Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks in Seoul about Romney’s comments (YEKATERINA SHTUKINA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

“I’m saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world’s worst actors, of course the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran, and nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough, but when these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them, when [Syrian President] Assad, for instance, is murdering his own people, we go to the United Nations and who is it that always stands up for the world’s worst actors? It is always Russia, typically with China alongside, and so in terms of a geopolitical foe, a nation that’s on the Security Council, that has the heft of the Security Council, and is of course a massive security power — Russia is the geopolitical foe.”

— Mitt Romney, March 26, 2012

The former Massachusetts governor made these remarks during an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in response to Obama’s open-mike flub with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. (Obama was overheard asking for “space” concerning a dispute over missile defense, saying he would have more “flexibility” for a deal if he wins re-election.)

We will leave to pundits to decide whether Romney’s reference to Russia as a “geopolitical foe” is a Cold War throwback. (Medvedev thinks so, saying the comments “smelled of Hollywood.”) But we were curious if Romney is correct to claim that Russia is “always” defending “bad actors” at the United Nations.

The Facts

Russia is one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, along with China, France, Britain and the United States. Ten other countries rotate, with two-year terms, but only the permanent members have the power to block a Security Council resolution with a single “no” vote.

However, in recent years, the veto power has been sparingly used, perhaps only a few times a year. Virtually all resolutions pass with a unanimous vote. Of course, the threat of a veto can certainly influence the negotiations over the text of a proposed resolution; a veto in many ways is a sign that diplomacy has failed.

Romney mentioned Syria. Twice in the past year, Russia and China have vetoed resolutions that would have condemned the Syrian crackdown on democracy protesters. Russia’s actions on Syria have certainly upset Obama administration officials, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calling Russia’s veto “just despicable.” In recent days, Russia has supported the Syrian peace initiative advanced by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which analysts believe will keep the current government in power.

But on the broader question of Iran and North Korea, Romney’s comments are a bit puzzling. Russia has repeatedly supported resolutions that have sought to limit Tehran’s and Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, such as the 2010 Security Council resolution that paved the way for increasingly tough sanctions on Iran.

As we wrote in our book on former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, some of the negotiations leading up to those resolutions were difficult and contentious, but it would be wrong to say Russia was “standing up” for those “bad actors.” Russia has cast no vetoes on resolutions concerning Iran and North Korea.

In fact, we could find only four cases in which Russia cast a U.N. Security Council veto in the past decade. The vetoes concerned resolutions on Cyprus (2004), Burma (2007), Zimbabwe (2008) and Georgia (2009). The vetoes regarding Burma and Zimbabwe, which were supported by China, reflected Russia’s reluctance to get involved in internal conflicts; the same could be said of the Cyprus veto. The Georgia veto was a matter of self interest, since it killed the extension of a U.N. observer mission in Georgia, a former Soviet republic and Russia’s neighbor.

The governments in Burma and Zimbabwe certainly are “bad actors” but we’re not sure that’s what Romney had in mind when he called Russia a geopolitical rival. (We did not get a response from the Romney campaign, but Romney expanded on his remarks in an article for Foreign Policy magazine.)

In the same period, the United States has cast eight vetoes, all of which concerned Israel and the Palestinians.

The Pinocchio Test

We’re still not sure why Romney singled out Russia, given that China was a partner in the vetoes on Syria and several others. But he stretches the facts when he suggests Russia has also been a hindrance on Iran or North Korea — or routinely blocks U.S. initiatives at the United Nations by “always” supporting evil regimes.

The Russians may be tough negotiators, but there’s nothing wrong with that. And certainly, it’s better than the days of the Soviet Union, which frequently cast vetoes.

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