Report

Russia’s Sanctions Problem

Are its U.N. panel obstructions about short-term leverage, or are they intended as an existential threat to the system?

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On June 4, a team of United Nations experts responsible for investigating U.N. sanctions violations in the Central African Republic appeared virtually before a U.N. Security Council sanctions committee. They were there to deliver a confidential briefing about an upcoming report that singled out nationals from one of the council’s most powerful nations: Russia.

The 184-page report contained an explicit allegation that Russian military instructors were engaged in combat operations in the Central African Republic and had indiscriminately killed unarmed civilians as well as stolen food and supplies from locals.

Sanctions have never been more popular, but the system for enforcing them at the United Nations is breaking down. In this two-week series, FP looks at why that is and what can still be done to fix it.

Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

On June 4, a team of United Nations experts responsible for investigating U.N. sanctions violations in the Central African Republic appeared virtually before a U.N. Security Council sanctions committee. They were there to deliver a confidential briefing about an upcoming report that singled out nationals from one of the council’s most powerful nations: Russia.

The 184-page report contained an explicit allegation that Russian military instructors were engaged in combat operations in the Central African Republic and had indiscriminately killed unarmed civilians as well as stolen food and supplies from locals.

During the meeting, Russia’s representative on the Security Council sanctions committee, Ivan Khoroshev, delivered a withering rebuke of the panel report. Its claim that Russian military instructors were fighting against armed groups? Untrue. Yes, the armed individuals documented in the photographs were Russian instructors, but they were only using the weapons for their self-defense. Reports that the Russians engaged in atrocities? Baseless propaganda by agents of an armed rebellion seeking to overthrow the government.

“As for reports that instructors steal chickens and mattresses from civilians, [these reports] can only discredit those who make such accusations,” he said, according to a copy of his confidential remarks obtained by Foreign Policy. “Russian instructors are provided with full support and allowance, including beds, mattresses, and bedding sets.”

The prickly exchange signaled Russia’s deepening displeasure with the U.N. sanctions panels.

In recent months, Russia has blocked the renewal of contracts for sanctions experts in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and Somalia, raising concerns about the viability of U.N. sanctions. Within weeks of the June meeting, Russia placed a hold on renewing the experts contracts. The hold effectively put the experts’ jobs on ice.

“There are limits; if you cross them, you put yourself in danger,” said one former panel expert, who said experts always need to weigh reporting on Russian activities with the potentially deleterious impact on their U.N. careers.


Russia’s actions come within the context of increased scrutiny by panels on its military activities in Africa. Earlier this year, a U.N. panel monitoring sanctions in Libya documented the activities of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private Russian firm reportedly controlled by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is reportedly close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The group—which has deployed up to 1,200 military contractors in Libya to support rebel Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar—“has been providing technical support for the repair of military vehicles, participating in combat operations, and engaging in influence operations,” according to the report. The Wagner Group has also engaged in “more specialized military tasks such as acting as artillery Forward Observation Officers and Forward Air Controllers, providing electronic countermeasures expertise and deploying as sniper teams” and is participating in discussions with Mali about the possibility of working there. (This prospect is particularly alarming for France, which has led counterterrorism efforts in the region for years.)

The Central African Republic’s government invited Russian and Rwandan advisors into the country to help quell a coalition of rebel groups seeking to violently seize power. In December 2020, Russia informed the U.N. Security Council sanctions committee that it dispatched hundreds of unarmed former Russian military officers to the Central African government to train local police and soldiers to provide security in the runup to the country’s election. Russia contends it has never had more than 550 instructors in the country since then, though the panel cited estimates ranging as high as 2,100 instructors, saying they were not involved in armed combat and never committed atrocities.

But at the June meeting, the panel cited several eyewitness accounts of the instructors—who were recruited by the Russian defense ministry from an association of former military officers known as the Officers Union for International Security—engaging in violent attacks.

“The Panel received numerous reports of cases of indiscriminate killings against unarmed civilians by Russian instructors,” according to the panel report.

In one incident on Dec. 28, based on confidential sources interviewed by panel members, national forces and Russian instructors opened fire on a commercial truck at a checkpoint in Grimari, in the Central African Republic’s Ouaka prefecture, as it came to a stop.

“As the driver was making efforts to stop, the shooting started from both sides by the FACA [the Central African Republic’s army] soldiers and from in front of the truck by Russian instructors,” according to the report, which noted that three civilians were killed and 15 wounded, including six women and a minor. Local authorities confirmed that none were linked to armed groups.

A private Russian security guard (center), a member of the presidential guard, and a U.N. peacekeeper stand guard while Central African Republic President Faustin Archange Touadera (not visible) visits a polling station in Bangui, Central African Republic, on Dec. 27, 2020.

A private Russian security guard (center), a member of the presidential guard, and a U.N. peacekeeper stand guard while Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera (not visible) visits a polling station in Bangui, Central African Republic, on Dec. 27, 2020. ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP via Getty Images

The panel also published a series of photographs of armed Russian instructors, including a March picture of a Russian at a checkpoint beside a machine gun in the town of Boguila in the Ouham prefecture, and Facebook images of what they described as armed Russians escorting the Central African Republic’s prime minister and defense minister during a January visit to Boali, Central African Republic.

In response, Russian representative Khoroshev said the Russian instructor was simply sitting next to the machine gun, awaiting the return of the Central African soldier who was manning the checkpoint. As for the armed escorts, the Russians claimed they were members of a private security and escort company. “Russian instructors have nothing to do with that company,” he said.

Regarding charges that Russian and Central African forces opened fire on civilians in multiple towns, including Grimari, Khoroshev said the Russian instructorscoordinator insisted the Russians weren’t in the towns at the time of the incident and armed opposition groups controlled those areas.

He also denied reports from allied Central African Republic forces and local sources that the Russian instructors employed Arabic-speaking soldiers from Libya, Syria, and other countries, including a 60-member team of instructors on a three-month contract starting in December 2020 that described themselves as Syrian.

“All instructors have Russian citizenship. Some of them are representatives of the Russian North Caucasus and speak several languages, including Arabic, which could mislead one to a conclusion about their foreign origin,” Khoroshev said.

The Russian mission to the United Nations did not respond to emailed requests for comment on this story. But the director-general of the Russian military association, Alexander Ivanov, told the expert panel in a letter that “none of the accusations against FACA and its allies have been reliably confirmed” and they “are always based only on testimony of anonymous witnesses, so they are not trustworthy.”


A Russian armored personnel carrier drives through Bangui during the delivery of armored vehicles to the Central African Republic army on Oct. 15, 2020.

A Russian armored personnel carrier drives through Bangui during the delivery of armored vehicles to the Central African Republic army on Oct. 15, 2020. CAMILLE LAFFONT/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s decision to block the panels begs the question of its ultimate goal. Is it seeking to put the expert panels on notice to tread carefully over Russian activities in Africa, or is it mounting a broader assault on the entire U.N. sanctions system? Another possibility, according to numerous diplomatic sources, is it is looking for a way to secure greater control or leverage over the sanctions panels.

In the case of the Central African Republic, a Russian national was passed over for a job on the panel of experts, fueling Russian complaints that the sanctions panels are dominated by Western nationals.

Russian diplomats have privately and publicly indicated they are motivated by the lack of panel diversity.

With the exception of the North Korea panel—which is composed of nationals hand-picked by the U.N. Security Council, including China, Russia, and the United States—the U.N.’s sanctions experts in Africa and elsewhere are independent, hired by the U.N. Secretariat on the basis of their investigative experiences. In keeping with the U.N. Charter’s demands, the U.N. branch responsible for administering the panels has sought to recruit a diverse stable of investigators.

But many of those hired from the global south hold dual citizenship in a Western country. For instance, the U.N. selected four nationals with British or Canadian citizenship to the South Sudan panel.

Many panel members from the global south “with that level of education and experience have lived in the West and have dual nationality,” said Dino Mahtani, a British national who served on the U.N. panels for Somalia. “There is a big preponderance of British citizens.”

Other panel experts said the Russians are stressing diversity to gain more leverage in future negotiations over panel composition. “I think the Russians want someone on the panel for them to be able to control the work,” said one ex-panel member. The U.N. Secretariat, according to one former panel expert, played directly into Russia’s hands. “They found a pretty good excuse to block half a dozen panel members in South Sudan,” the former panel member said.

A Security Council diplomat said the Russians are currently engaged in intensive negotiations with the U.N. Secretariat and other council members over panel composition. They are likely to secure some concessions in those talks.

One U.S. official expressed confidence that the matter can be resolved, saying Russian action does not constitute an existential threat to the U.N. sanctions systems.

“I think the dynamics we’re seeing today is not fundamentally different from 10 years ago,” said one senior official from the U.S. mission to the United Nations. “It is always fraught to report on wrongdoing; it’s always politically difficult.”

Others see the potential for increasingly weakened panels and waning commitment from the council’s biggest supporters—the three permanent Western members of the U.N. Security Council (Britain, France, and the United States) who are also known as the P3—to fight Russia or China over sanctions

“I do think the P3 are getting a bit wary of pushing sanctions too hard,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at the International Crisis Group. “The U.S. and the U.K. have danced around the idea of an arms embargo for the simple reason that it would alienate China. Nobody wants to get into a cycle of vetoes over Myanmar like those we have seen over Syria,” where Russia cast veto after veto to limit the Security Council’s ability to interfere in a country under its influence.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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