What the United Nations can do in response to the war in Ukraine

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Here’s what the United Nations can and can’t do in response to the war in Ukraine

The very first images that many saw of the war in Ukraine were not raw footage from the battlefield or aerial bombardments, but two frazzled-looking, middle-aged men facing off across a conference table at the U.N. Security Council in New York.

On the night of Feb. 24, the council was in session at a meeting that had been called as a last-ditch effort to convince Russia to back down. For a time, Russia’s ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, who happened to hold the council’s rotating chair at the time, seemed unaware that the “special military operation” had actually begun, until his Ukrainian counterpart, Sergiy Kyslytsya, challenged him to contact his superiors in Moscow: “You have a smartphone. You can call.” He then asked Nebenzia to relinquish his chair, saying, memorably, “There is no purgatory for war criminals, they go straight to hell.”

It was one of the most dramatic moments in the history of a forum that has not lacked for drama in its 77 years of history. But the images of delegates continuing to talk about de-escalation at the very moment missiles were raining down on Kyiv, Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities could also serve as a metaphor for the U.N.’s irrelevance to the conflict in its early days.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was withering in his assessment of the organization when he addressed the Security Council on May 5, in the wake of revelations about the killing of civilians in the town of Bucha, telling delegates that if they could not act to stop Russian aggression and such atrocities, they should “dissolve yourselves altogether. … Are you ready to close the United Nations? Do you think that the time for international law is gone?”

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As delegations from the United Nations’ 193 member states gather in New York this week for the U.N.’s annual high-level General Assembly meeting, the issue of Ukraine is likely to dominate world leaders’ speeches and side meetings. The U.N. Charter, and its prohibition against “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,” is likely to be frequently invoked, even as the organization has never looked more powerless to stop a blatant violation of that prohibition.

But that’s not the whole story. If for those early months the organization was an ineffectual bystander, in the last two months it has taken critical steps to protect civilians in Ukraine, lessen the war’s impact on global hunger and prevent nuclear disaster. These steps would have been impossible without the U.N.’s involvement.

In short, as the world turns its attention to U.N. Headquarters this week, it’s clear that the war in Ukraine is revealing both the severe limitations and continued relevance of the institution.

Words, word, words …

When it comes to the U.N. and the war in Ukraine, the key fact to keep in mind is that Russia is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council and as such has the power to veto the council’s resolutions.

“Anyone who was in any way surprised that the Security Council couldn’t deal with this really shouldn’t be commenting about the U.N.,” Richard Gowan, U.N. director at Crisis Group, told Grid. “What we saw on the council was, in fact, a replica of what happened in 1956 over Hungary, in 1968 over Czechoslovakia and in 2014 over Crimea. Because of the way the council is designed, Russia, or indeed the U.S., can launch a war of aggression and basically avoid any penalties.”

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Russia’s opponents have had better luck in the U.N. General Assembly, where every country has a vote and Russia does not have a veto. However, the General Assembly also lacks the power to enact sanctions or authorize military actions. The assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution in March condemning the invasion and somewhat less overwhelmingly passed another in April suspending Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council. There have been other subtler signs of Russia’s isolation at the organization. The Russian delegation has lost elections to a number of key committee chairs it was seeking and complained that its requests for Security Council meetings to present its side of the Ukraine conflict have been blocked by other members.

Gowan said that in contrast to the early days in the war, Ukraine’s backers haven’t expended much energy lately on lobbying the General Assembly against Russia.

“The actual concrete benefits of just getting one more resolution saying ‘Russia is bad’ is quite limited,” he said. “There’s not the slightest bit of evidence that President Putin sits there thinking, ‘Oh, no, the General Assembly.’”

Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be attending next week’s meeting in New York to make his case to the General Assembly in person. The Russian delegation will instead be led by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov is under U.S. sanctions, but under the 1947 U.N. headquarters agreement, the U.S. is usually required to grant access to all foreign diplomats, regardless of existing sanctions or other restrictions. Meanwhile, over Russia’s objections, the U.N. General Assembly agreed on Friday to suspend its normal rules to allow Zelenskyy to address the meeting by video.

… and then actions

Given its structure, and the Russian veto, the U.N. was never going to be the best forum for coordinating global action to isolate Russia or provide military aid to Ukraine. But that doesn’t mean the organization, and its secretary-general, António Guterres, have not made their presence felt.

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It was Guterres who, in April, personally negotiated with Putin across his now infamous long white table, to arrange the evacuation of civilians who had been living underground for weeks at the besieged Azovstal steel complex in Mariupol, and to allow Red Cross and U.N. personnel to oversee that evacuation.

In July, after two months of negotiations facilitated by the U.N. along with the government of Turkey, Russia and Ukraine agreed to a deal to allow the shipment of grain through the Black Sea to resume. That deal was arguably the most consequential diplomatic achievement in the nearly seven-month-long conflict.

Prior to the war, Ukraine supplied 45 million tons of grain to the world market every year, and the halting of those shipments due to war had accelerated a global food crisis already driven by climate change and supply chain disruptions. According to the U.N.’s figures, as of Sept. 14, 136 vessels had left Ukrainian ports carrying 3 million tons of grain. Those shipments have not only helped alleviate food shortages, they have also brought down global prices for wheat and other staples.

The U.N. is now pushing for a follow-up agreement that would allow shipments of Russian ammonia, an important component of chemical fertilizers, to use the same sea corridors now being used for Ukrainian grain. It’s hoped that in addition to helping the food crisis, an ammonia agreement would give Russia more of a stake in the success of the grain deal, though Putin last week suggested he might walk away from the whole agreement entirely, calling it a “scam” and alleging without evidence that almost all the grain has been sent to Europe rather than developing countries. (According to the U.N.’s figures, around a third of shipments have gone to lower-income countries, and the World Food Programme has purchased 120,000 tons of Ukrainian wheat for humanitarian assistance efforts.)

Nuclear breakthrough

The other example of the U.N.’s impact in the war has been the involvement of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a U.N. agency, in the crisis at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Since the early weeks of the war, the plant has been under Russian occupation in an area of active combat, prompting fears of a dangerous radiation release.


On Aug. 31, IAEA Director Rafael Grossi and his team made an unprecedented visit to the facility, traveling through the war zone to get there, after securing the agreement of both sides. The IAEA team was able to inspect the facility and the damage done by the war, and ultimately secured an agreement from the Russians to leave two IAEA inspectors on the site permanently.

After a scare in early September in which the plant was disconnected from Ukraine’s power grid due to shelling for several days, the plant’s last operational reactor was eventually shut down on Sept. 11. Grossi is currently pushing for the establishment of a “nuclear safety and security protection zone” around the plant.

Critics might point out that these are examples of the U.N. mitigating the effects of the war, rather than the war itself. When asked at a press conference on Wednesday what he had discussed with Putin about a “broader end to the war,” Guterres, who said he covered a range of issues with Putin including the grain deal and Zaporizhzhia, replied: “My positions are known.”

Guterres’ spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, told Grid that one of any secretary-general’s most important unnamed powers is his “good offices,” meaning the ability to provide neutral forums for combatants to hammer out differences. However, Dujarric noted, “the good offices are only good if both parties to the conflict accept them. From the start of the conflict, he’s offered up his good offices, but this is not something the two sides have latched on to in terms of mediating an end to the conflict. They’ve found it very useful to have him involved on other issues.”

What Ukraine means for the U.N.

Asked about criticism that the U.N.’s Security Council’s structure makes it unable to respond more comprehensively to crises like Ukraine, Dujarric said, “It is what it is. In recent years, there has been increased polarization of the Security Council, less and less unity, which has had implications not only for what’s going on in Ukraine, but for what’s going on in Syria, on North Korea sanctions, on peacekeeping, on everything.”

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The Ukraine War has prompted fresh calls for reform to the U.N. Security Council, including from U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield who, in a speech earlier this month, called for a Security Council that can “better reflect the current global realities and incorporate more geographically diverse perspectives.” She didn’t specify what these reforms might be. Such proposals tend to crop up after any major crisis that leaves the council deadlocked. “We’ve probably been talking about reform of the U.N. since two days after the charter was adopted,” said Dujarric.

But eliminating the most controversial part of the U.N. system, the veto power held by the five permanent members of the council, is unlikely to be supported by those members, including the United States.

The U.N. did take one small step toward reform in April by passing a measure that will require the five permanent measures to justify any use of the veto before the General Assembly, a move one ambassador told Al-Jazeera was meant to force them to “pay a higher political price.” The reform, sponsored by Liechtenstein, was, to the surprise of many observers, backed by the U.S., U.K. and France, an outcome that would probably have been unlikely without the war. (In this history of the council, Russia and its predecessor, the Soviet Union, used the veto 119 times, the U.S. 82 times, the other three far less.)

Early in the war, Ukrainian diplomats called for an investigation into the possibility of suspending Russia’s permanent member status, noting that it had simply taken over the Soviet Union’s seat without any formal vote. According to Ukraine’s argument, Russia had no more right to that seat than Ukraine or any of the other former Soviet republics, but the proposal didn’t really go anywhere. At a live event sponsored by Foreign Policy magazine last week, Thomas-Greenfield conceded, “If we had it within our powers, we would certainly look at how we could kick them off of the Security Council, but they are a permanent member of Security Council.” She added that it was still important to “let them know that is it is not business as usual for them here in New York.”

The Crisis Group’s Gowan said one pleasant surprise in recent months has been that tensions over the war, while palpable, have not prevented the Security Council from taking meaningful steps from being taken on other issues, including extending the U.N. mandate on holding negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan and authorizing a new peacekeeping mission in Somalia. So far, Russia and its rivals seem to be able to agree to disagree on Ukraine while working on other issues.

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Will this spirit of pragmatism continue? Crisis Group’s Gowan said he’s hearing growing concerns at the U.N. that if the war continues to drag on, and continues to dominate the global agenda, it will get harder to compartmentalize and the council will lose its ability to function, not only on Ukraine but on other issues. “Eventually, it could be rather like Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff. His legs keep spinning but eventually he falls down,” he said.

For now, the only certainties seem to be that when it comes to war, the United Nations will continue to play a major role in conflicts, while continuing to be the target of criticism for its inability to do more to stop them.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.