It’s been almost a week since Russia exercised its veto power as a P5 member of the United Nations Security Council to block the extension of a vital humanitarian aid program in Syria.
In addition to reaffirming the importance of sovereignty, unity, and peace in Syria, the draft resolution called on the Security Council to authorize a one-year extension of an existing cross-border aid program across the Bab al-Hawa border between Turkey and Syria. Established by Resolution 2165 in 2014, the aid program delivered food, shelter, medicine, and surgical supplies to the Idlib Governorate of north-western Syria.
Russia’s move to block the extension of this aid program is underpinned by Moscow’s broader campaign to limit foreign aid and humanitarian support to regions controlled by the Syrian opposition. Since the program was introduced in 2014, Moscow has repeatedly used its position on the Security Council to limit the number of border crossing routes available to humanitarian convoys. To date, Russia has blocked the authorized use of border crossings at Bab al-Salam, al-Yarubiyah, and al-Ramtha, leaving Bab al-Hawa as the last remaining access point for aid deliveries.
Despite Russia’s attempts to suffocate the program, the long-running humanitarian mission continues to be a critical lifeline for more than 4 million people, many of which have been displaced from their homes by the 11-year-long civil war. In addition to providing much-needed shelter and food supplies, the program has been instrumental in preventing the spread of disease, helping to curtail outbreaks of polio, measles, tuberculosis, and meningitis.
Russia’s latest act of obstruction comes at a critical juncture for Moscow and the West. In Syria, Russia has invested heavily in its military and diplomatic support for the Assad regime, conducting airstrikes against opposition forces and deploying special forces units on the ground. Unsurprisingly, Moscow’s aggressive military posture on the ground has led to a series of potentially escalatory exchanges with U.S. military advisors in rebel-held territory, raising the risk of a direct military confrontation between the two great powers.
However, in stark contrast to their dominant position in Syria, Russia is grappling with a string of military setbacks in Ukraine. Despite recent advances in Luhansk and the Donbas, Russian forces have taken heavy losses since the invasion commenced on 24 February 2022. As the fighting drags on, Western sanctions against Russia are inflicting significant economic pain, as evidenced by the country’s shrinking trade balance, soaring inflation, and exclusion from the SWIFT banking network. International reliance on Russian oil and gas has enabled Moscow to weather the storm thus far, but the Kremlin will be forced to make difficult choices if a military stalemate persists.
In response to Russia’s brazen and unlawful aggression toward Ukraine, Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, has announced a major overhaul of the organization’s defense posture in Europe. The centerpiece of the new strategy is a plan to bolster the NATO Response Force from its existing strength of 40,000 troops to over 300,000. The defense bloc also took the historic step to expand its membership, formally inviting Sweden and Finland to join the alliance.
Amid these developments, Russia is now scrambling to rebuild its reputation as a regional power following its surprisingly lackluster military performance in Ukraine. Facing an increasingly hostile geopolitical landscape, Moscow is looking for new avenues to project strength. In Syria, the Kremlin has found an ideal opportunity to seize back some of the prestige and influence it has lost since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine. By leveraging its veto power over the UN humanitarian mission in Syria, Russia has been able to further its goals in the Middle East, as well as demonstrate its willingness to disrupt institutional consensus and degrade international law.
There is no doubt that Moscow understands the ramifications of blocking the flow of foreign aid to Syria. Last year alone, more than 10,000 trucks carried humanitarian supplies across the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. By threatening to cut off further shipments, Moscow has gambled with the lives of millions of people. As relations between Russia and the West continue to deteriorate, the Syrian people are set to be caught in the crossfire of great power maneuvering and brinkmanship.
In the coming months, Russia will likely continue to use its veto power to shore up its international influence and secure favorable geopolitical outcomes. This will have a ripple effect beyond Syria. The UN Security Council is the world’s most important forum for discussing and addressing global challenges. If Russia persists in its efforts to block humanitarian aid and hijack resolutions on Syria, it will further damage the council’s credibility and legitimacy. This will have a chilling effect on future Security Council resolutions and could lead to a breakdown in the body’s ability to respond to future crises.