How Russian Exclusion Threatens the West

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Exclusion has been one of the major policies used against the Russian Federation for its invasion of Ukraine. On April 7, Russia was suspended from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) by an overwhelming vote in the UN General Assembly. “The barbaric actions of Putin’s regime in Ukraine and the mounting evidence of war crimes mean Russia can no longer have a seat on the UNHRC,” argued U.S. ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield in New York.

Her argument has two levels: First, it says that Russia no longer deserves a place on the Council. She said Russia was only “pretending” to respect human rights and must be warned against continuing to act with “such impunity”. The second assumption is that suspending Russia will put pressure on President Putin to stop the aggression. Just as the current suspension of the Russian Federation from the World Tourism Organization or the Bank for International Settlements, or excluding Russians from the World Economic Forum or Wimbledon, the hope is that mounting pressure will force President Putin to change his behavior.

But there may be unintended consequences to these actions. A recent post in Politico reported that “The Russian government is starting the process of unilaterally withdrawing from a series of international bodies, including the World Trade Organization [WTO] and the World Health Organization [WHO], the Russian Duma’s Deputy Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy said.”

Tolstoy added: “We have work to revise our international obligations, treaties that today bring no benefit, but instead directly harm our country.”

The West has long felt in a position of power in multilateralism. Suspending or excluding Russia and Russians, it is believed, will hurt the Russian Federation and force Putin to abandon his aggressive tactics and come to the negotiating table. Tolstoy is suggesting that a Russian withdrawal from international organizations will hurt the system; a reversal of the West’s domination in the power relation and a dire warning to multilateralism in general.

“If you think you are punishing us, we can punish you,” Tolstoy implied, echoing a threat by those countries who feel the Western initiated multilateral system is no longer responding to their needs. In this regard, close attention should be given to the 35 countries who abstained in the UN General Assembly vote condemning Russia.

The role of Russia in multilateralism should not be minimized. Russia is not Libya, which was suspended from the UNHRC in 2011. If a reminder is needed: Russia has a population of roughly 150 million; it is the largest country in the world and extends across eleven time zones. It is one of the world’s top three crude oil producers and its largest gas exporter. Geopolitically, Russia is bordered by 14 countries; Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Mongolia, Norway, Poland, and Ukraine. It also shares maritime borders with Japan, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States. Russia is a major nuclear power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

No mention of suspending or excluding Russia should ignore these facts. Can one imagine a functioning global system that does not include Russia?

Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2011 was considered an important advancement in global trade. (It was also a significant diplomatic success for Switzerland in overcoming Georgia’s objections.) The argument for Russia’s inclusion was that having Russia in the specialized agency would help reduce world tariffs as well as extending Russia’s inclusion in multilateral diplomacy. It was hoped, to use the Finnish legal scholar Martti Koskenniemi’s elegant phrase about the general role of international law, that increased inclusion of Russia in the international legal system would be a “gentle civilizer”.

To enhance Russia’s inclusion in international organizations was seen as a win for Russia as well as a positive step for international peace and security – an excellent example of win-win.

Can one imagine Russia not being a member of the WTO? Or the WHO? Would withdrawal from these specialized agencies portend further withdrawals, eventually including from the United Nations? As if more reminders are needed, images of Japan, Germany and Italy withdrawing from the League of Nations and their consequences should not be forgotten.

The United Nations has been unable to stop the fighting in Ukraine. The Security Council has had no effect in restoring peace and guaranteeing Ukraine’s security. Exclusion, sanctions and suspension have not worked, at least for the moment.

The Russian Duma’s Deputy Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy’s comments, whether serious or not, should nevertheless lead to reflection about current multilateral policies. The system was in trouble before the Russian invasion. There had been hope that working within accepted legal procedures – war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression – and political pressure from sanctions, exclusion and suspension, would alleviate the crisis.

Sanctions have not worked to change the behavior of leaders in Cuba and North Korea. (South Africa may be the exception here.) As Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman wrote, “Russian exports have held up, and the country appears to be headed for a record trade surplus.”

The crisis continues with no end in sight. Its horrors have become routine in our daily news. Legal and political pressure are not working. Time to rethink the West’s strategy? If not, Tolstoy’s threat, if carried out, could be the final nail in the multilateral system’s coffin, the ultimate lose-lose.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.