This month of May, Switzerland holds the presidency of the UN Security Council. I am spending time trying to follow the goings-on in New York, observing and asking questions to people in the know. I had the chance to talk to Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group in New York, on how much the Council can achieve and how the Swiss are doing. And also, about the strategic future of Europe.

 In its Security Council statements Russia articulates a fundamental opposition to all things «western: What do you make of it?

You have to distinguish between the theatrics in the Chamber and what the Council is able to achieve. The mood amongst the Council members is very bad. There is a huge amount of anger over Ukraine. The Russians are very pugnacious in the open meetings, it must be very tiring being a diplomat in those meetings. But beyond the public theater, the Council in practical terms functions much as it did before February 24, 2022, it is paralyzed in Ukraine. But on issues like Afghanistan or Haiti, there is still cooperation. The rate of adopting resolutions is about the same. The French and the Chinese are working very hard to keep everything calm.It is a mess, but it could be much worse. The worst case would be if Russia vetoes everything. In 1959 only one resolution was passed. That is paralysis.

Is it mere political showmanship or is there a deeper Russian core conviction of being encircled, and threatened and attacked by the West in an existential way?

There is speculation amongst the other Council members what the Russian colleagues really believe. I believe that all of them – even Nebenzia – did not know of the attack on Ukraine beforehand. There is a sense that the Russian diplomats loyally present their government’s position but don’t necessarily believe it. It is also possible for a Russian diplomat to think the war is a mistake and believe that the West works against Russia. We also know that some of the statements of Russia are not designed for the Security Council but for social media, that the US has a biological weapons factory in Ukraine for example. We see that social media pick that up. The US does it too. Donald Trump knew that when he was at the UN the key was to have a few claims for social media. Blinken is very effective at that too.

Where it is united, the Council is powerless. There is no intervention against gang-rule in Haiti and the eruption of violence in Sudan surprised everyone.

The Haiti sanctions of last year were a Chinese suggestion. The problem with non-intervention in Haiti is that no one wants to do it. This is not due to the politics in the Council. Sudan, I worry about. Everyone was shocked. No one thought it would collapse so fast. The primary challenge for the UN was evacuation, there was no proper plan in place. The UN has lost a lot of credibility. No one is sure what the UN can do.

A lack of early warning and preventive capabilities?

There is talk about prevention, but the system is prone to the contrary. Council members are very good at ignoring warning signs and the UN is averse to being the bearer of bad news.

Why are you particularly worried about Sudan?

The situation reminds me a lot of the first two months after the coup in Myanmar. In that period, the Council agreed on a lot of statements. But over time Russia and China decided that it was not in their interest to support a weakening of the military. I worry that if the fighting in Sudan is prolonged, people will start to choose sides. Sudan shows another trend. In the last two decades the Security Council primarily focused on peace missions in Africa, with successes in Liberia or Sierra Leone. Now, the UN’s overarching role as a guarantor of African security is in decline. In Mali, Russian Wagner soldiers are undermining UN peacekeeping. In Sudan, the real politics are between the US, the Saudis, and some African countries. The Africans want to take the lead. The Council debate on 25 May will indicate how far the UN is ready to go with a new framework for cooperation with AU peacekeeping.

The meeting you mention will be chaired by the defense minister of Switzerland – a country hardly participating in any UN blue helmet missions. Isn’t this a bit paradoxical? Or hypocritical

You would not be the first country talking about peacekeeping and not doing it. No one will say the Swiss were hypocritical.

How do you assess the Swiss Security Council presidency in this month of May?

The presidency is mainly a procedural job. A lot is shuffling papers and chairing meetings. The open thematic debates give you the opportunity for a branding exercise by setting a public discussion on international security. Switzerland has done a good job of presenting itself as a champion of international law and cooperation, and generally handled its presidential duties professionally. May has always been a busy month, there are difficult issues like the decision on prolonging the arms embargo on South Sudan. There is one shadow over the Swiss presidency: If Russia exits the Black Sea Grain Initiative, the US and UK will present a resolution in the Council which Russia will veto. This will be a big fight but nothing Switzerland can contribute to. The big test will be in July when the prolongation of the resolution on humanitarian access in Syria comes up. The Swiss are penholders. That’s when people will watch closely.

Malta and Switzerland represent the «Western European and other» countries group in the Security Council. Do the non-permanent European members of the Council have particular roles?)

The two European E10 are generally understood to hold special responsibilities. They chair important sanctions committees, the Swiss on DPKR, Malta on Iran. The Syrian humanitarian file always was a Western European issue. Switzerland holds that role, maybe even more so as they have a strong diplomatic capability. A lot of small countries have difficulties keeping up with the agenda.

Is Swiss neutrality an issue?

 I guess this resonates more in Bern than in New York. It does not really affect how Switzerland performs and engages here. There has not been one instance where neutrality prohibited Switzerland from taking a clear position in the Council.

The EU and its members say that they do not speak with the Russians outside formal meetings. Does this open a space for the non-EU-member Switzerland?

It might be potentially advantageous, but Russia does not think that CH is neutral. I heard some European diplomats say that Switzerland is somewhat more cautious in their statements than the US or UK. That’s necessary. Switzerland’s job in the Council is being a broker, like on the Syrian issue. You cannot do that if you alienate others. Brazil, the other penholder on the Syrian issue, takes a different approach. They are trying to engage Russia.

You also are an expert on European security. What is the significance of the Ukraine war for Europe?

The attack on Ukraine has a transformative effect on how Europe thinks about the world. This might change how they look at the UN. People see that Europe circles the wagons and might worry less about situations like Sudan. NATO was jolted back to 1948. And if somebody had told me two years ago about joint EU arms production I would have laughed.

Is Europe on the way to “strategic autonomy” à la Macron?

A lot depends on the US election in November 2024. If Biden wins, the US will keep arming up Europe in the NATO framework. If Trump wins, the Europeans will have to decide whether they want to go alone. Then you would see the Europeans developing their own strategy.

Will the UN Security Council remain relevant as the universal organ for “international peace and security”?

It is still a place where you can do business with Russia if you have to. The Security Council is not there for fun. It is the one place where the Ukrainian Ambassador can speak twenty feet from the Russian and confront him with his view.

Published in German with Swiss Foreign Policy Association

Richard Gowan is an expert on international security and UN director of International Crisis Group in New York, an “independent organisation working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world.” It is funded by governments (Switzerland among them), foundations,companies and individuals.