Russia ended an eleventh hour scramble by diplomats to save the mechanism for investigating chemical weapons attacks in Syria by vetoing a United Nations security council resolution that would have extended its work for 30 days.
Before the Friday evening vote, ambassadors from the UK and US had described the Japanese-drafted resolution as the last hope to keep the investigation running.
After the vote they condemned Russia for once again protecting its ally in Damascus against accusations of war crimes.
The vote means the mandate for the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) of the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons runs out on Friday.
The White House immediately accused Russia of protecting Bashar al-Assad’s regime and “terrorists who are using chemical weapons”.
“By vetoing the renewal of the JIM, Russia has sent a clear message that it does not value the lives of the victims of chemical weapons or respect reasonable standards of international conduct regarding the use of such weapons,” said a spokesman.
While Russia agreed to the creation of the inquiry in 2015, since then it has questioned its findings and methods. Last month it dismissed the panel’s report into a chemical attack on the rebel-held village of Khan Sheikhoun as “nonsense”.
In all, Friday marked the 11th time Russia has wielded its veto on Syria since the country’s civil war began in 2011.
Matthew Rycroft, the UK’s permanent representative to the UN, said he was “astounded” by Russia’s actions.
"This third veto in a month clearly exposes – if it wasn't already obvious – Russia's determination to protect their Syrian ally whatever harm that causes to the ban on the use of chemical weapons, to the wider international system of rules, to Russia's own reputation," he said, promising to fight on
Twelve nations voted for the resolution – enough to pass the measure were it not for the Russian veto.
Friday marked what diplomats described as a final effort to find a solution.
A day earlier Russia vetoed an American resolution that would have renewed the JIM’s mandate with its structure unchanged. In turn, a Russian resolution – criticised as watering down the panel’s powers – mustered only four votes.
Thursday’s meeting laid bare the animosity between Russia and Western powers as the security council tried to end the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict.
Russia remains the Syrian government’s most powerful backer and has repeatedly blocked any effort to tighten restrictions the Al Assad regime.
Last month it criticised the report of the investigating panel which said there was clear evidence that the Syrian air force was responsible for the lethal use of sarin gas in the rebel-held village of Khan Sheikhoun.
Dozens of civilians, including children, were killed. Images from that attack caused shock and outrage around the world.
However, the Russian permanent representative to the UN dismissed the findings as based on “dubious testimony from opposition and even terrorist groups” and criticised the fact that inspectors had not visited the site of the attack.
Any renewal of the panel’s mandate would require improved methods of investigation, he said.
Throughout the debates, the US has accused Russia of siding with murderers, dictators and terrorists by shielding the regime from responsibility for its actions.
The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect added its condemnation and spelled out the danger of failing to agree.
“Russian diplomats have tried to present this as a debate about the OPCW-JIM’s technical merits,” it said in a statement after the vote. “However, what is at stake is not just the OPCW-JIM, but the gradual normalisation of chemical warfare.”