Who at the International Telecommunication Union or among its member states decided—and why—to sit on a report about the damage inflicted by Russia on Ukraine’s telecommunications sector since the beginning of the war?
The question has led to much speculation among UN watchers here this week. We might never find out the answer, but the tale illustrates once more how Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine continues to grip the once relatively smooth workings of the multilateral system, including at its more technical agencies.
Undoubtedly, in this case, both the context and the actors involved explain the heightened interest in what might have otherwise been a simple bureaucratic matter. Today’s election of Doreen Bogdan-Martin as the organization’s new chief may have settled tensions for now, but with an outgoing Chinese Secretary-General and a contest for his successor that pitted a Russian candidate against an American, the scene was ripe for some intense speculations amongst the diplomatic community.
What is certain is that last Friday, September 23, the European Delegation to the UN in Geneva urged the ITU leadership to release the report on the damage done to Ukraine’s telecoms sector “at its earliest convenience.”
In diplomatic terms, the coordinated démarche delivered a clear message which can be translated as “do it now.” The letter addressed to outgoing ITU S-G Houlin Zhao, stated that “as Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine continues, marked by targeted attacks on critical telecommunication infrastructure, failures of telecoms services and outages of the mobile networks,” the release of the report would be “crucial” to allow “interested delegations” to make “informed decisions” at the ongoing Plenipotentiary Conference (PP22) in Bucharest. Signed by Lotte Knudsen, the EU ambassador to Geneva, and her colleague Vaclav Balek, of the Czech Republic, the letter recalled that the requested assessment on the damage had been mandated by an ITU resolution “co-sponsored by more than 46 countries,” including 18 members of the organization’s Council.
UN watchers and Western diplomatic sources offered several explanations to The G|O for the delay in the report’s publication, with some pointing the finger at Houlin Zhao himself, as his country was supportive of the Russian candidate.
Others, however, speculated that Washington may have asked for the document’s release to be delayed until after today’s election. “To be honest, in the current climate, with such a tense situation, it was unlikely that the report would be published before today’s vote,” a keen observer of the Geneva multilateral scene told The G|O. They turned out to be right.
In a letter dated yesterday (September 28), the outgoing ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao informs the EU Delegation to Geneva that "an interim assessment report is being prepared " and will undergo review by the ITU services after the Plenipotentiary Conference.