On 25 February 2022, one day after Russia commenced its invasion of Ukraine, 80 states tabled a draft resolution at the United Nations Security Council.
This resolution “reaffirmed” the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine and “deplored in the strongest terms” Russia’s aggression. It also requested Russia’s “immediate, complete, and unconditional” withdrawal of all its military forces from the territory of Ukraine.
Unsurprisingly, the draft resolution was defeated by Russia which, as a permanent member of the Security Council, holds a veto power to block any substantive resolution. This veto power, however, does not apply to Council decisions on procedural matters. Hence, Russia was unable to prevent the Council from adopting Resolution 2623 two days later, calling an emergency special session of the General Assembly.
The emergency special session of the General Assembly, merely the 11th in the history of the UN, took place on 1 March 2022. Adopting Resolution ES-11/L.1, 141 states in the Assembly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Five states voted against the resolution: Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria.
Other than demonstrating that the vast majority of states deplored the Russian actions, the effect of the resolution will remain limited. In contrast to Security Council resolutions, General Assembly resolutions are generally non-binding. However, they do at least carry the weight of world opinion.
This latest episode of the UN failing to effectively maintain international peace and security has led many commentators question whether the organisation was still relevant. But nothing about this discourse is new. Indeed, the UN and its system of collective security have been challenged ever since inception in 1945.
Korea in 1950, the Suez crisis in 1956, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Indonesian invasion of Timor in 1975, the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, the US Invasion of Iraq in 2003, or the decade-old and ongoing conflict in Syria. The list is long and non-exhaustive. Each conflict was accompanied by extensive commentary either stressing the role the UN played in mitigating the fall out, or pointing to its let-downs.
As to the war in Ukraine, it is difficult to see how the senseless bloodshed can be brought to a hold other than by diplomatic means. Once a ceasefire is declared and the talking starts, compromises will have to be made.
Finding a way out of the current quagmire will require listening carefully to what the Russians are saying. And it starts by looking at three key explanations Putin offered in the televised speech announcing his war of choice (for an English translation see here).
First, Russia is acting to stop “neo-Nazis and militias” from killing civilians and to prevent a “genocide” of Russians in Eastern Ukraine. Second, Russia is protecting itself from some unspecified threat emanating from Ukraine (NATO in Ukraine?). Third, Russia is defending and assisting the self-proclaimed breakaway states in the Donbass in Eastern Ukraine, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
In recent days, further signals have been sent by the Russian foreign ministry. For Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the world would face a “real danger” if Kyiv acquired nuclear weapons. His deputy, Alexander Grushko, declared that Russia is interested in NATO taking a position that “would protect our own national interests”. That interest includes the EU “distancing” itself from NATO.
So, how, then, could a potential compromise look like?
Russia withdraws all troops from Ukraine. Ukraine is excluded from any future NATO membership. A UN (and OSCE) peacekeeping mission is deployed, including in the Donbass where the status of Donetsk and Luhansk remains to be determined. The 2014 annexation of Crimea is recognised as irreversible, even if unlawful. Ukraine (as well as Georgia and Moldova) are given pathways to joining the EU. The EU, in turn, agrees to gradually lift its sanctions.
In spite of the increasing friction among its permanent members, it is likely that the Security Council will be involved in managing whatever compromise is found. It will continue to serve as a forum for some dialogue and diplomacy. The General Assembly, too, can play an important role. Either by authorising a peacekeeping mission under the Uniting for Peace procedure, or by serving as forum for humanitarian relief efforts.
Writing in 1971 on the continued relevance of the UN, Louis Henkin, a professor at Columbia University in New York, wrote that pronouncements of the death of the organisation were “premature”. While Henkin considered its condition as “grave indeed”, he did not find the maladies “terminal”. There is, perhaps, no better way to characterise the state of affairs today.