Moscow Strikes Back at Countries That Cross It

Russia seeks diplomatic payback at the United Nations and other forums against countries that have denounced its invasion of Ukraine.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia speaks at the United Nations.
Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia speaks at the United Nations.
Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, speaks during a press conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York City on Feb. 28. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Putin’s War

For outgoing Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez, his address this month to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) offered a chance to tout achievements during his four years in office to a receptive audience who traditionally treats visiting heads of state with extreme deference. 

Instead, Duque received a withering rebuke from Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, who enumerated a long list of the Duque administration’s shortcomings in implementing a peace deal with the country’s armed insurgents, curtailing drug trafficking, and achieving a national reconciliation.

“Mr. President, we are sure that today’s speakers will address lots of kind words to you while trying to skirt contentious issues,” Nebenzia said. “But in Russia, if you are friends with someone, you should tell them the truth. That is why we will not try to pretend we are not concerned over the future of Colombia’s peace process.”

For outgoing Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez, his address this month to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) offered a chance to tout achievements during his four years in office to a receptive audience who traditionally treats visiting heads of state with extreme deference. 

Instead, Duque received a withering rebuke from Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, who enumerated a long list of the Duque administration’s shortcomings in implementing a peace deal with the country’s armed insurgents, curtailing drug trafficking, and achieving a national reconciliation.

“Mr. President, we are sure that today’s speakers will address lots of kind words to you while trying to skirt contentious issues,” Nebenzia said. “But in Russia, if you are friends with someone, you should tell them the truth. That is why we will not try to pretend we are not concerned over the future of Colombia’s peace process.”

The retort came days after Russia warned U.N. member states that they may have to pay a diplomatic price for opposing Moscow in the U.N. General Assembly, where Colombia has voted consistently to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine. Colombia also voted in favor of a resolution suspending Russia’s membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The diplomatic back and forth comes as Russia issued a formal warning to Washington that its supply of sensitive weapons systems to Ukraine could result in “unpredictable consequences,” according to the Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the Russian diplomatic note. “We call on the United States and its allies to stop the irresponsible militarization of Ukraine, which implies unpredictable consequences for regional and international security,” the note said.

For weeks, Russia has been sending veiled warnings that countries that cross Russia at the United Nations may face retaliation, including for failing to support Moscow in its bid to block its removal from the U.N.’s premier rights agency. In a letter to U.N. member states this month, Russia warned that even countries that abstained or didn’t show up for the vote would be treated as if they had “serv[ed] the goal of the United States and be considered accordingly.”

Colombia provided an early reminder. This week, Russia blocked the adoption of a U.N. Security Council statement welcoming Duque’s participation in the council meeting and offering their “full and unanimous support for the peace process in Colombia.” 

As one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Russia possesses enormous powers to gum up the work of international diplomacy at the United Nations. Despite rising tensions with the West over Crimea, Libya, and Syria, Moscow has generally found ways to cooperate with the United States and its Western allies on a variety of issues, from efforts to curtail the development of nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea to the oversight of peace initiatives in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America.

But that relationship has never been more strained in the post-Cold War period than it is today. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, driving millions of people from their homes and inflicting mass atrocities on the civilian population and large-scale destruction on Ukrainian cities, the United States and its Western allies have sought to isolate Russia on the international stage, rendering one of the world’s biggest powers a pariah state. In an effort to push back, Russian diplomats have deployed a combination of threats, grievances, and procedural obstructions to inflict costs.

Much of the diplomatic warfare has played out in obscure disputes over U.N. protocol. Following reports of Russian atrocities in the town of Bucha, Ukraine, Russia’s mission to the United Nations called for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council, presumably to try to blame the executions of Ukrainian civilians on Ukraine. The meeting never occurred.

Russia complained in a letter to the U.N. chief that Britain, holding the U.N. Security Council’s presidency for April, refused its request for the meeting, but Barbara Woodward, British ambassador to the United Nations, countered that she had simply asked Russia to combine the session with another council meeting on Ukraine or have it scheduled after that meeting. Russia, she said, declined. “The Presidency did not block the Russian request,” she wrote to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

Russia, meanwhile, protested what it characterized as “a more grave abuse” of U.N. Security Council protocol: The British allowed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to broadcast a video of alleged atrocities by Russia. 

“[S]uch practice undermines the foundation and spirit of the work of the UNSC,” Russia’s Nebenzia wrote in an April 5 letter to Guterres. “In-person participation, diplomacy and negotiations are the core principles of the UNSC and its Chamber. Displaying video and images on the screen devalues and belittles the role of all UNSC members.” 

“Such a start of the United Kingdom Presidency risks to have implications on our future work and on the mood in the Council in general,” Nebenzia added. 

Woodward countered that Zelensky was allowed to speak virtually because of his inability to travel to New York City due to the Russian invasion of his country, and that Russia had an opportunity to object to the video during the meeting but failed to do so. 

This month, Russia’s deputy permanent representative, Dmitry Polyanskiy, took the floor at a U.N. Security Council luncheon with the U.N. secretary-general at a retreat on Long Island to raise concerns about Russia’s treatment at the United Nations. He also said he would not participate in an informal discussion with the council on data and conflict resolution. 

“There will be no business as usual,” he said, according to a U.N.-based diplomat familiar with the exchange. 

But some diplomats say many of Russia’s gambits have fallen flat.

In addition to setbacks in the U.N. General Assembly and Human Rights Council, Russia lost elections to the U.N. Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations, the executive boards of U.N. Women and UNICEF, and the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “Russia competed in 4 elections to @UN committees today,” the U.K. mission boasted on Twitter. “It lost in all of them.”

“Our objective is to isolate them diplomatically, but they are doing a good job of isolating themselves,” one U.N. diplomat said. 

And Colombia’s Duque turned the tables on Nebenzia, delivering an unprepared denunciation of Russia’s invasion as “genocide.” 

“I think it’s important that those who are hurting a country don’t preach about peace to the world, while acts of fratricide are being committed, and that we are all rejecting,” Duque said. 

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

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