February 2023 Monthly Forecast

In Hindsight: The Security Council, One Year after Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 was a seismic event with devastating consequences for the people of Ukraine and far-reaching effects on the global economy.

The invasion is widely regarded as a flagrant violation of a fundamental tenet of international law, including the UN Charter: namely, the commitment to refrain from the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of a member state. It laid bare the Security Council’s inability to maintain international peace and security when one of its permanent members unilaterally decides to wage war.

Security Council members were able to compartmentalise the difficult dynamics surrounding Ukraine to a greater degree than many observers had predicted. Far from coming to a standstill, the Council continued to renew the mandates of peace operations and established its first sanctions regime in five years.[1] The Council adopted 54 resolutions, only three fewer than in 2021.

However, dynamics around Ukraine contributed to the particularly tense relationship among members, especially some of the Council’s five permanent members (P5), who now have fewer informal interactions and have at times forfeited diplomatic civility for political gamesmanship. Divisions among the elected members have had their effect as well. India, an elected member in 2021-2022 on the cusp of surpassing China as the world’s most populous country, frustrated many colleagues on the Council by refusing to condemn Russia’s invasion. Some other elected members were also not as full-throated in their criticism of Russia as the US and European members. These dynamics often coloured discussions on country-specific and thematic issues, and occasionally affected negotiations on Council products. Presidential statements, for example, fell from 24 in 2021 to just seven in 2022—the lowest number of presidential statements adopted in any of the 29 years since the Council started issuing them in the current format.

The frequent meetings on Ukraine exposed fissures, not just between the West and Russia, but also among other groupings of Council members. Council divisions were reflected in the substance of the discussions, and in disagreements about the organ’s working methods and the use of its rules of procedure. One outcome was the Council’s use of a “Uniting for Peace” resolution, referring to the General Assembly a situation on which its permanent members are deadlocked for the first time in 40 years. Another has been member states’ efforts to promote accountability and transparency in the use of the permanent members’ veto power.

Council Efforts to Pronounce Itself on Ukraine

Obtaining agreement on Council products on Ukraine was difficult, given the direct involvement of a permanent member in the conflict, and also reflecting members’ sharply diverging positions. Four of the seven draft resolutions that failed to be adopted in 2022 were related to Ukraine. This includes two draft texts tabled by Albania and the US: one deploring Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the other condemning the referendums that Russia held in its occupied territories in Ukraine in late September. Both were vetoed by Russia. Two draft resolutions tabled for a vote by Russia failed to be adopted because they did not garner the requisite support from Council members: one on the humanitarian situation and the other on military biological activities in Ukraine. Since the start of the war, the Council has issued only one outcome on Ukraine: a presidential statement adopted on 6 May expressing the Council’s support for the Secretary-General’s efforts in the search for a peaceful solution.

A number of drafts on Ukraine were negotiated, but not tabled for a vote in the Council. In early March 2022, France and Mexico prepared a draft resolution on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, convening three rounds of negotiations before deciding on 14 March to take their initiative to the General Assembly. The co-authors were apparently unable to bridge divisions over references in the draft to Russia’s role in igniting and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. In late July 2022, several members pursued a Council product welcoming the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI). France circulated a draft presidential statement shortly after the agreement was reached on 22 July. Separately, Norway and Mexico also prepared a draft presidential statement on 22 July, which elected members (E10) discussed, revised, and circulated as an E10 draft the same day. Attempts to merge the two drafts were complicated by Russia’s missile strike on the port city of Odesa on 23 July. Despite this setback, Mexico and Norway made further attempts at a presidential statement following the BSGI’s extension on 19 November. The co-authors were apparently unable to find compromise language describing the memorandum of understanding on the UN’s scope of engagement to facilitate unimpeded exports of Russian food products and fertilisers to global markets.

Council Meetings and Dynamics on Ukraine

Few crises in recent decades have galvanised the Security Council’s attention as the current Ukraine conflict. In 2022, the Council held 50 meetings on Ukraine—including 36 open briefings, six adoptions, four Arria-formula meetings, two discussions under “any other business”, one meeting in closed consultations and one private meeting. Ukraine accounted for over 15 percent of the Council’s public meetings.[2] Moreover, 17 of the 22 meetings held in connection with the “Threats to international peace and security” agenda item focused on the war in Ukraine.

The large number of meetings can also be attributed to different members taking advantage of the public stage provided by the Council’s open meetings to present competing narratives about various aspects of the conflict. Firmly intent on isolating Russia for what they consider an unprovoked war, the US and the European members convened meetings frequently with the aim of highlighting the deleterious effects of the war on civilians, including vulnerable groups such as women, children, refugees and internally displaced persons. Russia also called for frequent meetings to convey its own perspective on the conflict. As a result, members promoted alternative views in “tit-for-tat” meetings on topics ranging from the protection of civilians and accountability to the safety of nuclear facilities and the conflict’s impact on global food security. Often, there were two meetings on Ukraine within a single week, peaking in late October with four Council meetings on Ukraine in a span of seven days. Some members expressed unhappiness with the frequency and short notice of these meetings, finding them a waste of Council time and resources, while the often-contradictory claims conveyed during meetings on Ukraine led other members to suggest that the Council make use of the UN’s information-gathering capabilities, such as its fact-finding missions, to contain the proliferation of false narratives.

Council members, including Brazil, Mexico, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), questioned the value of holding such frequent meetings on Ukraine, particularly when these are not complemented by action or constructively supporting diplomatic efforts. As Russia amassed troops along Ukraine’s border prior to its invasion, most members employed Chapter VI language in calling for de-escalation and the pursuit of dialogue and diplomacy. Shortly after the invasion, however, many Council members abandoned calls for diplomacy. These members viewed the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine’s internationally-recognised borders as a prerequisite for engaging in negotiations. Over time, divisions among Council members became more pronounced, with some members calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities and diplomatic engagement that was not conditioned on Russia’s withdrawal. Citing Russia’s security concerns, some members of this latter group—including Brazil, China, Ghana, and Kenya—urged a broader discussion between Russia and NATO members on the European security architecture. Countries such as China and India were unwilling to condemn Russia’s actions, although they have joined others in emphasising the importance of upholding the UN Charter, which could signal discomfort with the invasion.

The frequency of Security Council meetings on Ukraine in late February and early March 2022 prompted some members to caution that the Council was prioritising Ukraine at the expense of other files on its agenda. The African members (A3) occasionally urged the Security Council not to forget its responsibilities to other humanitarian crises. On one occasion, these members called on European members to treat “Africans fleeing security and climate crises” with the same level of compassion they have shown for Ukrainian refugees. Divisions were also evident in the positions of A3 members. For example, Gabon abstained on the resolution condemning the referendums, while Ghana and Kenya voted in favour. Unlike Gabon, these members also explicitly condemned the invasion.

Moving Beyond the Council

The gridlock over Ukraine brought renewed energy to the debate over reforming the Security Council, as member states sought avenues for greater cooperation and accountability through the General Assembly. On 27 February, following its own failure to adopt a draft resolution deploring Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the Council adopted a resolution referring the situation in Ukraine to the General Assembly through the “Uniting for Peace” procedure. This initiative established the ongoing 11th emergency special session (ESS), during which the General Assembly adopted five resolutions on Ukraine.

Two months later, through an initiative led by Liechtenstein, the General Assembly decided by consensus that it would convene whenever a veto is cast in the Security Council. It has now met three times in accordance with this new procedure: following vetoes by China and Russia on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in May, after a Russian veto on Syria in July, and after the 30 September veto by Russia on Ukraine, in the context of the emergency special session on this issue.

Votes in the General Assembly have sought to isolate Russia, while some resolutions have imposed punitive measures against the country. The General Assembly adopted a resolution on 7 April 2022 suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council (HRC), and on 14 November, establishing a compensation mechanism on reparations for Ukraine. These resolutions passed by significant margins, but also demonstrated divisions within the international community about whether and how to hold Russia accountable for its invasion of Ukraine. Many members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) either abstained or absented themselves from voting. Several members with close economic, historical or military ties to the Kremlin have called on the Security Council to mitigate the spillover effects of the conflict, including on global energy and commodity prices. They have been uncomfortable with sanctions on Russia and have hesitated to condemn Russia at the 11th ESS.

The last 11 months have shown that, despite the Council’s impotence, dialogue and diplomacy can still play an important role in brokering solutions to alleviating the consequences of the war, and possibly bring about peace. This is supported by the Secretary-General’s success in securing the BSGI in July and the evacuation of civilians from the Azovstal steel plant in the city of Mariupol in April. With hostilities showing no signs of abating and an ever-present risk of escalation, the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine may offer an opportunity to reflect on how the United Nations can better support diplomatic efforts towards facilitating an end to the conflict in line with the principles of the UN Charter.

[1] On 21 October 2022, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2653, which established a sanctions regime on Haiti, including targeted assets freeze, travel ban and arms embargo measures.

[2] 42 out of 276 public meetings. https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/content/highlights-2022#meetings