In Hindsight: Trends of Council Engagement on Ukraine
Few crises in recent decades have galvanised the Security Council’s attention like the current conflict in Ukraine. During the past two months, the Council has held 13 meetings on Ukraine—11 open briefings, one meeting in closed consultations, and one discussion under “any other business”—and voted on three draft resolutions, two of which were not adopted. The resolution that was adopted called for an “emergency special session” (ESS) of the General Assembly to consider and recommend collective action on the situation in Ukraine. This led to two resolutions being adopted in the General Assembly.
The Council will likely continue its intense focus on Ukraine, as the war continues to have devastating effects on civilian populations, and progress on the diplomatic front appears elusive. While the Council has discussed Ukraine since 2014—when Russia annexed Crimea and the crisis in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions erupted—the Russian invasion in February has affected the Council’s work, as well as the wider multilateral system, in several notable ways.
The situation in Ukraine is permeating the Council’s engagement on other issues. Ukraine is frequently referenced in meetings on other topics. In discussing the political and humanitarian situation in Syria on 24 March, Deputy Permanent Representative Dmitry Polyanskiy (Russia) said that Secretary-General António Guterres had abandoned his usual neutral language with regard to Ukraine. At the same meeting, Deputy Permanent Representative Richard Mills (US) accused Moscow of using “some of the same barbaric tactics” in Ukraine as in Syria, adding that it was troubling that Russia was recruiting Syrians to fight in Ukraine.
Similarly, at the Council’s ministerial-level open debate on Women, Peace and Security on 8 March, several member states reiterated their criticism of the Russian intervention and highlighted the impact of the conflict on women in Ukraine. Russia, in turn, claimed that the West had been “indifferent to the murder of women and children in Donetsk and Luhansk by the Kyiv junta” during the previous eight years.
In the midst of such diplomatic jousting, the ripple effects of the crisis in Ukraine on other situations on the Council’s agenda are frequently being raised in the organ. At the Council’s 15 March meeting on Yemen, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths noted that Yemen imports about one-third of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, and that the conflict in Ukraine “may restrict supply and push up food prices…harm[ing]…the lives of…many Yemeni families”. In the 24 March Council meeting on Syria, Griffiths warned that the increase in global food and energy prices resulting from the Ukraine crisis is also expected to have a negative humanitarian effect on Syria. In the same meeting, Deputy Permanent Representative Alicia Guadalupe Buenrostro Massieu (Mexico) alluded to the adverse effects of the war in Ukraine on Syria’s grain supply. It should be noted that the humanitarian needs in both Yemen and Syria are already enormous; according to OCHA, 20.7 million Yemenis and 14.6 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance.
As a result of the war, Ukraine has decided to withdraw its military contingent and equipment from the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) in order to strengthen its defences in the war effort at home. This issue was apparently raised in closed consultations on MONUSCO on 29 March. The Ukrainian contingent of 268 peacekeepers is composed of 250 troops, six staff officers, five individual police, and seven experts, according to the UN. Ukraine also has eight helicopters deployed in eastern DRC, of which four are attack helicopters and four are transport helicopters.
Some members have appealed for the significant focus on Ukraine not to distract the Council and other international actors from other peace and security challenges in the world. Ambassador Mona Juul (Norway) stated in the 22 March meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” that “Even while Ukraine dominates the headlines and the agenda of the Security Council—and for a good reason—we cannot abandon other ongoing crises.” During the Council’s 16 March meeting on Libya, Ambassador Michel Biang (Gabon) appealed to the European Union “to show the same compassion, in keeping with international humanitarian law, to Africans fleeing security and climate crises for which they are not responsible” as it has to Ukrainian refugees.
An emerging trend appears to be the development of different tracks on Ukraine. Three tracks have so far been apparent in the Council’s approach to Ukraine: one on political developments, a second on the humanitarian situation, and a third on nuclear, biological and chemical risks.
Prior to the Russian invasion, there were three meetings on the escalating tensions in and around Ukraine on 31 January, 21 February and 23 February that focused on political developments, with briefings from Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo and an emphasis on diplomatic efforts to stave off conflict. In the 23 February meeting, Guterres appealed to Russia to stop what appeared to be an imminent attack on Ukraine; during the course of the meeting, the Russian offensive began. (Russia organised a meeting on 17 February to mark the 7th anniversary of the Minsk II Agreement, but this is an annual meeting that Russia, which held the Council presidency in February, had planned well in advance.)
Since the war started, the Council has convened four meetings specifically on the humanitarian situation in the country, in addition to the humanitarian draft resolutions that it has discussed. These meetings were held on 28 February, 7 March, 17 March, and 29 March.
There may also be a track emerging regarding nuclear, biological and chemical risks. The Council was briefed on 4 March about the fire at a training facility at the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, where fighting was reported, and amidst concerns about the potential for a nuclear catastrophe. Trepidation about the safety and security of the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl has also been raised in Council meetings. Russia has convened one briefing and one discussion under “any other business”, alleging military biological activities in Ukraine, although many Council members have been dubious of Russia’s claims. Some Council members—including Albania, France and the US—have expressed concern that Russia is using disinformation tactics as a pretext for the possible use of biological or chemical weapons against Ukrainians. During the 11 March briefing, the US said that “we have serious concerns that Russia may be planning to use chemical or biological agents against the Ukrainian people”. At the 18 March briefing, Russia denounced accusations that it would deploy biological and chemical weapons against Ukraine as “true cynicism”, suggesting instead that “Ukrainian nationalists” have brought chemical agents to some regions to “create a provocation and then blame Russia for it”. Should the war continue and the Council remain heavily involved, engagement on multiple tracks could crystalise over time, as it has with regard to Syria, where the Council has addressed the conflict in discrete political, humanitarian, and chemical weapons tracks.
The penholding patterns have been atypical during the current crisis. Most issues on the Council’s agenda have one or two clear penholders. It is not common for more than two countries to take the pen on the same file. But that is what has happened in this case. Albania and the US produced a draft resolution deploring Russia’s aggression, which was vetoed. They also co-drafted the resolution calling for an emergency session of the General Assembly under the “Uniting for Peace” procedure, which was adopted. France and Mexico were the penholders on a humanitarian draft resolution, which they did not table for a vote in the Council because they could not find sufficient common ground, instead taking their initiative to the General Assembly. Meanwhile, Russia subsequently pursued an alternative draft on the humanitarian situation in the Council, which only received two affirmative votes (China and Russia) and thus was not adopted. In recent years, Russia has periodically proposed alternative texts, especially on Syria.
Another atypical development is the partnership between permanent and elected members in the penholdership on the Ukraine file. While the P3 members (France, the UK and the US) draft most Council outcomes, they rarely share the pen with elected members. A rare recent example of a permanent member holding the pen with an elected member was when Germany joined the UK as co-penholder on Libya sanctions and Sudan in 2019-2020.
Amid the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine, member states have framed their public statements in the Council Chamber in the language of the UN Charter. While Russia was amassing troops along Ukraine’s border but prior to its invasion of the country, members tended to employ Chapter VI language—Chapter VI focuses on the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes—in calling for de-escalation and the pursuit of dialogue and diplomacy. Some members have continued to refer to the peaceful settlement of disputes, but after the invasion, many have drawn directly from Article 2 (4) of the Charter, which states that all members “shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”. At the 25 February meeting at which Russia exercised its veto, Ambassador Juan Ramón de la Fuente (Mexico) called the Russian invasion a “flagrant violation” of article 2 (4), while Ambassador Mona Juul (Norway) declared: “A veto cast by the aggressor undermines the purpose of the Council. It is a violation of the very foundation of the UN Charter”. Even China, India, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—while abstaining on the vetoed draft and on the subsequent resolution referring the issue to the General Assembly—have nonetheless emphasised the importance of upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.
Additionally, Article 51, which provides for “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations”, has been brought up in the Council Chamber by both Russia and Ukraine. In a 23 February meeting on Ukraine, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia (Russia) referred to this article, stating that the Russian intervention was being carried out “to protect people who have been subjected to abuse and genocide by the Kyiv regime”. In his Council statement on 25 February, Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya retorted: “Ukraine has been exercising its right to self-defence under Article 51 of the Charter. Russia does not have that excuse. Its perverse reading of the Charter is so sick that it is impossible to interpret. Calling occupying troops peacekeepers, claiming the right of self-defence — that is lunacy.”
(For more on Council members’ views on the UN Charter in connection with Ukraine, please see our March 2022 In Hindsight: Ukraine and the Tools of the UN.)
The last two months have shown that the multilateral system can act rapidly and decisively when faced with a crisis of this proportion. The divisions among the Security Council’s permanent members—and the fact that one of the permanent members is a party to the conflict—present enormous challenges to the Council in its efforts to grapple with this crisis. But the Council is only one part of the international architecture designed to deal with conflict, albeit a major one. Other parts of the UN—and the broader multilateral system—have been spurred to action. Soon after the Council referred the situation to the General Assembly on 27 February, the General Assembly adopted resolutions deploring the Russian invasion of Ukraine and focusing on the humanitarian situation, garnering 141 and 140 affirmative votes, respectively. On 4 March, the UN Human Rights Council established an independent international Commission of Inquiry to “investigate all alleged violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law, and related crimes in the context of aggression against Ukraine by the Russian Federation”, and other related matters. The International Court of Justice rendered provisional measures on 16 March that ordered Russia to immediately suspend the military operations it commenced on 24 February in Ukrainian territory, among other matters. And on 2 March, ICC Prosecutor Karim Asad Ahmad Khan announced that he had decided to immediately proceed with an active investigation into the situation in Ukraine after receiving referrals from 39 ICC States Parties.
The recent hostilities in Ukraine have been a defining moment both for the Council and the larger multilateral system. Coinciding with calls for a revived multilateralism, efforts to address this conflict will focus and shape reflections on global cooperation within a rules-based order.