Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in brazen violation of the United Nations Charter, a now-familiar pattern has played out repeatedly at the U.N.: Security Council paralysis followed by a General Assembly consolation prize. A recent U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Kremlin’s attempt to “annex” four Ukrainian provinces was vetoed – by Russia, of course – underscoring the structural limitation of trying to act against a Security Council member even when it has flouted international law. On the other hand, the U.N. General Assembly did subsequently condemn the Russian power grab, by an overwhelming vote. Despite understandable frustration over the world body’s failure to stanch a conflict that has riven Europe and stoked threats of possible nuclear confrontation, the use of U.N. mechanisms to address Ukraine points to several valuable features of U.N. diplomacy, limitations notwithstanding. In particular, it shows the importance of U.N. diplomacy in cultivating global public and leadership opinion, which has proved enormously important in the Russia-Ukraine war.
When it comes to a hot war, the U.N. is measured above all on whether it can end the fighting; the answer in Ukraine is thus far an unequivocal no. The composition of the Security Council, with its five veto-wielding permanent members designated after World War II, conditions action on an elusive consensus bridging the world’s deep and intensifying political schisms between the West, China, and Russia. In late February, just after Putin’s invasion, Russia vetoed a resolution deploring the incursion, after China, India, and the United Arab Emirates all abstained. A day later, however, for the first time since 1982, the Council called for an Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly under the U.N.’s “Uniting for Peace” procedure, whereby the Council can refer a situation where it is deadlocked to the 193-member assembly for action. (Because the vote was procedural, no veto was allowed.) The General Assembly then did decisively pass a resolution condemning Russia’s “aggression” as a violation of the U.N. Charter and calling for a full withdrawal. What the General Assembly resolution lacked in legal force it partly made up for in moral authority. Lacking the Security Council’s coercive powers, including the authority to approve the use of military force or to enact sanctions, the hortatory General Assembly resolution nonetheless established how Russia’s invasion and Western assistance to Ukraine would be perceived globally.
The same dynamic has now played out with regard to the “annexation” claims. The lopsided General Assembly vote rendered stillborn Putin’s effort to recast his flagging war effort as a righteous, anti-colonial crusade, with the vast bulk of former colonies siding with Ukraine and its Western supporters.
With the Security Council’s hands tied and the General Assembly constrained in its powers, the Biden Administration has pledged to seek Security Council reform. Others have called to eject Russia from its permanent seat on the body. But as long as the permanent five members of the council remain deadlocked on a new formula, the Council can only soldier on as-is.
But any dismay should be tempered by a clear-eyed recognition of how the U.N. can be useful despite its obvious limitations. For one thing, its up-and-down roll call votes provide a visible barometer of global support. Russia tried to get the early October General Assembly vote on its illegal occupation to happen via secret ballot, wanting to avoid the spectacle of the weight of the world coming down again on Moscow. But it failed, and with the increased margin of opposition to Russia’s action (143 voting to condemn Russia’s action, compared to 141 in March), Ukraine and the West demonstrated that Russia had gained no geopolitical ground over the last seven months, notwithstanding insidious disinformation campaigns and assertive diplomacy throughout the global south that aimed to blame the war on the west.
Timely U.N. votes also shape how capitals around the world plot their next moves. Before the most recent General Assembly vote, China’s U.N. envoy decried an “irresponsible and dangerous” cold war mentality that “intimidates and forces” countries into taking sides. His revealing remarks suggest that the “concerns” Chinese President Xi Jinping had voiced about the war in discussions with Putin in early September include worry that China’s equivocal posture has turned into a diplomatic liability. In Western capitals, the vote – coupled with Ukrainian battlefield gains – showed global support for expanding military and financial aid to Ukraine. Ukrainians took the result as a morale boost, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeting triumphantly that the “world had its say.”
The General Assembly has also laid some crucial groundwork for eventual accountability for war crimes in Ukraine. Their finding that Russia had committed aggression may have opened the door to eventual prosecution of the international war crime of aggression, recognized since the Nuremberg Tribunal as “the supreme international crime.” In theory, the crime of aggression offers an umbrella charge beneath which the totality of the consequences of the Ukraine war, including mass displacements, disruptions of global food supplies, and more can be accounted for. Scholars and advocates are now assessing options for such prosecution through the International Criminal Court or an ad hoc tribunal. While prospects for bringing the war’s architects to justice are uncertain, the General Assembly’s finding has the potential to shape how the war is viewed by posterity, reaffirming rather than diluting international norms.
Other U.N. bodies have also played a positive role in laying the groundwork for justice and accountability and keeping international focus on human rights. Back in February, the U.N. Human Rights Council created a fact-finding mission on Ukraine that has been gathering evidence to expose Russian crimes and support eventual prosecutions. The council recently mandated the creation of a special rapporteur – a designated expert charged with documenting and reporting to the Council and the General Assembly – to monitor human rights inside Russia. This marked the first time such a mechanism has been created in relation to any permanent Security Council member. While there are no vetoes at the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, entrenched political dynamics there have long shielded Russia and China (and, it must be said, the United States as well) from scrutiny, particularly with regard to conduct inside their own borders. The recent measure, however, was sparked by the sharply intensified wartime repression of dissent inside Russia, including the mass arrest and detention of journalists, politicians, and rights defenders and the shuttering of human rights and civil liberties groups. Russia has vowed not to cooperate with the rapporteur. Yet the prospect of biennial reports on Russian domestic human rights abuses before an international audience creates a new source of pressure on the regime. If the rapporteur’s term is renewed after its initial year, it will create an enduring locus of pressure and stigma for the Kremlin’s mistreatment of its own citizens.
The work of the U.N.’s technical and operational agencies also should not be overlooked. In July the U.N. helped launch the Black Sea Grain Initiative, working with Turkey to persuade Russia to allow for a humanitarian corridor so that Ukraine could resume grain exports amid a mounting global food crisis. The International Atomic Energy Agency has done important work monitoring the safety and security of Ukraine’s nuclear power reactors, particularly its imperiled Zaporizhzhia plant. More than half of Ukraine’s children were displaced within a month of the start of the war, and many are receiving support from UNICEF. In total, the U.N.’s humanitarian and refugee agencies have served more than 13 million people inside Ukraine and another 7.6 million refugees, according to the United Nations Foundation.
Any assessment of the U.N.’s contribution to mitigating the Ukraine war is premature. For the humanitarian agencies, the looming winter with threatened energy supply disruptions will be a sore test. While U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres personally has a relatively limited track record for the sort of “good offices” diplomacy that has distinguished his most accomplished predecessors, it is hard to envision who other than the U.N. might be poised to serve as a neutral broker when the time for talks eventually comes. It is also conceivable that the Security Council could eventually play a role; after forces that included Russian-backed groups were routed in the Kosovo War in 1999, a Security Council resolution provided cover for Moscow to accept the outcome in return for symbolic concessions. Should similar developments occur, a similar resolution could lead to a peacekeeping or observer operation that could help prevent a lapse back into violence in contested areas.
There is no disputing that the U.N.’s role as an authoritative global deliberative body and a technical and humanitarian troubleshooter falls well short of the vision of its creators. It rings particularly hollow for those whose lives are imperiled by wars that the global powers once pledged to avert. But even as the international community comes to grips with the U.N.’s limitations, the war in Ukraine demonstrates that we must not lose sight of its potential.