From the very moment that the United Nations decided to work online, after the pandemic hit, Russia has been the strongest and loudest opponent of going virtual at the world body. For its Security Council presidency, in October, Russia finally got its way: the Council will be meeting once again in its chamber, sitting at the horseshoe table, with Plexiglas-and-wood dividers between each of the 15 members and their delegations. However, the videoteleconferencing era is not over for the Council, and open-debate meetings will continue to be convened virtually.
“We are not, of course, reckless. We understand the risks,” Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, said in his press briefing on Oct. 1, which was held at the UN with reporters distancing and wearing masks. “And of course, we will be holding VTC meetings, especially for open debates. That is justified, because there may be a high turnout with many people delivering their statements from the outside.”
With Russia pushing intensely to the return of in-person meetings in the Council and the president of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, equally determined to do the same with the Assembly, the UN headquarters is coming back to life slowly.
Regardless of the pandemic, Russia’s rotating presidency already started on a negative note. European and British colleagues in the Council sent a letter to Niger, the departing Council president in September, about Russia’s alleged poisoning of the Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, saying it “constitutes a threat to international peace and security.” (Navalny has blamed President Putin for the poisoning, a claim the Kremlin has rejected.)
“We call on the Russian Federation to disclose, urgently, fully and in a transparent manner, the circumstances of this attack and to inform the Security Council in this regard,” the letter said, signed by the ambassadors of Belgium, Britain, Estonia, France and Germany.
In response to the letter, Nebenzia said at the briefing: “I’m not a spokesman on Navalny’s case. But I think that instead of drafting letters that we saw yesterday, which they hurried to draft and to send on 30 September before the Niger presidency expired, some of them should better cooperate with the Russian authorities.”
Nebenzia added that he saw no reason Putin would poison Navalny, noting: “That is immoral even to suggest this, let alone a simple question: why Russia or the Russian authorities would need that? That’s all I can answer to that question.”
The question could indeed come up in this month’s regular meeting on Syria and chemical weapons, Oct. 5, as many Western countries used the same topical meeting in September to accuse the Kremlin of using chemicals against its dissidents. “Well, I cannot, you know, cut off their microphones if they raise it again at a chemical Syria meeting,” Nebenzia said about the possibility of the Navalny case being raised again. “That’s their right. Although I don’t see the link between Syria’s chemical file and Navalny’s case. But in chemical Syria, we’re planning to discuss chemical Syria.”
Another major Council meeting to look for this month, on Oct. 20, is an open debate on the situation in the Persian Gulf, with undoubtedly a heavy focus on Iran, given that the arms embargo in the Iran nuclear deal expires on Oct. 18. The open debate aims to look at “what can we do to alleviate the tensions and go to de-escalation,” Nebenzia said.
The Russian mission also has a new deputy permanent representative on its team, Anna Evstigneeva, in charge of political affairs. She is one of the few high-ranking women diplomats in Russia, and she agreed to be interviewed by PassBlue for a podcast episode about what it’s like to be a diplomat and the high-profile files she works on at the mission: Afghanistan, peacekeeping in Africa and the Balkans.
Evstigneeva will surely monitor the meeting closely on the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, or Minusma, scheduled for Oct. 8. Althought no meeting is planned so far, the Council will also keep track of the sudden fighting that has erupted in the long-frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of the latter.
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as they assume the Council presidency. To hear more about Russia’s goals in October and the interview with Evstigneeva, with insights from Anton Barbashin, the editorial director of Riddle, a Russian-focused think tank, download the latest episode of PassBlue’s UN-Scripted podcast series on SoundCloud. (Excerpts of the podcast are below.)
Deputy Ambassador to the UN: Anna Evstigneeva, 39
Since: August 2020
Languages: Russian, English, Norwegian
Education: Diploma in international relations from St. Petersburg State University; Ph.D., political science, from the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Moscow.
Her story, briefly: Anna Evstigneeva is the latest recruit to Russia’s mission to the UN in New York City, though it’s not her first time working there. She was first posted to the mission from 2011 to 2016, working under Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who died in 2017. So she is now seeing many familiar faces.
“I meet them in the UN, these rare times I go,” Evstigneeva told PassBlue. “So it’s always a surprise that, for example, they are still there, or they are also returning.”
Born and raised in St. Petersburg, Evstigneeva said she ended up in diplomacy as “an occasion of life,” she said. “At first, I couldn’t understand all the complexities of this world, the diplomatic world, but now I love my job.”
She started her career in Norway, where she worked at Russia’s embassy in Oslo between 2003 and 2007. Evstigneeva speaks Norwegian, so she will undoubtedly develop a special relationship with Norway once it joins the Council for a two-year term starting in January. “For me, it will be fascinating to work with Norway, to know something about this country, to having worked there, and to speak the language. I wrote a thesis on Norway; so for me, it definitely it will be an opportunity.”
Evstigneeva joined Russia’s North American department in 2009 and was first posted to the UN two years later before returning to Moscow in 2016 as deputy director of the Department of International Organizations.
What is it like to be a woman working in Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs? Actually, I don’t feel any difference because I was brought up in a family and professional community where people judge by merit. Of course, I have a lot of women colleagues in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and here, in addition to colleagues and friends, and we like to spend time together, chatting on different things. But when it comes to work, I don’t care how to ask a man or woman; the answer matters, the action, professionalism.
A year ago, Russia held its first Russia-Africa summit, in Sochi. Some memorandums of understanding were signed, so where do they stand now? We were glad to host dozens of African countries to pursue the dialogue with them on our equal basis as partners, and because it’s clear that the African voice on any issue should be heard. For us, it’s very important also to find out how to help these countries to overcome conflict and to help their development and establish business connections. As far as I know, there were many important agreements signed . . . , not only generic in the political sense, but also very pragmatic care and businesslike agreements. It definitely will become a regular event. (She said another Russia-Africa summit is planned for 2022.)
After the military coup in Mali in August, there were protesters seen in the street demanding that the French get out of Mali and for Russia to take a more prominent place. Does Russia want to play a bigger role in Mali? And what are your hopes for Mali as it transitions back to democracy? I think [the protests] are more related to the reputation and authority of Russia in the world, and the fact that it’s considered an honest and respectful partner for many countries, including in Africa. Russia plays a role in Mali, bilaterally and as a permanent member of the Security Council. We will do our best to help stabilize the country, as soon as possible.
In Mali, we hope that there will be a swift restoration of civilian authority and there are certain steps made in this direction. The new authorities in Mali will also fulfill their obligations regarding the peace agreement of 2015 because political turbulence can exacerbate challenges and problems that Mali faces related to terrorism and with armed groups. We also respect the position of African countries and Mali. . . . We trust the wise leaders of African countries that know the situation better, so that the leading role goes to them.
Head of State: Vladimir Putin (President)
Foreign Affairs Minister: Sergey Lavrov
Type of Government: Semipresidential republic
Year Russia (Soviet Union) Joined the UN: 1945
Years on the Security Council: Russia is a permanent member, along with Britain, China, France and the United States
Population: 144.5 million
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.