When Russians hear paeans to the “rules-based” order, their standard rejoinder is to ask who is actually writing the rules. In fact, that same question now encapsulates the Kremlin’s attitude toward Western-championed multilateralism.

The way Russia sees it, the United States will not hesitate to act unilaterally when it needs to, and it is precisely this double standard that has eroded global rules. Whenever Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appears on the international stage, he tirelessly recounts America’s purported violations of international law, from the 1999 bombardment of Yugoslavia and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to the 2011 airstrikes that helped topple Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya.

Alexander Gabuev
Gabuev is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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To be sure, when the US wants a legal pretext for its actions, it will turn to multilateral bodies such as the United Nations Security Council. But if its plans meet resistance there from Russia or any other council member with veto power, America can always fall back on the default option: brute force and the mobilization of its allies.

It is little wonder, then, that Russia sees debates about the multilateral rules-based order either as hypocritical or, worse, as a sophisticated plot to undermine the role of international law as codified in the UN Charter. Whatever the case, the Kremlin itself no longer takes international law into consideration when it believes that critical Russian national interests are at stake.

The most vivid examples of this approach are Russia’s formal recognition of two breakaway regions of Georgia in 2008 and its takeover of Crimea in 2014. In the Russian leadership’s view, these actions were “defensive” measures. As a Russian diplomat once explained to us, the Kremlin has surmised that if the US can break international law around the world, then Russia should “break the American monopoly on breaking international law,” at least in cases where it has skin in the game and the resources to enforce its will.And yet, Russia does not actually want to see the rules-based multilateral order erode. When Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials express a desire to restore international law and the central role of the UN, they mean what they say. The UN, after all, is Russia’s preferred multilateral forum. As a veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council – and as a formidable military power – Russia exercises a lot of influence there.

The problem, in the Kremlin’s estimation, is that the UN-centered system of multilateral institutions is now in a crisis brought on by American dominance. Russia’s leaders would love to see a world in which everybody, especially the US, observes the UN Charter. But failing that, Russia’s preference is to be pragmatic and cynical: a great power that elbows its way through the international system and carves out a sphere of influence in its neighborhood. That, in the Kremlin’s view, is no different from what the US, China, India, and Iran are already doing outside their own respective borders.

Nonetheless, renewed multilateral cooperation through the UN would play to Russia’s strengths and allow it to deploy its own expertise. Consider the issue of nuclear non-proliferation. A nuclear power in its own right, Russia is one of the main parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. Working within the UN framework, the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) managed to bring Iran to the negotiating table through sanctions. And once there, they were able to craft an enforceable legal framework based on independent monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency, itself a part of the UN-centered system.

Now that US President Donald Trump has abandoned the JCPOA, it is not clear whether Russia – or any of the other remaining parties – can salvage the deal. But the fact that an agreement exists carries an important lesson: on issues in which Russia has a stake and the relevant political and diplomatic expertise, it can play an important and constructive role.

By the same token, in areas where Russia has neither a direct interest nor significant expertise, it does not invest much effort in multilateral cooperation. The country’s painfully slow accession to the World Trade Organization is a case in point. Because Russia exports mostly commodities, its decision to join the WTO was driven more by the prestige that would come with membership than by more tangible economic considerations. As a result, it took 19 years for Russia actually to join the organization (which it did in 2012).

Another example is climate change. Although Russia is formally a party to international negotiations and frameworks to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, it is certainly not at the forefront of the climate debate. In the Kremlin’s view, global warming does not pose an immediate threat to Russia, and thus is of little concern.

In the absence of a world truly governed by international law and the principles of the UN Charter, Russia’s preferred version of multilateralism is something akin to the nineteenth-century “Concert of Nations” in Europe. Under that kind of arrangement, a select few great powers should come together occasionally to discuss global issues and take collective action when their interests coincide, such as in the fight against terrorism or combating piracy off the Horn of Africa. At the same time, these powers should refrain from interfering in each other’s affairs, in order to preserve their respective spheres of influence.

The fact that Russia harkens back to a time when it was a global superpower should come as no surprise. What is less clear is whether its interest-based approach will redound to its benefit in the long run.

This article was originally published in Project Syndicate