With Russia due to play a central role in multilateral institutions over the next two years, its obstructionism over Syria does not bode well. However Europeans may find - to their benefit - that it is actually China that calls the shots on the international stage.  

With Russia due to play a central role in multilateral institutions over the next two years, its obstructionism over Syria does not bode well. However Europeans may find - to their benefit - that it is actually China that calls the shots on the international stage.

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The Syrian crisis has been a master-class in Russian diplomacy. Moscow has invited international condemnation by standing by President Bashar Al-Assad. But it has also demonstrated great diplomatic cunning. Time and again, Western diplomats have been fooled by hints that Russia might just alter its attitude towards Assad – and time and again, Russia has foiled Western initiatives in the Security Council.

As Edward Burke noted in the International Herald Tribune in June, Russia’s Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has been “marshaling his arguments much more carefully than his Western counterparts.” A former ambassador to the United Nations, Lavrov is extremely adept at twisting multilateral negotiations to suit his purposes.

Lavrov’s diplomatic maneuvers may ultimately prove self-defeating. As I have argued elsewhere, Moscow will not been able to keep Assad in power indefinitely – and it will pay a heavy political price when he falls. More broadly, this episode has eroded Western governments’ faith in Russia as a partner in multilateral diplomacy.

That’s a problem because, over the next two years, Russia is going to be a central player in multilateral affairs. Not only will it keep its decisive role at the UN, but it will also hold the presidency of the G20 in 2013, convening world leaders in St Petersburg next summer. When that’s over, it will preside over the G8 in 2014. 

How will Russia handle these duties? Its presidency of the G20 could be particularly significant if the Eurozone crisis is still in full swing next year. The G20 has acted as an important – if not very effectual – mechanism for non-European leaders to engage with their EU counterparts over the euro. If Europe’s economic position suddenly worsened next year, Russia could well convene ad hoc global summits to address the crisis (just as George W. Bush improvised the first top-level G20 meeting in Washington in 2008 as the financial crisis began).  The EU’s leaders might just have to swallow their pride and humbly head east to plead for assistance.

Russia might not be a generous host to the Europeans. Here is an ECFR summary of Russia’s treatment of the EU at the 2011 Cannes G20 summit – one of the worst moments in the Eurozone crisis so far:

Herman van Rompuy described co-operation with Russia in the G20 [in 2011] as being “very good”, but the EU did not succeed in achieving concessions from Moscow. Russia did not compromise in its opposition to the French proposal for a global financial transaction tax, a position it shared with the other BRICS countries. Russia also used the G20 to vocally criticise volatility in the eurozone. Russia also rejected an initiative proposed by Brazil to directly contribute to the bailout of eurozone economies.

And that, remember, was in 2011 when (i) the moderate Dmitri Medvedev was supposedly in charge in Moscow; and (ii) the Syrian mess was still in an early phase. 

Next year, Western leaders will have to contend with Vladimir Putin. President Putin attended the 2012 G20 meeting in Mexico, his first major international engagement after replacing Medvedev. Many Western commentators hoped that this would be a chance to cut some diplomatic deals on issues including Syria’s war. 

It didn’t happen. President Obama described his talks with Putin as “candid”. European leaders did no better at winning Putin over. It isn’t hard to imagine him using his time atop the G20 to cause the US and EU trouble – especially if the struggle for Syria is ongoing, or there are East-West tensions on Iran’s nuclear plans.

But there is one important constraint on his behaviour: China. While Russia plays a clever diplomatic game at the UN – and can usually trust Beijing to support common anti-Western positions – China predominates in economic diplomacy in the G20. In a report published this February, Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform concludes that “China does not take global governance very seriously on issues of security, but it does engage, when it sees an interest in doing so, on economic subjects.” So whereas Russia still struts its stuff at the UN, China prioritises the G20.

And that can be good news for the EU. While Russian leaders may harbour a good deal of post-1989 resentment towards the West, their Chinese counterparts are driven by the need to stabilise the global economy. At this year’s G20 summit in Mexico, Russia followed China’s lead in offering money to the IMF to help fight the euro crisis (while Beijing promised $43 billion, Moscow only had $10 billion spare).

Looking ahead, European officials may hope that even if Russia is formally at the apex of global economic diplomacy while in charge of the G20 and G8, China will actually be in charge – dictating policy via Moscow. That may not sound like a very comforting situation. But it would be better than repeating the Syrian experiment and allowing Russia to project its power by paralysing more multilateral diplomacy.

This article first appeared in E!Sharp

Read more on: Asia, Europe and the world , Wider Europe, Russia, European Power

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.