’s assessment that Ukraine is to blame here. The British ambassador referred to the unraveling situation as “a well orchestrated campaign to destabilize the country.” For the US, Ambassador Power concurred, charging that the Russians themselves “choreographed” these increasingly provocative actions.
This raises an intriguing question: given this opposition to the Russian position, why call a meeting to discuss this? Why use the Security Council as a forum instead of just sending out press releases?
To understand this, we need to realize that debate in the Security Council is distinct from bilateral communication. Because the Security Council is a neutral forum, exchanging views there is intended to send informational signals. The act of trying to persuade other countries in which there are those that disagree and make counterarguments conveys information more credibly than merely exchanging diplomatic notes. In this case, it allows the Russians to claim that they are victims of foreign aggression. This may create a pretext moving forward, but it is also intended to reassure.
What’s important to note is who the target of this information actually is. It’s safe to say that the West will not be persuaded by any statements coming from Moscow. Perhaps the Russian statement is intended to signal to those countries that abstained on the Security Council vote on Crimea last month as well as the 58 countries that abstained on a similar resolution before the General Assembly. In this sense, speaking in a multilateral forum on this subject (and calling a special session on Sunday night) is a strategic move intended to persuade.
It’s easy to dismiss debate in the UNSC as mere rhetoric without consequence. But thinking more about why countries would turn to the UNSC in the first place suggests purposive behavior. Diplomats may lie, but they don’t say things without reason, and where they say them makes a difference.