In October, the United States and Russia will square off in a high-stakes election to decide who will be the next secretary-general of the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU) — helping to determine the future of Internet communications for five billion users worldwide.
The Geneva-based ITU develops standards and practices that make possible key parts of our everyday life by writing the rules for video streaming, cellphone calls, Web searches and email. Without the ITU, the building blocks of telecommunication, such as Wi-Fi, would crumble.
Russia would like to own the secretary-general’s seat because it wants to control the ITU’s regulatory policies and to supplant a private group, called ICANN, which coordinates Web addresses, the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote last year. “The fundamental question is whether the governance process will benefit authoritarian states that want to control information or the advocates of openness and freedom,” he said.
The ITU’s membership includes all 193 UN member states plus roughly 900 tech companies and other industry and academic entities.
Russia’s candidacy, given the war in Ukraine, has thrust the little-known ITU into the global spotlight. If Russia wins the election, Western countries fear that the Kremlin will introduce policies to restrict the free flow of information, crippling the Internet as we know it.
If Russia loses, it will represent another chipping away of its long-entrenched perch at the UN. Most recently, it was suspended from the Geneva-based Human Rights Council and is facing other steps by certain countries and other parties to turn Russia into a pariah.
Right now, it’s unclear how the ITU race will play out.
In remarks at the Global Digital Development Forum, a conference that was held online on May 4, Samantha Power, head of the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) and a former US ambassador to the UN, described the ITU as “the most important agency you never heard of” and one whose election result will “determine the future of the internet.”
October’s vote will take place in Bucharest, Romania’s capital. There, the 193 UN member states will vote by secret ballot for either the American candidate, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, or her Russian counterpart, Rashid Ismailov. The winner will serve as the ITU leader for four years, succeeding Houlin Zhao, a Chinese national who has has been ITU’s boss for nearly eight years.
Bogdan-Martin is a 30-year veteran of the agency, currently serving as director of its Telecommunication Development Bureau. If she wins, she will make history as the first woman to run the ITU and the first American to hold the post since the 1960s. Ismailov is a former deputy in Russia’s Ministry of Communication and Mass Media and previously served as vice president of service at Huawei, the Chinese tech company. More recently, he was chief executive of Nokia Russia. In 2018 Ismailov was chair of the ITU Council, the agency’s governing body.
The US mission to the UN’s press office did not respond to PassBlue’s request for details on Bogdan-Martin’s candidacy.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described her in a recent statement as a “deeply experienced and widely admired expert on global communications,” adding that he was proud to endorse her candidacy. Those remarks built on a slew of endorsements from other senior US officials, including Samantha Power; UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield; Gina Raimondo, the secretary of commerce; and the Federal Communications Commission chair, Jessica Rosenworcel, suggesting that the US is making every effort to beat Russia’s candidate to further diminish Moscow at the UN and to secure and protect the continued free flow of information on the Internet.
Thomas-Greenfield has said repeatedly since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 that she and her delegation and US allies are “isolating” Russia at the UN and will not let up as long as its war continues. “While it has been a challenge, the Security Council has been extraordinarily successful . . . in isolating Russia,” Thomas-Greenfield said at a May 2 press briefing. This month, the US holds the Security Council presidency, a post that rotates monthly among all 15 Council members.
Russia’s permanent membership in the Security Council is at odds with its war in Ukraine, which is seen by many other nations as a violation of the Council’s mandate to “promote the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security,” as detailed in the UN Charter. Three other permanent Council members — the US, Britain and France — have attempted to pass resolutions condemning the war. But each time, Russia has used its veto, and China, also a permanent member, has allied with Russia through abstentions in votes.
As a result, the Council has been lambasted around the world for being unable to stop Russia’s assault in Ukraine. Yet the Council is severely limited as to what it can do to halt Russia’s aggression against its European neighbor.
Unlike the Council, the General Assembly has thus far succeeded in its various attempts to erode Russia’s power at the UN, where it dominates not only as a veto holder in the Council but also in more obscure but influential ways, such as membership on General Assembly committees and other bodies. The biggest step occurred in a special emergency session on April 7, when the Assembly voted to suspend Russia’s membership in the Human Rights Council. Of the 175 countries voting, 93 voted in favor of the motion, 24 countries objected, and 58 abstained.
Immediately after the vote, Russia withdrew its membership from the Human Rights Council, which left its seat open, and the Czech Republic, with no competition, was elected to the seat on May 10.
Russia was also suspended in April from the Madrid-based World Tourism Organization, a UN agency that supports the international tourism sector. Again, Russia withdrew its membership in reaction.
Although the vote for the ITU secretary-general is months away, the US campaign will, to some degree, be driven by a desire shared among like-minded member states at the UN to push Russia further into a corner, no matter what happens in Ukraine. In recent weeks, Russia lost elections for coveted seats on four UN entities — the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations, the UN Women Executive Board, the Unicef Executive Board and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues — humiliating defeats for its delegation worsened by Russia losing one of the spots to Ukraine.
The European Union mission to the UN tweeted, “Results of today’s . . . elections show that Russia’s aggression has disqualified them from serving in key bodies of the UN”; the permanent mission of Lithuania added in its own tweet, “Solidarity during the vote . . . shows distrust & isolation for #Russia due to gross violations of @UNCharter #StandWithUkraine.” Britain’s delegation to the UN tweeted: “Russia competed in 4 elections . . . it lost in all of them. The UN membership is isolating Russia and stands with Ukraine.”
A seat in the UN’s all-important but secretive Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, or ACABQ, was contested last week between a Russian — whose country is assigned a spot more or less by default — and a Ukrainian. The temporarily vacant seat (held previously by a Russian) went to another Russian diplomat, Evgeny Kalugin, through a secret-ballot vote. (The ACABQ was scandalized about 15 years ago, when a Russian who chaired the body was indicted by the US for money laundering.)
Russia’s lucrative contracts
Still, there are less publicly visible corners of the UN where Russia appears to be doing business as usual. For example, from 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea, through 2020, to cite the latest figures, the UN spent more than $2.3 billion procuring Russian goods and services in open-contract bids. These transactions, according to one source familiar with the business and who asked for anonymity, have been in place for decades and support dozens of UN peacekeeping missions with such essentials as medical equipment, food, administrative services, air transport and helicopters. But most of the transactions revolve around air-transport services.
Shortly after Russia’s invasion began on Feb. 24, an informal group of Ukrainian officials who have worked at the UN, together with a former Ukrainian ambassador, sent an open letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres requesting that the UN “stop financing Russian aggression through UN business opportunities.”
This letter coincided with a separate “diplomatic note” sent to Guterres by Ukraine’s delegation at the UN, requesting the immediate suspension of “all non-essential procurement cooperation” with Russia. The Ukrainians have been trying to draw attention to what they call the morality and ethics of the UN doing business with a country that is slaughtering civilians and destroying infrastructure in a neighboring country.
Some of the Ukrainians point out, for example, that numerous Russians hold top jobs in the UN and may not deserve them now, given their country’s war on Ukraine.
These top UN officials include Tatiana Valovaya, who heads UN Geneva; Alexandre Zuev, the assistant secretary-general for the rule of law and security institutions in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations; and Vladimir Voronkov, who leads the UN Counterterrorism office.
When asked about the Ukrainian requests at a daily press briefing on April 11, Stéphane Dujarric, the UN spokesperson, said that procurement sales were not contingent on politics but follow “the mandate given . . . by the General Assembly and in [conformity] with the Financial Regulations of the UN, which requires such procurement actions to be done on the basis of best value for money, fairness, integrity and transparency, and effective international competition.”
In an editorial published eight days later in The New York Daily News, several former UN and other Ukrainian officials pressed the UN to put “its money where its rhetoric is” and to stop awarding helicopter contracts to Russia for UN peacekeeping missions. The UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for starters, relies heavily on Russian (and Ukrainian) helicopters.
“These aircraft are often piloted by retired [Russian] military officers,” the officials said, who “leveled Aleppo” in Syria and are “bombing Kharkiv and Mariupol” in Ukraine.
In a confidential note sent to the UN secretary-general, a copy of which was made available to PassBlue, Atul Khare, the head of the UN Department of Operational Support, referred to “some informal demarches to stop contracting aircraft from the Russian Federation.” He insisted, however, in his note that without “the aviation services of operators from . . . the Russian Federation, our global peace operations will come to a halt.”
He added, “I am not hopeful that we will be able to fill such a large void within a reasonable period of time.”
But a former UN official told PassBlue that the “large void” created by removing Russian helicopters from peacekeeping missions could be filled promptly — if the UN leadership had the political will to do so with Russia. The ex-official further questioned how Russia could participate in the “maintenance of international peace and security” — as a permanent Security Council member — if it is bombing another nation.
The UN Department of Operational Support declined PassBlue’s request for comment about the Ukrainian requests. A UN official who is familiar with the situation also said that there were mechanical considerations in the decision-making process over helicopters, and it is not purely about political will. It also appears that the department is following policy, as outlined by Dujarric, the UN spokesperson, to award contracts that satisfy the “Financial Regulations of the UN,” particularly the principle of “best value.”
A review of the new contract awards published on the UN Procurement Division website showed that in 2022 so far, Russian vendors have not been awarded any new contracts. By comparison, in the similar period in 2021, Russia received 12 awards for aviation services. This suggests, the ex-official said, that based on new European Union sanctions imposed against Russia, the UN has recently decided — perhaps as a symbolic gesture — to cancel troop rotation in the UN Disengagement Observer Force, in the Golan Heights of Syria, under the “standby” contract with a major Russian carrier.
For now, the de facto policy of the Department of Operational Support appears to be to not award Russian carriers new contracts while keeping in place the current fleet of 41 Russian helicopters in various peacekeeping missions. This approach could ensure Moscow’s revenues will be approximately $150 to $200 million a year, a source told PassBlue. (In 2020, the revenue was $184 million, according to the latest data available.)
It remains to be seen how far the UN will go regarding the use of Russian helicopters. On May 17, the Procurement Division will open bids to replace Ukrainian helicopters that have been repatriated, at Ukraine’s request, from the UN Support Office in Somalia. As always, several Russian carriers are expected to compete, a source said.
The Russian mission to the UN did not respond to PassBlue’s request for comment. Notably, the page headed “procurement” on Russia’s mission website is blank.
This article was updated to reflect that Rashid Khalikov, an assistant secretary-general in the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, retired last year. His name was originally included in the article as a top UN official who is also Russian.
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