Diplomats at the United Nations are preparing for an unholy row over Ukraine. As Colum Lynch of Foreign Policy reported this month, the Biden administration “is planning for a high-profile public showdown with Russia” in the Security Council if Moscow launches a new offensive against its neighbor. If hostilities escalate, the United States, its allies, and Ukraine are also likely to push for other U.N. bodies, like the General Assembly and Human Rights Council, to condemn Russia. While Russian diplomats will reject these criticisms out of hand, the crisis could make it harder for Washington and Moscow to compromise over other crises on the U.N. agenda.
Opening Moves Played Before
U.N. watchers have a pretty good idea how this diplomatic battle will play out, at least in its early stages, because we have seen it before. In February and March 2014, prior to and following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Council held seven meetings – most of them in public – on the crisis. Western ambassadors and the then Russian Permanent Representative Vitaly Churkin engaged in rhetorical fisticuffs, before Churkin quite predictably vetoed a resolution affirming Ukraine’s continued sovereignty over Crimea. Ukraine then tabled a resolution in the General Assembly reaffirming its territorial integrity, garnering the support of 100 of the U.N.’s 193 members. At the time, Vice President Biden called it an “overwhelming vote.”
The United States and its allies will most probably follow a similar playbook this year if war comes. Their goal will not be to stop the conflict – which will require negotiations far away from New York – but to shame Moscow. Russia, which holds the Security Council’s rotating presidency in February, could try to block the Council discussing the issue. As long as nine members back a meeting, the U.S. can force a procedural vote on the matter, to which the veto does not apply.
The Russians may welcome a Council debate anyway. In the last year, the Russian mission has convened four informal Council meetings (known as “Arria Formula” sessions) on Ukraine-related matters. Outside briefers chosen by the Russian U.N. mission have given positive accounts of the situation in Crimea, warned of Neo-Nazi tendencies in Ukraine and rehashed the events of the 2014 Maidan revolution. While Western Council members have used Arria Formula sessions to challenge Russia over Ukraine in the past – including one on Crimea last spring – Russia has become increasingly keen to sell its version of events at the U.N. In the case of war, the Russians will counter Western criticism in the Security Council on their behavior with their own narratives about the origins and fallout of the renewed conflict.
No Winners: Rhetorical Stalemates
There is unlikely to be any clear winner in such a rhetorical stand-off. Aficionados of U.N. history often hark back to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson brutally dismantled his Soviet counterpart’s arguments in a televised debate. Yet in today’s fragmented media environment, neither the Americans nor the Russians are likely to score such a decisive victory. Ukrainian, Western, and Russian media and social media channels will all publish their sides’ preferred versions of the outcomes of Council debates.
Unhelpful Tactics and Blocked Moves
The United States and its allies could aim to shape the debate by tabling a resolution condemning Russia’s actions and calling for it to pull its troops back. Russia would of course be ready to veto such a text. During the 2014 crisis some Council experts argued that the West could get around this by citing Article 27(3) of the U.N. Charter, which states that Council members are obliged to abstain on resolutions concerning disputes to which they are party, as long as they fall under Chapter VI of the U.N. Charter (which covers the “pacific settlement of disputes”). While this sounds like a clever ruse, it has some flaws. Neither the United States nor any of the other permanent five (P5) members of the Council are likely to want to create precedents for limiting their own veto powers in future, just to score what may amount to a symbolic point. Forcing Russia to veto a resolution – as the West has often done over Syria – would make the point equally clearly.
With the Security Council blocked, the United States and Ukraine would duly turn to the General Assembly to condemn Russia. While Ukraine might enjoy a lot of sympathy in the Assembly, many of the African, Asian, and Latin American countries that make up two-thirds of the U.N. membership will view this prospect with unease. The bulk of U.N. diplomats prefer to stay out of spats between Russia and the West, which they rightly think the U.N. cannot do much about. Although with the United States whipping votes, Ukraine was able to muster 100 supporters to back it over Crimea in 2014, it has seen its support dwindle in successive votes urging for Russia to withdraw from the territory.
Last December, just 62 countries voted in favor of Ukraine’s latest resolution on the topic. Even if a greater number supported a resolution rebuking Russia over any military action in the coming months – and indeed, a military intervention would probably change the scales – Moscow would likely calculate that this criticism too will fade over time.
In practical terms, the Assembly could call on the U.N. Secretary-General to appoint a mediator in the crisis, or authorize a Commission of Inquiry into its origins. In theory, it could also reach for a much-discussed but rarely-used formula called “Uniting for Peace,” dating back to the Korean crisis, by which the General Assembly can make non-binding recommendations on steps for dealing with crises including “the use of armed force when necessary” when the Security Council is paralyzed. This is popular with civil society activists around the U.N., but less so with diplomats and especially P5 diplomats, who do not want to see the Council supplanted as the main U.N. organ dealing with security matters. While Arab countries floated the idea of resorting to Uniting for Peace over Syria in 2013, the United States, France, and United Kingdom dissuaded them from doing so.
It is also hard to see what good invoking Uniting for Peace could actually do during a Ukrainian conflict. Facing a hot war involving Russia, few if any U.N. members would actually back the use of armed force to counter Moscow. Even a generic call for sanctions might prove difficult: The General Assembly took months to agree on a resolution on last year’s coup in Myanmar, and could not even agree on a plainly worded call for an arms embargo against the junta. U.S. and European diplomats might even bridle at the Assembly taking smaller concrete steps, such as calling for a U.N. envoy to address the conflict, as they won’t want international officials getting in the way of their own diplomacy. When Poland raised the idea of appointing a U.N. envoy for Ukraine during a term on the Security Council in 2018-2019, France killed the idea.
Other Diplomatic Goals
For the United States and other backers of Ukraine, the point of going to the General Assembly would, therefore, still be more about public relations than actual peacemaking. The United States and its allies could also turn to the Human Rights Council to pass a further resolution on the crisis. U.N. human rights officials have already done useful work in Ukraine – for example by reporting on the situation in Crimea, which monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) do not cover – and, like the General Assembly, could launch an inquiry into events in Ukraine. But such mechanisms are unlikely to scare Moscow very much.
From a U.S. perspective, one particularly desirable symbolic win would be to get Beijing to distance itself from Moscow over the conflict in all these U.N. forums (China, like the United States and Russia, currently holds a Human Rights Council seat as well a Security Council one). In 2014, China did not join Russia in vetoing the Security Council resolution on Crimea. Colum Lynch reports that the Biden administration also hopes to “place a wedge between Russia and its most powerful ally, China” – a perennial if elusive U.S. foreign policy objective. This is not inconceivable but its significance should not be overestimated either. China has occasionally abstained on some Security Council resolutions over Syria that Russia blocked, but this has not stopped its forging a close working relationship with Russia at the U.N. over time. Even if it does not come to Moscow’s diplomatic aid in this crisis, Russia will assume that Beijing will revert to backing its positions on other U.N. matters before long.
Sacrificing Other U.N. Interests
One big question for the United States in challenging Russia at the U.N. over Ukraine is what the second-order effects of their clash will be for other U.N. business. The Biden administration has not had easy relations with Russia in Turtle Bay to date, arguing with differing levels of heat over issues ranging from the military takeover in Sudan to the international supervision of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nonetheless, Biden’s team has looked for opportunities to work with the Russians. Last summer, the United States led a hefty diplomatic effort to stop Russia vetoing the Security Council mandate for U.N. agencies to deliver aid to rebel-held northwest Syria without permission from Damascus. After Russia agreed to this deal (despite refusing U.S. suggestions to open additional aid crossings) U.S. Permanent Representative Linda Thomas-Greenfield praised this as proof that the United States and Russia could still work together in the U.N.
Nonetheless, diplomats around the U.N. fret that a breakdown over Ukraine could stop the United States and Russians making similar compromises in future. The Syrian aid regime, which is up for renewal once again in July, could be one potential casualty. Yet a complete fracture is not guaranteed. U.N. officials note that while Council debates over Ukraine were furious in the spring of 2014, this did not stop Russia and Western powers compromising over the original mandate for aid to Syria soon afterwards, and the Council launched a major peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic in the same year. Although the overall state of major power relations in New York has deteriorated since then, it is still possible that the P5 and other U.N. members will manage to compartmentalize Ukraine and other crises.
Perhaps Best Available Move
For all the sound and fury, the U.N. could ultimately also provide a framework for resolving a Russian-Ukrainian war. There is an outside possibility that it might. Russia insisted that the Security Council endorse both the 2015 “Minsk II” agreement that de-escalated intense fighting in Donbas. It might want the Council to play a similar role after a further round of hostilities. There have also been periodic discussions of whether U.N. monitors or peacekeepers could help patrol a future settlement in Ukraine, alongside or in place of OSCE monitors. It is just conceivable that the Security Council might eventually reach for such a deployment to end an escalated war in Ukraine. But the U.S. and its allies would surely have qualms about this option, especially if it looked like the U.N. would freeze the conflict on terms favorable to Russia, and it might be hard to find troop contributors willing to risk the mission.
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Overall and in sum, the U.N. is unlikely to be much more than a platform for political theater over large-scale war in Ukraine. It might have considerable negative consequences for the U.N.’s work in other trouble-spots. But if escalated war does break out, the United States and its allies will have little choice but show their anger at the U.N., if only to maintain the pretense that it still matters.