This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
With Jamil Chade and Sarah Zeines off, a shorter than usual G|O Briefing today—democracy day—with an analysis on how, seven months into the war in Ukraine and following China’s angry rejection of the UN human rights report on Xinjiang, Western diplomats are assessing the state of International Geneva and the resilience of multilateralism. The system is in turmoil; Russia is diplomatically isolated, but its Mission here remains, nevertheless, open for business.
“There is popular support for this war in Russia. People are zombified by television. Let’s be honest: all Russians today have something to do with what is happening in Ukraine. Some have blood on their hands. Others are complicit through their silence,” Andrii Yermak, one of Volodymyr Zelensky’s closest advisers, told participants at the high-level Yalta European Strategy conference, which took place in Kyiv last week.
Opinion polls show that a majority of Russians do support the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine. However, such headline figures fail to capture key features of Russian public opinion today, from doubts among the war’s supporters to the expanding ranks of its detractors, argue the authors of today’s G|O’s op-ed, based on a recently conducted survey.
It’s all below, with a quick follow-up on a recent story. As always, thank you for reading us.
A TENSE MOMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL GENEVA—BUT ALSO A FAINT HOPE, AS INFORMAL SPACES STILL ALLOW DIALOGUE WITH RUSSIA
By Philippe Mottaz
Seven months into the war, talk and listen to diplomats here, and you immediately grasp the profound and lasting impact on Geneva from Russia’s naked acts of aggression against Ukraine. If during the early weeks and months of the conflict, the focus across town was on crafting an appropriate response to Russia’s violence, with the first shock now gone, the conversation has broadened and deepened. For what we intuited on the blistery dawn of Thursday, 24 February, that the world would be changed by the invasion, has now become obvious.
FROM THE RULE OF LAW TO THE LAW OF THE STRONGEST
The West’s resolve has, for now, been reinforced. But so has that of China, Russia, and their allies, bent on seizing the moment to their advantage. Russia, with its war, and China, with its strident denunciation of the UN human rights system, are violently shaking the foundations of the multilateral regime. The war means going “from the rule of law to the law of the strongest,” according to Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, the new Director of the Munich Security Conference. “So now the question is, do we accept a return to a period where the strongest have the right to win or do we defend the rules-based order [where conflicts are resolved through the rule of the law]?” he asked rhetorically at a Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) event organized last week in cooperation with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS).
UNIVERSALITY AT THE CENTER
China’s denunciation of the report on Xinjiang from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) contains an implicit rejection of the concept of the universality of human rights, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). “Multilateralism rests on the pillar of universality, which is not limited to human rights, so to fail to defend it would strike a blow to the legitimacy of the system,” a non-European Western ambassador with a long experience of multilateral diplomacy told The G|O.
“The battle over human rights and Western values is a battle we cannot lose” says a senior European diplomat. But it will, doubtless, be long and will have to be fought hard. The main theater of confrontation here remains the Human Rights Council, as we reported last week, where informed diplomatic sources tell us there is still no agreement within the EU and amongst its allies on how to move forward. We understand that at this point the European bloc remains divided, with a small minority of its Eastern members opposing a possible resolution about investigating the alleged human rights abuses in Russia and Ukraine.
Discussions are still ongoing about China, after Beijing rallied the support of twenty countries (see the map here ) compiled by the KAS here) to issue a statement last Tuesday (September 13) denouncing the OHCHR report on Xinjiang, which it considers “unlawful.”
A VERY TENSE MOMENT
“I have been active in multilateral diplomacy for more than thirty years. When tensions arise, there is often a tendency to say this is an unprecedented moment. But this is certainly the tensest moment I have experienced,” one diplomat told The G|O. Another told us: “There have been plenty of moments of high tensions, notably during the Cold War. What makes the situation different today is that we are talking about China and Russia, and it changes the scale.” “The global security order has never been without tensions, but today’s problem is that it no longer relies on treaties and agreements but is driven by interests […] and by the available power,” summarized Norbert Lammert, former president of the German Parliament, at the GCSP’s recent event.
AN AMBIVALENT GLOBAL SOUTH
Both Russia’s war and China’s responses to the war have also exposed the Global South’s ambivalence towards the rules-based system. As Richard Gowan, UN Director at the International Crisis Group, writes in a note on the upcoming UN General Assembly due to open next week, “since the late spring, non-Western diplomats, while not condoning Russia’s assault, have appeared increasingly uncomfortable taking strong positions on the conflict.
For the UN’s many critics, the escalated war has demonstrated both the institution’s powerlessness and its members’ pusillanimity. Some of Russia’s opponents—and Ukraine itself—have called for fundamental reforms to the organization.” Africa in particular, sees the conflict as an extension of the East-West confrontation. “We need to fight this narrative. We need to explain that this is not an East-West conflict but an attack on the rules-based system, and this message should be carried to the Global South,” stressed Christoph Heusgen during the GCSP panel.
RUSSIA STILL NEEDS GENEVA
With Russia diplomatically isolated in Geneva since the beginning of the war and Moscow boycotting the city—it pulled out of the Syrian peace talks —after Switzerland’s decision to align itself with the EU sanctions, can we still talk about International Geneva as the center of multilateral cooperation? How severe a blow has the war inflicted on the system? “I think it’s too early to say,” analyzes one of our diplomatic sources. “We are still processing the extent of what happened. We won’t ever go back to what it was before; February 24 will not be forgotten.
But there are a lot of discussions, formal and informal, still happening in which Russia is involved. Russia is not leaving Geneva simply because it needs to be here to address a number of issues of interest.” For some security experts and diplomats here, the hope is that at some point in the future, these contacts will not only have averted a further weakening of the multilateral system but will open the way to finding a diplomatic solution to end the war. For others, this is a faint hope, as the Russia we were used to dealing with before the war may simply no longer be, and a reform of the UN Security Council appears unlikely. -PHM
*Full disclosure: KAS supports The Geneva Observer. The decision to cover the event was ours only.
DO MOST RUSSIANS SUPPORT THE WAR IN UKRAINE?
BY ANDREI KOLESNIKOV AND DENIS VOLKOV*
The West and the Kremlin have one thing in common: both like to point out that Russian President Vladimir Putin has an 80% approval rating, and opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of Russians support the war in Ukraine. What was once carefully referred to as “Putin’s war” has now become “Russia’s war” – or so it seems. In fact, polling and focus groups conducted by the independent Levada Center reveal a picture that is more nuanced than the headline figures suggest.
For starters, support for the Kremlin’s so-called special military operation in Ukraine is not necessarily wholehearted. In August, less than half of survey respondents (46%) reported that they “definitely support” the Russian military’s activities, with 30% saying that they “mostly support” it (figures that have barely changed since April).
NO WHOLEHEARTED SUPPORT FOR THE WAR
For the latter group, backing the war is probably less a matter of conviction than of conformism. Some respondents have commented, for example, that they cannot know exactly what is going on, indicating that the government knows best. People in this group might have some doubts – they are more likely to express fear and anxiety over the conflict and unlikely to express pride – but the desire to remain in their psychological and intellectual comfort zone prevails.
That comfort zone is built largely on the belief that, fundamentally, this is a defensive war. First, most Russians are convinced that the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine – particularly in the eastern Donbas region – was under attack. In fact, most of those who expressed support for the war highlighted the need to protect this group. For them, this imperative justifies actions that might otherwise seem unthinkable.
Second, Russians – especially older Russians – largely believe that their country had to “fight back” against those that would seek to destroy it. In February 2022 – just before Russia’s latest invasion – 60% of survey respondents reported that the United States and NATO were to blame for the conflict in Donbas, where war has been raging since 2014. That figure was up ten percentage points from the previous November.
THE WAR HAS PLENTY OF DETRACTORS IN RUSSIA
As widespread as these beliefs are, the Ukraine war still has plenty of detractors in Russia. Currently, about 17-20% of Russians say that they do not agree with their country’s actions in Ukraine, up from 14% in March. This group is dominated by young urban dwellers who consume news from the internet, rather than state-controlled television, though people who fit this description were still more likely than not to support the “special operation.”
The only category of people in which a majority opposed the war comprised those who broadly disapprove of Putin, the Russian government, and the State Duma. These people voted against the 2020 amendments to Russia’s constitution (which enabled Putin to reset the term limits of his office and prolong his rule until 2036), have a history of supporting opposition figures, and attended anti-Putin protests early last year. This group is also more likely to hold positive views of the West.
THE ANTIWAR RANKS HAVE GROWN
But Russians with long histories of dissent are not alone; more Russians oppose the fighting in Ukraine today than did after the violence first erupted in 2014. No more than 10% spoke out against the annexation of Crimea – half the number who declare their opposition to the war in Ukraine today – and only 11-12% of people said they were dissatisfied with Putin eight years ago, compared to 15-16% today.
Even as the ranks of antiwar Russians have grown, however, the likelihood of antiwar protests has plummeted. It is not difficult to understand why. Taking part in unsanctioned protests is now punishable by hefty fines and prison sentences for repeat offenses. Moreover, Russians can face criminal charges for inciting “others to take part in unsanctioned protests” or for “discrediting the Russian armed forces.” And the nationwide ban on mass events, introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, has yet to be lifted.
The will to rebel is further depleted by simple desensitization. “People have gotten accustomed to what is happening and have simply stopped paying attention,” one survey respondent explained. As long as there is no military mobilization and the most dissatisfied Russians are able to leave the country, a sense of normality prevails.
WISHING FOR AN END TO THE WAR
Of course, there are challenges that cannot be ignored, such as higher prices and the loss of savings. But, much like the pandemic, the conflict is viewed as a storm that must simply be weathered. While most Russians hope it will end soon – even among the war’s supporters, many would like Russia simply to declare victory and agree to peace terms – they are bracing themselves for an extended conflict and confrontation with the West.
Regardless, Russians seem willing to assume that things will eventually return to normal. “I think everything will work out soon,” one respondent noted. “It will sort itself out one way or another,” said a second.
In the meantime, there is little reason to think Putin’s regime is in any real danger. Russians largely blame their current struggles on the US, Europe, and NATO – an impression that sanctions have done nothing to dispel. Moreover, both the political opposition and civil society have been destroyed, and the threat of repression looms large. Putin is also ready to suppress those ultra-nationalists who think he is too soft. Imperialism and war are his niche, and he will surrender it to no one.
The question is whether the further deterioration of socioeconomic conditions could cause Russians to turn on Putin. After all, anti-government protests in Russia have often been sparked by unexpected developments in unexpected places. And before long, Russia will be headed into its next presidential election campaign, which will require Putin to articulate a powerful new vision to Russians. The war in Ukraine alone is not enough. That bullet has already been fired – and hasn’t stopped ricocheting.
*Andrei Kolesnikov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Denis Volkov is Director of the Levada Center.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.
A QUICK FOLLOW-UP...
YOU HAVE REACHED UNAIDS. PLEASE LEAVE A MESSAGE. IT MAY NEVER BE ANSWERED…
We will most likely never know what really caused Winnie Byanyima to nearly miss her plane at Geneva Airport on July 27. After taking to Twitter to accuse airport security and Canadian border authorities of racism, UNAIDS’ director has gone silent.
Repeated attempts by Geneva’s airport and by The G|O to reach the UNAIDS chief have remained unanswered over the intervening weeks.
Last week, Byanyima’s “unavailability due to a cabinet retreat” put a halt to any immediate communications. This week, UNAIDS spokeswoman Sophie Barton-Knott was more direct in her response to The G|O: “I’m sorry—I didn’t hear back from her office,” she texted apologetically.
Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz
Edited by: Dan Wheeler