It was after midnight in a windowless basement room at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and Russian diplomats were holding the organization’s $3 billion budget hostage.
Just days from the start of the new year, disheveled envoys from several countries were struggling to broker a deal that covers everything from the number of translators posted to Geneva to who gets to fly first class. Talks were paralyzed around a line item representing a sliver of the budget proposal, but one with geopolitical implications -- $17 million to investigate human rights violations in the nine-year-old Syrian conflict.
That’s when a Russian official entered the conference room and told more than two dozen diplomats that their agreement wasn’t good enough yet, dragging negotiations past Christmas, according to three people who were involved in the talks.
While last-minute budget talks aren’t unusual at the UN, Moscow’s hard-edged diplomacy over Syria is part of an increasingly assertive campaign the permanent Security Council member is waging at the global body as its expands its influence in the Middle East. It’s an effort aimed at fending off threats to its influence in Syria, where Russian air power has allowed President Bashar al-Assad to consolidate control over nearly all but the oil-rich northeastern part of Syria.
“Russia is doing everything it can to undermine the UN’s work in Syria, and they know one key way to do this is by going after budgets,” Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch, said in an interview. “Russia knows how to take advantage of the UN system to further its goals. What’s not clear is whether the UN has a strategy to deal with Russia.”
A spokesman for the Russian mission to the UN didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The Syria measure survived in a tense Dec. 27 vote -- though diplomats warned that Russia would keep challenging it in future negotiations. A veto-wielding member of the Security Council, Russia increasingly has used its influence to counter efforts to undermine its Syria campaign. It has used its veto power 14 times on Syria-related issues since the conflict began, more than any other country over that period by far.
The moves are part of President Vladimir Putin’s broader efforts to shape events in the Middle East as the U.S. seeks to scale back. Putin’s decision to enter the Syria war in 2015 saved the Assad regime and forced other regional powers to coordinate with Moscow over the future of Syria, sidelining a UN-brokered series of peace talks that struggled to get traction.
Russia also widened a breach in U.S.-Turkey relations by convincing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to buy a Russian missile defense system, prompting the Pentagon to kick Ankara out of the F-35 jet program. And Moscow has deployed mercenaries to back General Khalifa Haftar in Libya against the UN-backed government.
“Russia is exercising power in a tough-minded way,” former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair said at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Tuesday. “Putin understands power. He’s a Russian nationalist. And he believes Russia has to put its chips on the table.”
While President Donald Trump has sent additional forces to the Middle East to confront Iran, he’s also escalated demands on other countries and the NATO alliance to do more for regional security, with the goal of winding down American troop commitments in “endless wars” from Syria to Afghanistan.
UN diplomats say that Russia is increasingly confident about exercising its power and is pressing back strongly in response to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ decision last year to begin a separate inquiry into attacks on civilian sites -- including hospitals and schools -- in Syria. The attacks occurred even though those facilities had shared their GPS coordinates with the Russian and Syrian militaries to avoid being accidentally hit.