The UN Must Do More for Ukraine—and Itself
Russia’s invasion of a sovereign state is also an attack on the basic principle the international body was founded to prevent.
The UN, although its members are divided on Ukraine, must play a bigger role in the Ukraine conflict, because the basic principle on which it was founded—prohibiting major powers from illegally invading other states—is being grossly violated for the first time since its founding. Its actions could include sending peacekeepers to guard a safe zone within Ukraine for millions of displaced people, but also more active peacemaking, securing a ceasefire, and pressing for war crimes accountability.
A group of former UN officials recently wrote UN Secretary General António Gutteres to urge his organization to engage more on the conflict, beyond its laudable humanitarian, reconstruction and refugee mobilization. Gutteres, by traveling to Moscow and Kyiv, appeared to heed them, but the UN needs to push the limits of one of its founding principles — neutrality between great powers — for the sake of its core founding principle, stopping aggression which could ignite world war.
This author recently advocated in Defense One for a United Nations-sponsored humanitarian safe zone with U.S. and other international peacekeepers in western Ukraine to help contain the ongoing war. With more than 11 million Ukrainians believed to have fled their homes, such a zone remains urgent, to benefit both those fleeing from the fighting and to limit Russian advances, were the fortunes of war to shift against Ukraine. Variants of this humanitarian zone concept are being advocated, including recently by The Guardian; the UN, Washington, and Ukraine should review possibilities, including extending any zone to Moldova.
While the West’s focus now is properly on helping Ukraine to defeat Russia’s weakened invasion force, at some point it will end with one or another diplomatic arrangement. Thinking on possible such arrangements, including by Richard Haass in Foreign Affairs, is gaining momentum, and even Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov admitted that there would have to be some “treaty” ending the conflict.
Whatever the battlefield outcome, resolution options must align with three realities: conflict outcomes can never be predicted, as war opens the door to almost any eventuality; the warring parties will have the primary say in a solution; and finally, this like any war could drag on, or end precipitously, and Ukraine and its partners thus need to think through now how any outcome can serve Ukrainian and larger Western interests.
No matter who negotiates an eventual ceasefire arrangement, it then should be endorsed by a legally binding Chapter VII UN Security Council Resolution, just as Security Council resolutions “legalized” the Dayton Accords and the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by others. Some might see this legal imprimatur as just a piece of paper, but the nature of paper is important in diplomacy. The two definitive security agreements previously involving Ukraine—the Budapest Agreement on nuclear weapons removal and the Minsk Accords on a Donbas ceasefire—failed in good part because they were not legally binding.
Whatever the war-termination specifics, the status quo post bellum will likely include a sovereign Ukraine with much of its territory and its will to resist intact, a weakened Russia still poised to try to destroy Ukraine, and an international community still committed to deter Russia. This reflects the possibility that Moscow could conclude that, just as its army was reborn after the disasters of Summer 1941, it could do better in a renewed conflict. Ukraine, however valiantly its citizens fight, and however well-armed, well-trained, and diplomatically backed by its partners, cannot necessarily deter Russia on its own, and thus the international community needs skin in this post-resolution game, to both preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty and maintain rules-based global stability.
The solutions advanced by Kyiv are: to have Ukraine enter NATO, an option supported by many, including former U.S. NATO ambassador Ivo Daalder; or to have the U.S. and other NATO states give bilateral, legally binding (i.e., treaty-based) security guarantees. The sentiments behind these proposals are understandable, but neither is feasible. NATO membership requires unanimous NATO-state approval, but not all are ready to accept Ukraine, and Russia would view membership as a new casus belli. And bilateral security guarantees would result in a handful of NATO members taking war-or-peace decisions that would affect all NATO states without their concurrence, a recipe for Alliance collapse.
A more workable alternative would be a UN peacekeeping mission established legally under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, to demarcate a truce line, keep warring parties separate, and deter new combat. The UN has much experience with such operations, from Cyprus to southern Lebanon to the Sinai. That experience is mixed, including withdrawal from the Sinai before the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, but in practical terms a UN resolution is the only international arrangement likely acceptable to both Ukraine and Russia, especially as Moscow, and its ally China, traditionally emphasize UN roles.
To reassure the Ukrainians, given the UN’s mixed record and coddling of Moscow, any peacekeeping mandate would have to: be long-term, thereby blocking a Russian renewal veto; authorize use for force in self-defense; and include U.S. forces, an exception to usual American policy. No one can expect even a sizable UN peacekeeping presence alone to defend Ukraine. Rather, its mission would be to deter attack by making clear that any new Russian aggression would require shooting its way through a UN screen and thus blatantly violating international law. Moscow may not care much about international law, but it knows that other nations do, including many now reluctant to sanction Russia. Such a presence is a lot for Moscow to swallow, so sanctions relief may be proffered to win its cooperation.
To be sure, neither a UN resolution nor peacekeepers can guarantee to deter Russia for long. But the same is true of a heavily armed Ukraine, or Western threats to inflict heavy diplomatic and economic retaliation. The only absolute guarantees in conflicts flow from unquestioned capability and willingness to militarily crush an opponent. Ukraine does not have the capability, nor the West the will, to do so. Successful deterrence thus has to be based on overlapping disincentives to aggression. These disincentives can be individually limited but their cumulative effect should persuade an aggressor that what it has (in this case, some ceasefire arrangement) is better than what it will wind up with by using force. Such an approach is imperfect, but has preserved peace in numerous conflicts, including between the USSR and the U.S. throughout the Cold War.
Finally, the UN has to deal with underlying existential threats to itself and the international order it represents emerging from Russia’s aggression. The UN could take the lead, as done with Syria, to document war crimes violations and advance international accountability. Efforts to reform the Security Council should proceed, but will need strong advocacy by the Secretary General and his staff. Most importantly, many UN member states integrated into the Western-led global international security system with its complementary rule of law, financial, and trade elements, nevertheless routinely sit on their hands, claiming the “Western” and the “Chinese-Russian” blocs are morally equivalent. But only one bloc offers a functioning global system, the other can only destroy it. This is exactly what’s at risk now with Russia’s invasion, and thus these states need to prioritize their long-term interests over short-term diplomatic “hedging’ benefits.
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