Russia’s war on Ukraine is not only having devastating effects on the ground but is also thrusting Europeans into an unprecedented wider confrontation with the Kremlin. They need to quickly assess and prepare for the likely consequences of this at the global level: international cooperation on key multilateral issues will be severely compromised by the deterioration of relations between the West and Russia. Cooperation between the two has hardly been a model of success in recent years, but a total collapse of multilateral coordination would directly threaten some of Europe’s vital interests in its neighbourhood, including in places such as Bosnia and Syria.
Europeans need to think about whether they can compartmentalise important forms of coordination with Russia, while making contingency plans to work around Russian obstructionism.
The fate of the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is indicative of this. Moscow recently risked derailing a new agreement, by demanding sanctions exemptions for all Russian trade and investment with Iran as part of the deal – in an apparent attempt to bypass the West’s Ukraine-related sanctions. This was despite the fact that Russia has been a constructive negotiating partner in restoring the deal in the past year. Moscow appears to have now reversed its position on the exemptions – likely under pressure from Iran, which wants to restore the deal. However, Russia’s manoeuvring shows that its war on Ukraine risks severely complicating multilateral engagement.
While Russia has many ways to undermine international cooperation, it is especially likely to become less cooperative in areas such as UN sanctions regimes, peacekeeping operations, and humanitarian assistance missions – many of which are extended by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) annually or biannually. Europe and the US often have a greater interest than Russia in UNSC resolutions that extend humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, especially when it comes to the Western Balkans, the Middle East, and North Africa. Even prior to its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia had long made these resolutions more difficult to roll over, conditioning them on its preferences regarding either the civilian aspects of Western post-conflict interventions (state-building in Bosnia) or modes of delivery of humanitarian aid and the choice of partners on the ground (Syria).
The West now faces a dilemma in whether to seek a modus vivendi, or any form of constructive dialogue, with Russia to sustain these critical UN operations. The alternative would be for the West to disentangle itself from situations in which it is likely to face Russian vetoes. Western leaders need to decide whether some sort of compartmentalisation is still possible and to make contingency plans for unilateral action where Russian support is unlikely.
Europeans should be careful to not wholly prejudge outcomes here. Russia is likely to be obstructive in some areas, but it may also see a need to project a more cooperative image elsewhere, not least to avoid diverting its limited resources and attention away from Ukraine. Even as Europeans directly challenge Russia’s war on Ukraine, they should remain open to pragmatic coordination with Moscow elsewhere if this serves their interests and locks in residual multilateral gains. Nonetheless, Europeans should also prepare for the worst. As demonstrated by recent negotiations on the JCPOA, Russia is likely to use multilateral forums to try to ease the pressure it is under.
Europe’s contingency planning should focus on two key areas in particular: Bosnia and Syria.
In Bosnia, Russia holds a veto at the UNSC over the annual extension of EUFOR Althea – the EU military mission that is responsible for maintaining peace and security, and for deterring attempts at secession by Russia’s proxies in Republika Srpska. Prior to its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia was not interested in ending the mission. Instead, it used the threat of its veto to extract concessions on the closure of the Office of the High Representative, the Western political instrument that could assist with the constitutional reform Bosnia needs to progress towards NATO and EU membership. Given that EUFOR was reinforced with 500 more troops following the invasion – and that the West is intent on keeping the Office of the High Representative – Russia may now be inclined to veto the renewal of the mission.
In preparation for the UNSC vote on EUFOR in November, Europeans and Americans need to come up with a plan to work around Russia’s likely veto. The plan should involve a broad interpretation of NATO’s and EUFOR’s legal mandate as derived from Annex 1A of the Dayton Peace Agreement. This is the only way to maintain and reinforce the Western military presence in Bosnia, and to deter the attempts at the secession of Republika Srpska threatened by Russian proxy Milorad Dodik.
In Syria, meanwhile, the immediate focus will not be on the country’s broken political process but on the renewal in July of UNSC Resolution 2585 to maintain cross-border UN aid flows into Idlib, which is home to around three million civilians. Russia has consistently narrowed the space for international aid that works around the government in Damascus – a policy that poses significant risks for both Turkey and Europe in Idlib, given the potential for a deeper humanitarian crisis and large outflows of refugees if there is insufficient aid to meet their needs.
In the past year, the humanitarian sphere has been one of the few areas of ongoing cooperation between the US and Russia in Syria. But the war in Ukraine could close this channel. There is a risk that cross-border aid – as well as corresponding support for early recovery assistance in government-controlled territory – will be collateral damage.
Europeans’ initial efforts should still focus on carving out space for a technical rollover of the cross-border resolution. Russia may want to maintain its current approach to avoid having to respond to a new crisis in Idlib or risk increasing tensions with Turkey. Moscow wants to secure increased international aid for government-controlled areas of Syria, which will not occur if the Idlib resolution is blocked. But European states need to be prepared to work around the UNSC in case they are unable to achieve this rollover, particularly given Russia’s failure to facilitate sufficient aid flows to Idlib via Damascus in the past year. They should already be preparing to establish a unilateral cross-border aid mechanism to prevent an even deeper humanitarian crisis.
The price of unilateral action cannot be ignored. It will further impede UNSC cooperation on these and other issues, providing space for Moscow and Beijing to justify unilateral action of their own. Europeans should be cautious about undermining what remains of the multilateral order. This is why their initial emphasis should still be on finding space to compartmentalise ongoing coordination with Russia on issues where this would be valuable. Europeans’ unilateral action on Bosnia would not have negative repercussions on the ground beyond heated Russian rhetoric, but Moscow could cause new problems in Idlib – possibly by green-lighting regime attacks that prompt more Syrians to flee to Turkey and then Europe. A unilateral approach to aid for Idlib would risk being less effective than the current approach, given the importance of UN mechanisms such as those supported by the World Food Programme.”
But Europeans (together with Americans) also need to be realistic about their options. Given the wider breakdown of the UNSC system and their fear of Russian obstructionism, they must be prepared for worst-case scenarios. This will require a greater willingness to take matters into their own hands.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.