The United Nations Hasn’t Been Useless on Ukraine
Media coverage of the United Nations’ response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has focused on the Security Council’s failure to halt Moscow’s aggression. The United Nations has presented an obvious target for criticism. In February, Russia vetoed a U.S.-backed resolution deploring its assault. In April, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the council via video link that it should dissolve itself if it could do nothing to hold the Russians to account.
Yet despite much justifiable criticism, some parts of the U.N. system have responded to the war much as they were supposed to do. While it easy to lament the council’s inability to restrain its most powerful members, this is not a role it can realistically be expected to play. Instead, we should judge the United Nations’ performance on three more modest criteria. The first is whether the organization has been a political platform for Ukraine and its allies to make a public case against Russia. The second is whether U.N. officials and agencies have been able to mitigate at least some of the humanitarian fallout from the war. The third is whether the United Nations has been able to manage the rifts emerging over Ukraine in order to keep tackling crises and conflicts in regions like Africa and the Middle East where it has marginally more purchase.
Measured against these metrics, the United Nations has performed better than seemed probable in February. Shortly after Russia stopped the Security Council criticizing its actions, the 193-member General Assembly (where all U.N. members have one vote and nobody has a veto) condemned the war by 141 votes to five. This was a notable improvement on the assembly’s response to the original Ukrainian crisis in 2014, when only 100 states backed a resolution affirming Kyiv’s sovereignty over Crimea. This year, the assembly also voted to throw Russia out of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council. The Human Rights Council itself has launched a Commission of Inquiry that — working with Ukrainian and other international investigators — should be able to compile unusually credible evidence of war crimes.
Focus on the Right Forum
If the Security Council’s inaction has been tragic, it was also entirely predictable. When one of the five veto-wielding members of the body is determined to launch a war, U.N. rules mean the council cannot do much about it. Russia used its veto to block the council criticizing its occupation of Crimea in 2014, just as the Soviet Union nixed Western resolutions condemning its invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. And while U.S. commentators may dislike the comparison, many non-Western diplomats in New York recall that the Bush administration rode roughshod over the council when it attacked Iraq.
Outside the Security Council, however, the United States, its European allies, and the Ukrainians have used the United Nations effectively, whipping up a high level of support for Kyiv across multilateral forums. The Biden administration can take some satisfaction in this. In the dog days of the Trump administration, American diplomacy at the United Nations was generally desultory, and U.S.-European coordination in New York was weak. This spring, by contrast, American and European officials worked closely together to secure strong majorities for resolutions condemning Moscow. The U.S. mission to the United Nations also worked quietly to persuade China to keep a low profile in these debates rather than throw its weight behind Russia. China has abstained on most General Assembly and Human Rights Council resolutions concerning Ukraine. Many non-Western countries that follow Beijing’s lead at the United Nations have done likewise.
There have been clear limits to what Western diplomacy at the United Nations can achieve. Some big non-Western U.N. members, such as India, have refrained from criticizing Russia so as to protect their strategic and economic ties to Moscow. By mid-May, European diplomats in New York admitted that they were encountering “Ukraine fatigue” in the General Assembly, with few countries wanting to sign on to more resolutions. One reason for this has been many U.N. members’ mounting concerns about the impact of the war on global food and fuel prices. While the U.S. mission in New York has tried to assuage these fears — in May, Secretary of State Blinken held a well-received round of talks on the food crisis at the United Nations — many non-Western diplomats blame Western sanctions on Russia for fomenting these economic shocks.
Skeptics of the United Nations will naturally ask if it is worth worrying about toothless U.N. resolutions and speeches. The General Assembly may have condemned Russia, but despite some precedents from earlier crises, it did not call upon its members to impose sanctions on Moscow. This is a fair concern, but it misses the point that the United Nations is one battleground of a much bigger information war between Kyiv and Moscow. Both sides have essentially treated the United Nations as a platform to present their versions of events around the war, amplifying their arguments via social media. While Russia has convened repeated Security Council meetings on the alleged existence of U.S. biowarfare laboratories in Ukraine — a story apparently designed to appeal to its domestic audience and Chinese netizens — Ukraine and its allies have used the United Nations to show that Moscow’s war and narratives enjoy little real support in the rest of the world.
The Humanitarian Front
Turning from the meeting halls of New York and Geneva to the situation in Ukraine itself, U.N. humanitarian workers have done their best to get aid to suffering civilians. The organization still has over 1,000 staff in the country, and reports that U.N. agencies and their partners have brought assistance to 9 million Ukrainians. Nonetheless, as all too frequently happens during intense conflicts, there have been glitches in getting aid to those who need it. U.N. agencies have offered cash assistance to vulnerable civilians, but the disbursement of these funds has been patchy. Local civil society groups have taken on the burden of helping the vulnerable, overshadowing the United Nations’ role. While U.N. agencies have tried to organize aid convoys to frontline areas, it has been too dangerous to access many flashpoints due to the risks posed by landmines and ongoing hostilities.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, a former High Commissioner for Refugees, has become personally involved in some high-stakes humanitarian efforts as well. Guterres initially struggled to play a diplomatic role in the war, in part because officials in Moscow gave him the cold shoulder after he condemned their assault. But in April, he was able to visit Moscow and Kyiv, working out a deal (based on groundwork laid by the International Committee of the Red Cross) to evacuate Ukrainian civilians trapped in the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol. Moscow had pragmatic military reasons for this — the evacuation cleared the way for a final assault on Azovstal and the surrender of its defenders, which the United Nations was not directly involved in — but it emboldened Guterres to look for further openings for humanitarian diplomacy.
Over the last months, the Secretary-General has been focused on crafting a deal by which Russia would ease its naval blockade in the Black Sea to allow Ukrainian grain out of Odesa, in return for steps to facilitate its own food and fertilizer exports. The United Nations has worked closely with Turkey on this project, which would both offer Ukraine some economic relief and ease the global food crisis. Bargaining has dragged on over details such as the creation of a large maritime corridor off Odesa for convoys to pass through (Kyiv naturally worries that Russian naval forces might pass through it, too). This month, the Ukrainians and Russians reached a “basic” agreement on shipping agricultural goods via the Black Sea, although its implementation remains uncertain. Regardless, diplomats in New York credit Guterres with focusing hard on the talks and mastering minor details of issues such as naval demining.
Continuing Work Elsewhere
Some U.N. officials and diplomats from outside Europe fear that the United Nations’ intensive focus on Ukraine will ultimately hurt weak states in other regions. At the start of the war, Security Council members worried that Russia would start to use its veto capriciously to block resolutions on trouble-spots beyond Ukraine to damage Western interests. As I warned in March, diplomats “acknowledge[d] in private that they will struggle to maintain business as usual for much longer” when it came to talking with Russia about the Middle East and Africa at the United Nations. But this fear now appears overblown. While relations between Russian officials and their Western counterparts have become poisonous — often spilling over into petty fights over details of U.N. procedure — both sides appear to have developed a tacit agreement to keep up a minimum of diplomatic cooperation on Security Council files unrelated to Ukraine.
Since its invasion of Ukraine began, Russia has waved through Security Council resolutions on significant initiatives such as recalibrating the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan to work with the Taliban and reconfiguring the African Union force fighting Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Russia even accepted the renewal of a mandate for the European Union to maintain a naval force off the coast of Libya — supposedly policing a much-broken arms embargo — despite Brussels imposing enormous sanctions on Russian firms. Overall, Moscow has seemed inclined to use the Security Council as a channel for residual, if frequently grudging, cooperation with Western powers while other forms of diplomatic engagement wither. It may help that — according to private conversations with diplomats representing multiple Security Council members — Chinese officials have been active behind the scenes, urging both the Russians and other council members to keep diplomacy alive.
There have been a few exceptions to this minimal cooperation. In May, China and Russia jointly vetoed a U.S. resolution imposing new sanctions on North Korea in response to its recent missile tests. But diplomatic sources indicate that this has more to do with worsening Sino-American relations over the Korean Peninsula than Ukraine. This month, Russia also came close to blocking the renewal of a mandate for the United Nations to deliver aid to the rebel-held enclave of Idlib in Syria — a recurrent source of tension in the council in recent years — but relented when other Security Council members offered it last-minute concessions over the length and terms of the mandate.
It is also clear that, while the Security Council may not be falling apart, the United Nations’ focus on Ukraine has opportunity costs for the organization. As Russia’s war sucks up international attention, some other countries on the U.N. docket are also going through major crises. Most strikingly, violence has risen dramatically in the Sahel. African, Western, and non-Western diplomats alike all agree that the United Nations should be looking for new ways to stabilize the region. Secretary-General Guterres has proposed mounting a new African Union force there. But with the Security Council bogged down in debates over Ukraine, few diplomats have the time or desire to prioritize these issues, which are further complicated by the fact that some states in the Sahel — most notably Mali — are cultivating closer political and security ties with Moscow.
Facilitating a Diplomatic Solution?
Could the United Nations play a role in helping cement a future political deal between Russia and Ukraine to end the fighting? To date, this question is still only being tentatively discussed in New York. The organization’s options are limited. Russia has signaled that while it is willing to talk to Secretary-General Guterres about humanitarian issues, it does not see him as a potential mediator for political matters. After the Secretary-General’s successful intervention on Azovstal, Russia insisted that the Security Council should only welcome his “efforts” rather than his “good offices,” a term which in UN parlance implies more political engagement. If the two sides eventually make a deal, they may need some sort of U.N. observation mission to facilitate the disengagement of forces, a process I have described in more detail elsewhere. But it is very unlikely that a large blue helmet force will be called up to keep the peace, as few if any countries would be willing to commit troops to such a risky enterprise. Finally, U.N. experts may be able to offer Kyiv advice on topics such as refugee return, but the European Union and World Bank will likely be the main players in long-term efforts to reconstruct Ukraine.
However the war evolves, the United Nations will most likely continue to play its current marginal but not insignificant role in handling the fallout. There will undoubtedly be more calls for the organization to reform or disband given its inability to solve such a major crisis. But these calls are misguided. The invasion of Ukraine has clarified the United Nations’ remaining virtues as well as its weaknesses. Even in an increasingly divided and competitive strategic environment, the United Nations offers a stage for major powers to vent their grievances — and a channel for them to find a few remaining ways to cooperate.
In this light, the United Nations is not quite as hopeless as its critics suggest. The organization has indeed acted as a platform for international public criticism of Russia, brought some aid to victims of the conflict, and helped keep a lid on some other crises that would otherwise be consuming the time of Western policymakers. None of these achievements will bring much comfort to Ukrainian civilians who have borne the full brunt of Moscow’s aggression, but the world would be worse off without them.
Richard Gowan is United Nations Director at the International Crisis Group in New York and a contributor to the organization’s publications on the global response to Russia’s war on Ukraine, as well as the United Nations’ role.
Image: United Nations