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Shaun Walker: Russia was wrong to veto sanctions – but it came as no surprise

Tuesday 15 July 2008 00:00 BST

When the diplomatic dust had settled after the week- long battle at the UN Security Council there appeared to be one main culprit in the defeat of sanctions against the Mugabe regime and the betrayal of Zimbabwe. US and British diplomats did not hold back and the blame was placed with Russia. The US ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, said there had been a "U-turn" in the Russian position, which was "surprising and disturbing".

He said that such behaviour "raises questions about the reliability of Russia as a G8 partner". His comments recalled those of the presidential hopeful John McCain who said he wanted Russia out of the G8 club of rich nations. It was particularly galling for Gordon Brown, who thought he had got agreement from Dmitry Medvedev that Russia would sign up for sanctions, or at least abstain from a Security Council vote. Moscow's response to having its G8 future questioned was furious.

But there are two different issues here. First is whether it is appropriate that a G8 country should be unwilling to approve sanctions against a regime as vile as Mr Mugabe's – probably not. Then there are the accusations about Russia's "U-turn", and on this it is hard to see where the West is coming from. The Putin-Medvedev tandem government was always likely to create confusion.

In this case, however, reading the statements that came out of the G8, it seems that Russia never agreed to sanctions. Indeed, it seems clear that Russia was preparing to use its veto. Mr Medvedev himself said that the G8 had issued "recommendations", but that "there were no statements regarding decisions which should be taken by the UN in particular". A senior British negotiator went further, saying Russia favoured negotiations in Zimbabwe. Unless Mr Medvedev said one thing in private and another to the media it seems puzzling why Mr Brown and others were so certain that Russia would back UN sanctions.

It's also unsurprising, given Russia's history of voting at the UN that it decided to veto the sanctions. The Russians have never been supporters of sanctions and refrain from openly criticising even the most brutal regimes. A Medvedev presidency may yet prove more constructive at co-operating with the West, but loudly accusing the Russians of U-turns and threatening to kick them out of the G8 is probably not the best first step along that road.

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