Russian diplomat appointed to lead new UN counter-terror unit

'Given the peculiar inclinations' of Donald Trump, 'it may not be a negative' despite rising tensions between the two countries

Mythili Sampathkumar
New York
Thursday 22 June 2017 00:37
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in Saint Petersburg on 2 June 2017
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in Saint Petersburg on 2 June 2017

The United Nations has appointed veteran Russian diplomat Vladimir Voronkov to head a newly-established counter-terrorism division, despite growing tensions between the US and Russia.

UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq announced the appointment made by Secretary General Antonio Guterres, one week after the General Assembly voted to create the new coordinating body.

It will oversee the counter-terrorism efforts of 36 UN-funded programmes currently housed under a variety of UN agencies, 12 inter-agency working groups, as well as Interpol, and the World Customs Organisation.

The existing Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force is under the political affairs division. There are also two related offices under the Security Council, which will remain in place.

If the appointment of a Russian official seems controversial at this time, Richard Gowan a UN expert with the European Council of Foreign Affairs previously told The Independent that it is “a pretty open secret” that the deal was actually made in 2016 when Mr Guterres was campaigning for his position.

For its part, Russia had agreed to give up its regional turn to lead the world body so that the Portuguese Guterres could have a chance.

“It is not pretty, but that is how UN politics works,” said Mr Gowan. Mr Guterres also met with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month at an economic forum in St. Petersburg.

A senior western diplomat told Reuters that “it is fair to say that the Russians are under-represented at the UN at the most senior levels” as well.

Mr Voronkov will have the rank of Under Secretary-General. He's spent more than 30 years in Russia's foreign service, serving in Vienna as an ambassador to UN organisations since 2011.

One of the world body’s entities housed in Vienna includes the Office on Drugs and Crime, which often deals with counter-terrorism issues.

Former Ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan John Herbst, now Director of Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, told The Independent that the appointment of Mr Voronkov "makes sense" in terms of the UN having a senior official in a coordinating capacity because as a global body, the UN "needs to be able to address" the matter more effectively.

He also noted that "counter-terrorism is a much easier issue to discuss" with Russian officials than Ukraine, for example.

Moving the direction of these agency programmes and efforts under a separate, distinct umbrella will serve to coordinate efforts better and serve to fully address the underlying global counter-terror policy of the UN, a document that is reviewed every two years by member states.

It also raises the profile of the UN’s efforts to fight terrorism, placing it on the same level in the internal structure as global development, poverty eradication, and gender equality.

The budget for the new initiative does not include any new money, but shifts existing contributions from member countries to the tune of roughly $20 million a year.

The bulk of that money is coming from Saudi Arabia, which has contributed $110 million to be spread over the next five years. There are also 20 other states contributing, but the budget is small compared to other UN bodies.

Saudi Arabia and five other neighbouring nations recently cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, citing the small Gulf kingdom’s alleged financing of terror groups.

Critics have pointed out that several of the terrorists involved in the September 11th attacks were Saudi nationals.

Mr Herbst said one of the major issues is if Moscow is as interested in counter-terror measures more broadly - as they would have to be at the UN - as they are in terrorism directed towards their own country. The US has proven that it is, he said.

Per UN rules, the Security Council - and the US, in turn - did not have the power to approve or reject the person appointed.

Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN, said to Fox News that the appointment of a Russian official to the lead the division would “not [be] something we cheer for,” but Mr Herbst said it may not be a slight to the US.

In fact, he said the vote on the creation of the division "may partly [be in] reaction to” Donald Trump and his vocal criticism of the UN, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), and other countries for not combating terror strongly enough.

"They want to make sure their most important member is is also helpful to maintain the relationship," he said.

"Given the peculiar inclinations of the President [towards Russia], maybe it's not a negative".

There is also the reality of the day-to-day bureaucracy of the UN to take into account.

The idea for a separate coordinating division was presented - by Saudi Arabia - as far back as 2005 but took this long to come to vote due to political motivations, lack of funds, and other priorities that rose in the wake of growing conflicts.

It was also likely due to paperwork and requiring the consensus of a number of members to bring an issue to vote.

“It's not like the new Under Secretary General will be carrying out covert killings. The job will involve a lot of bureaucracy and budget meetings,” said Mr Gowan.

Mr Voronkov will also have to contend with increasing tensions between the US and Russia as simultaneous investigations in the FBI, Senate, and House are being conducted regarding alleged ties between Moscow and the Trump campaign team.

In January, just weeks before Mr Trump took office, seventeen separate intelligence agencies issued a joint report confirming that Russia hacked into the emails of Republican and Democratic party officials as well as played a part in the dissemination of “fake news” through online news outlets and social media.

There is also the matter of a recent cancelled meeting in St. Petersburg.

US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the US remains open to discussions with Russia despite Moscow’s decision to cancel talks later this week between Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov and and Thomas Shannon Jr., the Under Secretary of State for political affairs.

A bill also recently passed the Senate with an overwhelming majority that would place new sanctions on Russian entities, specifically targeting high-priority energy projects.

The sanctions were actually included in an amendment to a bill on Iran sanctions and is currently sitting in the House, awaiting a vote.

The US and Russia have also butted heads recently in Syria. Russia has consistently backed the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the UN and in a military capacity in Syria. The US recently shot down a Syrian war plane and drone, without using a communication channel the US and Russia have established to protect troops.

Russia declared that any US planes west of the Euphrates River will be considered "targets," according to the Russian defence ministry.

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