If it were up to the Kremlin, the United Nations Security Council would not have discussed tensions building along the Ukrainian border at a public meeting on Monday.
It’s a nonissue, according to Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN.
“Maybe some psychiatrist is necessary here,” Polyanskiy said in an interview with PassBlue on Jan. 28, referring to what he called Western hysteria. “But I don’t know a good political psychiatrist.” As far as Moscow is concerned, he suggested, the West has created the crisis around Ukraine, as the Kremlin has consistently said it did not intend to invade the country further.
With an estimated 100,000-plus troops massed along most of Ukraine’s border, most of the other Security Council members beg to differ. The US announced the deployment of 3,000 additional troops to Eastern Europe on Wednesday, and tensions between Washington and Moscow remain high.
It was no coincidence that the US called the Jan. 31 meeting on Ukraine in the Council on the last day of Norway’s presidency. On Feb. 1, Russia took the presidency for one month.
Even if no concrete Council document came out of the diplomatic showdown on Monday, the simple fact that it took place likely irritated President Putin, says Kadri Liik, who tracks Russia as a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.
“In Russia’s general foreign policy worldview, the UN still occupies a relatively central place,” she says. As such, having a whole meeting dedicated to the military buildup surely hit a nerve. On Feb. 1, President Vladimir Putin publicly blamed the US for inciting global hysteria, while he is keeping diplomatic doors ajar.
Back in New York City, there is little more the Council can do beyond muscle flexing.
“The main lesson from 2014 is that the Council cannot really do very much about the situation in Ukraine, for the simple reason that Russia holds a veto,” Richard Gowan, who oversees the International Crisis Group’s work on the UN, told PassBlue. “Russia is not going to permit the Council to authorize any sort of serious actions against it.” After invading Crimea, in 2014, Russia blocked the Council from issuing any statements or resolution. Gowan said the only way for the UN to move forward on the Ukraine crisis is through the General Assembly or the Human Rights Council.
If the gridlock in the Security Council is similar to what it was in 2014, some dynamics have changed, diplomats and experts say. Back then, China stayed rather quiet on the issue. “In most cases, when we had our discussions, consultations, Russia was very much alone on the matter,” a diplomat who was on the Council then told PassBlue, requesting anonymity.
Since that time, China has become much more assertive. On Monday, it criticized the US for convening the open meeting and denounced what it called a “microphone diplomacy’’ approach. Sven Jurgenson, ambassador to the UN from Estonia, a Baltic country that served on the Council in 2020-2021, said he was not surprised to see China being more assertive this time around.
“Looking at the cooperation China and Russia were having during the two years that we were in the Council,” he said, “it was expected.” China may want to avoid any further meeting on the topic, however, as its proximity to Moscow could compromise its position as a defender of the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty in the event of an invasion, some experts say.
Countries will have another opportunity to discuss Ukraine, Polyanskiy says, at the Council’s annual meeting on Ukraine and the implementation of the Minsk agreements on Feb. 17. “If the United States wants to speak out,” he said, “they are very much welcome to say whatever they want.” The Minsk agreements, signed in 2014 and 2015, sought to end the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region, but their implementation has been complicated.
Russia does not plan to organize any high-level meeting this month during its Council presidency, noting that President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are too busy to travel to New York City. The country’s signature event will look at cooperation between the UN and the CSTO, or Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russian version of NATO. Polyanskiy said the meeting would spotlight the situation in Kazakhstan, where CSTO troops, including Russians, were deployed after public unrest occurred in Almaty, the country’s main hub. More than 200 people were killed in the street demonstrations.
Another of Russia’s events will be on the impact of sanctions, scheduled to take place on Feb. 7.
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors or other high-level diplomats as their countries assume the rotating presidency of the Security Council. In 2021, the column reported on Tunisia, Britain, the US, Vietnam, China, Estonia, France, India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico and Niger. Last month, it was Norway’s turn.
To hear an analysis with more details on Russia’s Council presidency and insights from Gowan of the International Crisis Group, Liik of the European Council on Foreign Relations and Jurgenson of Estonia, download PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, produced by Stéphanie Fillion and Kacie Candela, on Patreon or SoundCloud. (Excerpts are included in the interview portion below.)
Deputy Ambassador to the UN: Dmitry Polyanskiy, 50
Languages: Russian, English, French, German, Polish and Arabic
Education: B.A. from the Institute of Asia and Africa at Moscow State University, in Arabic language and history. Studies at the Russian Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, specializing in international economic relations.
His story, briefly: Polyanskiy may be the second in charge at Russia’s mission to the UN, but he makes it clear that he walks in nobody’s shadow. He had his time to shine in August, while he was filling in for Russia’s permanent representative, Vassily Nebenzia, who was on vacation, visiting, among other places, Crimea. (Recently, Nebenzia was in Moscow for several weeks and returned to New York City on Jan. 28.)
Since 2018, Polyanskiy has been Russia’s deputy permanent representative, handling many files. A native of Moscow, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1994 and was posted to Tunisia, Germany, Sweden, Austria and Slovenia. He has worked for many years on European Union economic matters and was eventually sent to Brussels as the head of Russia’s EU unit.
In 2008, Polyanskiy moved to Poland to focus mostly on Eurasian economic integration among Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. He also sits on Russia’s Council on Foreign Relations. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and has a grown daughter, who lives in Moscow and is in the wine-exporting business.
Ambassador Polyanskiy talked to PassBlue on Jan. 28, three days before the Security Council meeting on Ukraine. His remarks to PassBlue have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
When the US requested the Jan. 31 meeting on Ukraine, under the Council rubric of “threats to international peace and security,” it said it would be a way of exploring diplomatic avenues. Is that how you see it? It’s a clear-cut provocation, there is nothing about dialogue there because we repeatedly said that we have the right to move the troops on our territory. There is nothing extraordinary there. . . . Most of the troops are situated tens or even hundreds of kilometers from the border, they do not have operational capacity there. This happened before. There is nothing extraordinary about this situation, and [the US] has been creating this artificial hype. If the United States wants to speak out, then the most important topic is the implementation of the Minsk agreements, and they will have such an opportunity during our presidency. On the 17th of February we organized a special meeting, which is when they’re very much welcome to say whatever they want. Otherwise, this is, of course, a clear-cut provocation and only something that would only lead to polarization of Security Council members. It’s all very destructive on the part of the US.
Discussions are taking place at high levels right now in Washington and in Moscow. What’s happening here, in New York City? Nothing is happening in New York City except for us speaking to our colleague diplomats in the corridors, meeting and explaining our approach to European security, but nothing with the Americans I can assure you. [US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said she had spoken with her Russian colleagues on Ukraine.] The only thing is this US provocation that they decided to bring to the Security Council. New York or Washington are not the places where something is happening now.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said he did not think Russia would invade Ukraine. What do you think of Guterres’s response to the tensions so far? Have you met with him? [Update: On Jan. 31, in the Security Council’s meeting on Ukraine, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia met briefly with the secretary-general.] We didn’t have any discussions with the secretary-general and, again, it would be logical to discuss something that was happening, but nothing is happening. What’s happening is a big hype in the heads of Western politicians, mostly. It’s not reflected by anything on the ground. And what should we discuss? I don’t know — some phobias. This is very strange to involve the secretary-general, to discuss phobias, maybe some psychiatrist is necessary here. But I don’t know a good political psychiatrist. To a certain extent, it has continued for more than a month, and their discussion is aggravating and they need to make themselves more and more excited about it. We repeatedly deny it — have you heard a single Russian politician deputy, a diplomat who would pronounce a single threat to invade Ukraine or to attack Ukraine? No, you will not find anyone; only Westerners are implying that we are planning to attack. What’s on Mr. Putin’s mind? Everybody’s asking. I don’t know. The secretary-general is not involved, but of course he’s preoccupied. We’re also preoccupied with this situation, which is absolutely artificial and unnecessary. What we really need to think about is the implementation of the Minsk agreements, it’s a very concrete document, there are countries, paragraphs that are not implemented by Ukraine. So we all can do better here. In Ukraine, by implementing these agreements, we said that we’re never planning to annex Donbas, for example, or to establish something there. That’s not to the liking of Ukraine, that we want this region to reunite with Ukraine. But in order to do so, there are several things that Ukraine needs to do. First and foremost, in order to achieve this, Ukraine needs to start the dialogue with those who live in this region.
Head of State: Vladimir Putin (President)
Foreign Affairs Minister: Sergey Lavrov
Type of Government: Semipresidential
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 US
Population: 144.1 million
Per capita CO2 emission figures for 2019 (in tons): 12 (by comparison, US figure is 16; China, 7.1)
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.