Russia, China and the Arab Spring?

February 7, 2012 • Blogs, The Globalist Notebook • Views: 1663

by Max Watkins

For nearly a year, the Syrian people have struggled against President Bashar al-Assad and his brutal crackdown against the popular and democratically inspired uprisings. Since last January, at least several thousand Syrians have been killed, incurring incredible international pressure for his regime to step down. Even though there is widespread international consensus that the Syrian government must stop their brutal crackdown, the body with the most gravitas on such matters, the United Nations Security Council, has failed to act to stop the Syrian government’s suppression of the uprisings.

The Syrian protest effort is urging people to gather in Damascus and other cities on March 25 for “a day of rage,” with the goal to “end the state of emergency in Syria and end corruption.” (Michael Thompson / One Love, Earth)

Two of the five permanent members of the Security Council, Russia and China, rarely approve resolutions that ultimately involve violating a country’s sovereignty. And in Syria’s case, this remained true, as Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution on February 4th condemning Syria, its actions, and the call for international intervention in the country. Without the approval of the United Nations, it will be very difficult to justify and legitimize any actions that violate Syrian sovereignty.

So why did Russia and China veto the resolution?

First, both Russia and China tend to conduct their foreign policy in the realpolitik spirit. The initial question these countries ask is: how does endorsing this resolution help me? The only real benefit of supporting the resolution would be to curry favor with the other three permanent members and the international community at large. But Russia and China do not really care about this. So cross that out.

The second question would be, does endorsing this resolution hurt me? The answer to this question is an unequivocal yes. Both countries face challenges to their own internal sovereignty in several ways. Russia currently has its own protests and uprisings over the recent presidential election where many accuse Vladimir Putin of flouting democratic protocols and stealing the election. We can see how the move away from democracy in Russia angers many Russians. Putin undoubtedly sees what has happened to dictators and non-democratic leaders in the Middle East and North Africa and like Assad, he is clamping down on unrest in his country.

Furthermore, in the past several years, Russia has made it a policy to send in the military to unruly regions, such as Chechnya and Georgia. Russia quashes its own protests and therefore will not question the authority of other governments who do the same. Likewise, China faces unrest in Tibet and in its eastern coastal cities as a slowing economy makes many Chinese question the communist government’s leadership and ability to deliver on its promises for prosperity for all. China has also been accused of abusing human rights for years and will not condemn another nation for doing the same thing.

Due to the internal situations in both countries, the Russian and Chinese governments cannot and will not endorse a resolution that violates a country’s sovereignty to support rebellion against non-democratic forces, as any such resolution would be hypocritical.

The veto of the Security Council resolution does not really tell us much about the internal situation of Syria. Rather, this resolution reveals the true level of serious unrest and the potential for rebellion in Russia and China and the fear that the Arab Spring has instilled in autocratic governments throughout the world.

Max Watkins ’14 is in Timothy Dwight College. He is a Yale Globalist Beat Blogger on International Conflicts. Contact him at

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