Expected Council Action
In February, the Security Council is expected to hold a meeting on the situation in Ukraine to mark the two-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country. Additional meetings on Ukraine are possible.
Key Recent Developments
Nearly two years into Russia’s full-scale military incursion, the war continues to have devastating consequences for civilians and far-reaching effects on the global economy. As at 21 January, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had documented 29,731 civilian casualties, including 10,287 deaths, while noting that actual figures are likely to be considerably higher. The humanitarian crisis in Ukraine remains dire, with 40 percent of the population—14.6 million people—in need of humanitarian assistance. That figure includes 3.3 million people living in frontline communities, which are grappling with severe shortages of resources and constant bombardment. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately ten million people have been forcibly displaced by the war as at last month, including 3.7 million internally displaced people and 6.3 million refugees who have fled from Ukraine to neighbouring countries.
Hostilities have transitioned to a new phase characterised by positional fighting and a static front line, with both sides achieving occasional, slight territorial gains in some key areas. Coinciding with the onset of winter, Ukrainian forces have shifted to a more defensive strategy following the conclusion of their latest counteroffensive. Ukrainian forces have also reportedly begun scaling back operations due to a shortfall of artillery shells and uncertainties regarding the continuation of Western assistance to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russian troops continue to engage in offensive operations along the Kupiansk-Svatove-Kreminna line and near the cities of Avdiivka and Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, reportedly capturing the village of Krokhmalne in the Kharkiv region on 21 January.
Russia and Ukraine both continued air assaults throughout January. According to a 15 January OHCHR protection of civilians in armed conflict update, December 2023 witnessed a 26.5 percent increase in civilian casualties compared to November 2023, mainly due to intensified Russian missile and loitering munitions attacks. (Loitering munitions, also referred to as “suicide drones”, are aerial weapons that have the capacity to patrol over the battlefield before attacking a target in a self-destructive manner.) The update noted that 84 percent of civilian casualties and 92 percent of damage to education and health facilities occurred in Ukrainian government-controlled territory as opposed to Russian-held areas. The intensified air, missile, and drone attacks targeting military and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine have left millions of people without access to vital resources, including water and electricity, according to an 11 January OCHA humanitarian flash update. The flash update noted that these attacks have occurred as temperatures in parts of Ukraine dropped below zero.
In January, the Security Council maintained its regular focus on Ukraine, holding four meetings, consistent with its level of engagement in previous months. At the initiative of Ecuador and France, the co-penholders on humanitarian issues in Ukraine, Council members convened on 10 January for a briefing on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine. On 22 January, at Russia’s request, the Council held a meeting to discuss the issue of Western weapons supplies to Ukraine. On 25 January, the Council held a private meeting, at which International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi briefed about Ukraine. After that meeting, there was an open briefing held under the “Threats to international peace and security” agenda item. Russia requested the meeting to discuss an incident that occurred this morning (24 January) involving the downing of a Russian military plane (For more, see our 9 January, 21 January, and 25 January What’s in Blue stories.)
On 14 January, Switzerland hosted in Davos the fourth meeting of national security advisors and other high-level officials to discuss fundamental principles for restoring peace in Ukraine. This followed previous meetings on 24 June 2023 in Copenhagen, Denmark; on 5 and 6 August 2023 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; and on 28 and 29 October 2023 in Valletta, Malta.
The gathering in Davos saw participation from over 80 countries and international organisations. Russia was not invited. In a joint communiqué following the meeting, co-chairs Switzerland and Ukraine noted that “the meeting laid the necessary prerequisites for the preparation of a meeting of leaders of states and governments, which can give a start at a high level to establish a common and universal basis for achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace for Ukraine based on the Ukrainian Peace Formula”. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova criticised the initiative on 16 January, calling it “meaningless and harmful” to the resolution of the conflict. She argued that discussing potential solutions to the crisis without including Russia and disregarding Moscow’s “legitimate security interests” was futile.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 22 January, OHCHR issued a statement regarding a 21 January attack on the Russian-controlled city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, in which two local markets and a nearby residential area were struck. Russia has blamed Ukraine for the attack, an accusation that Kyiv has denied. The OHCHR statement deplored “the killing of civilians in an attack on the occupied Ukrainian city of Donetsk”. It noted that although OHCHR does not have access to Donetsk and other Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, it is trying to gather more information on the attack, including verifying preliminary reports indicating that civilians were killed. The statement underscored the need for “thorough, prompt and independent investigations” to determine the facts and responsibility for this attack and ensure accountability.
During its 55th session, the Human Rights Council is expected to hold an interactive dialogue with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Ukraine on 19 March.
Key Issues and Options
The overarching priority for the Council is to promote a solution to the conflict in accordance with the principles of the UN Charter and to facilitate dialogue among the parties to that end. Council members are also concerned about the conflict’s mounting toll on civilians and civilian infrastructure and its global repercussions. The direct involvement of a permanent member in the conflict, however, continues to limit the Council’s options.
Council and Wider Dynamics
The Security Council remains starkly divided on the conflict in Ukraine and the appropriate framework for achieving a peaceful resolution. Ukraine and its allies have advocated for a just peace, conditioned on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders. Other member states have emphasised de-escalation and diplomacy, with some calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities without any preconditions, a move that could freeze the front lines of the conflict, leaving Russia in control of a significant amount of territory in eastern and southern Ukraine. Russia maintains that any settlement of the conflict must take current realities into account.
The ongoing crisis in the Middle East, triggered by the 7 October 2023 attack on Israel by the Palestinian armed group Hamas, continues to divert attention from the war in Ukraine. Although Ukraine has remained a fixture on the Security Council’s programme of work, the escalation in conflict between Israel and Hamas has remained a central preoccupation of the Council.
The worsening humanitarian conditions in Gaza and in countries such as Sudan and Yemen have intensified competition for funding. At the 15 January launch of the UN’s 2024 Ukraine Humanitarian Needs and Response Plan, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths acknowledged that while a year ago “it would have been all Ukraine…for the last many weeks, we have heard very little about it”. Griffiths noted that because of the multitude of crises globally, the UN has narrowed its focus to address those with the most urgent needs, thereby reducing the number of people it aims to assist in Ukraine.
Additionally, there have been arguments suggesting that the US backing of Israel might impede Western efforts to maintain political support for Ukraine within the UN. The US continues to offer Israel military and political support, including arms sales, and has opposed a ceasefire, arguing that it would enable Hamas to regroup and resume attacks. Some analysts have noted that for many countries in the Global South, the situation in the Middle East exposes perceived Western double standards: while Western countries have been urging member states for months to condemn Russian actions in Ukraine, some have concurrently expressed steadfast support for Israel, despite the significant civilian casualties and the extensive airstrikes on the Gaza Strip carried out by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Although Ukraine and its allies sought a General Assembly resolution in February 2023 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the war, such an effort seems less likely this year, partly because of concerns that Arab countries might abstain from any draft resolution on Ukraine.
The prospects for a peaceful settlement between Russia and Ukraine remain elusive, with both countries continuing to rely on military means to influence the war’s outcome. Some Council members are increasingly concerned about the growing military cooperation between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Russia. On 6 January, the US, 49 other UN member states, and the High Representative of the EU issued a joint statement condemning the DPRK’s export of ballistic missiles to Russia. In a 22 January joint statement, Ukraine, 46 other countries, and the EU criticised Russia for initiating meetings on the issue of Western arms supplies to Ukraine, labelling it “another attempt…to distract from [Russia’s] war of aggression against Ukraine and its intensified campaign of systematic air strikes killing civilians and destroying critical infrastructure”.
UN DOCUMENTS ON UKRAINE
|Security Council Meeting Records
|25 January 2024S/PV.9536
|This was a private meeting on the issue of nuclear safety and security in Ukraine, initiated by France.
|22 January 2024S/PV.9533
|This was a meeting on the issue of Western weapons supplies to Ukraine, requested by Russia.
|10 January 2024S/PV.9526
|This was a meeting on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, initiated by Ecuador and France.