Gregory Johnsen was the latest victim. In March of this year, the American scholar who for two years had been investigating sanctions violations in Yemen for the United Nations Security Council, received the news that Russia had nixed his new contract.
Two weeks earlier, it was Nikolai Dobronravin, a Russian professor whose appointment to a Security Council panel investigating violations of U.N. sanctions in Sudan was held up by the United States — along with France and Britain.
The two men are part of a larger group of experts and administrators, at least six in all, who in recent months have either lost jobs at the United Nations or were nixed for appointments despite being eminently qualified.
Analysts say they are casualties of a quiet proxy war the United States and Russia have been waging lately to advance their broader agendas at the world body, a war that rewards bureaucratic sabotage and a mastery over the arcana of U.N. procedures.
For Russia, one goal seems to be to erode the U.N.’s capacity to enforce sanctions on countries and terrorist organizations from Iran to North Korea to South Sudan. For the United States, the exercise appears to be tied to broader disagreements with Russia over its election meddling in Western countries and its military involvement in Ukraine and Syria.
“I think we’ll see more of this sort of guerrilla warfare over diplomatic process issues unless the U.S. and Russia can manage some sort of big bargain to ease their overall tensions at the U.N., and that looks really remote right now,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on the U.N. at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“Obstructionism [has] turned out to be a pretty good strategy for Moscow over Syria, and it looks like they will apply it more generally,” he said.
The rejections and reprisals date back to the beginning of the year, when Russia locked horns with the United States and its European allies over the appointment of a special ombudsperson responsible for ensuring alleged terrorists sanctioned by the Security Council are granted a measure of due process. The post had been vacant since August of last year, when Catherine Marchi-Uhel stepped down.
Russia preferred a Tanzanian successor, but his candidacy was ruled out by the United States, Britain, and France. Moscow retaliated by blocking two candidates favored by Washington, one from France and one from Lebanon.
The deadlock kept the position vacant for several months, until May of this year, weakening an office that was already facing an erosion of its powers.
Russian diplomats responded by delaying the appointment of a French missile expert to a panel that monitors U.N. sanctions against North Korea. They also blocked an effort by the United States and its European allies to impose a travel ban and asset freeze on six people suspected of running human smuggling operations in Libya. They recently relented, however, setting the stage for the first imposition of sanctions on human traffickers. For their part, the United States and its European allies ultimately lifted their hold on the hiring of Dobronravin, the Russian Sudan expert.
Johnsen’s departure comes at a tense moment in Russian relations with the West. Moscow allegedly attempted to assassinate a Russian double agent and his daughter in London in March, using a rare Novichok nerve agent. Russian diplomats opposed renewing his contract after the United States criticized the poisoning attempt. Two weeks after the attack, President Donald Trump expelled 60 Russian spies and diplomats from the United States.
“It’s tit for tat,” said Johnsen, who missed several salaries while waiting to see if Moscow would relent, then took a job with a think tank in Washington. His case had not been previously reported.
“The U.S. does one thing, and Russia responds exactly the same way. There is a kindergarten aspect to what’s going on between the U.S. and Russia.”
More than others, the Johnsen case illustrates how strains in U.S.-Russia relations are affecting work in various areas of the U.N. and undercutting the organization’s capacity to enforce a wide range of sanctions.
Russia, one of five veto-holding powers at the United Nations, has long wielded its outsized influence to protect its interests. But diplomats say Russia is now sabotaging a broader range of initiatives backed by the West that sit well beyond its core interests.
Some diplomats say that Russia is not the only villain in this story.
“We can go around in circles trying to determine who was targeted first,” said one well-placed official. “I don’t think there are any innocents in this.”
Still, the feuding has played to Moscow’s strategic advantage.
Russia — along with China — has long been skeptical of the wisdom of imposing sanctions on countries that defy international norms. This conviction has only hardened since the United States and Europe imposed economic penalties on Moscow in response to it annexation of Crimea.
In an effort to push back, Moscow’s diplomats have exploited their expertise in U.N. rules and procedures to thwart U.S.-backed initiatives at the United Nations.
Even when Moscow and Beijing have signed off on sanctions regimes in the Security Council, their diplomats have pursued a variety of strategies behind the scenes to weaken the U.N.’s capacity to enforce them, blocking the release of reports that document violations, whittling away at budgets for U.N. investigators, and driving out technical specialists who provide inconvenient revelations.
Russia backed a move by Iran in December to slash the budget of a U.N. team that monitors Tehran’s transfers of arms and ballistic missiles, resulting in the ouster of a German missile expert and an Austrian arms specialist. Their dismissal dealt a blow to U.S. attempts to draw attention to Iranian efforts to export arms and missiles in contravention of U.N. mandates.