The United Nations headquarters in New York on Jan. 26. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)
Columnist

Authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China see two main uses for international organizations: protecting their regimes and undermining Western values. That’s why they try to control and then corrupt them as much as possible. The story of the Russian diplomat Vladimir Kuznetsov is a perfect case in point.

Kuznetsov, a career Russian official, serves on the financial oversight and advisory boards of three major international organizations: the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. The Russian government appointed him to these roles despite the fact he is a convicted money launderer — or perhaps because of it.

When Moscow submitted Kuznetsov’s official curriculum vitae to the OPCW last year, it noted that from 1999 to 2005 he was a member and then chairman of the U.N.’s Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, a senior oversight post. But his CV omitted that Kuznetsov was convicted in 2007 of abusing that role to launder bribes connected to the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food Program.

Kuznetsov was sentenced to 51 months in U.S. federal prison after his co-conspirator, Russian official Aleksandr Yakovlev, pleaded guilty and testified against him. Now, over a decade later, Kuznetsov is back overseeing budgets of the U.N. organization that governs food aid as well as the body charged with protecting Syrian civilians from chemical attacks.

The Kuznetsov case was so egregious that the U.S. government and Congress felt compelled to get involved. The Trump administration has protested to the OPCW, officials told me, but no action has yet been taken. On Jan. 25, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the Kuznetsov case and other attempts by authoritarian regimes to corrupt the leadership of multilateral institutions.

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a KGB thug who installs his cronies wherever he can to advance his interests,” Cruz told me. “Russia and Iran have a vested interest in undermining the OPCW, and Russia has already started to do so by putting Vladimir Kuznetsov, who was convicted by a U.S. court of financial crimes, in a position where he’s supposed to be monitoring the OPCW’s finances.”

Russia sits on the OPCW Executive Council — along with Iran, which the Trump administration in November accused of being in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. An OPCW spokesperson said members of the Executive Council choose their own representatives but “the OPCW Technical Secretariat is supporting OPCW Member State efforts to address this matter as swiftly as possible.”

The Cruz-Johnson letter points out why Russia would want a convicted criminal to represent them at the OPCW. Russia stands accused of interfering in the OPCW’s investigations into chemical weapons use in Syria and tampering with test sites. The OPCW is also investigating the use of military-grade chemical weapons in Britain last March, which the U.S. and British governments say was a Russian government-sponsored assassination attempt. In April, the Dutch Defense Ministry thwarted a group of Russian military operatives attempting a cyberattack on the OPCW headquarters.

Russian actions to undermine international organizations are not new. Moscow has been trying to frustrate the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s ability to monitor democratic elections for years. But Russia’s efforts are now more systematic and widespread — and other authoritarian regimes are getting into the game. China is using its growing power at the U.N. not only to thwart criticism of Beijing’s human rights practices but also to alter how the U.N. views human rights worldwide.

Authoritarian powers view international rules-based bodies as a threat to regime interests and therefore have focused their efforts on hobbling the democracy and human rights components of these institutions, said Christopher Walker, vice president at the National Endowment for Democracy.

“The bottom line is that authoritarians are determined to bend the rules to their preferences,” he said. “The problem is that their approach inside these rules-based bodies is anathema to democratic accountability, transparency and human rights.”

The Trump administration’s response has been to call out these problems but then disengage from the organizations, as when Trump pulled the United States out of the U.N. Human Rights Council last year. Some want the Trump administration to put more pressure on these organizations to resist authoritarian corruption.

A better approach would be to redouble U.S. involvement in these institutions, in recognition that they represent a key battleground in the long-term fight between the West and revisionist powers such as Russia and China for influence over international rules and norms.

The U.S. intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment released this week clearly identified the challenge. “China and Russia are expanding cooperation with each other and through international bodies to shape global rules and standards to their benefit and present a counterweight to the United States and other Western countries,” it stated.

For too long, Western democracies have taken a laissez - faire approach to defending the rules of rules-based institutions, while authoritarian regimes work to shape them to do their bidding. Solving that problem is crucial to winning the grand strategic competition and preserving our security, prosperity and freedom.

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