What's In Blue

Posted Mon 31 Jan 2022

Ukraine: Possible Open Meeting*

This morning (31 January), the Security Council may convene for an open meeting on Ukraine, under the agenda item “Threats to International Peace and Security”. The US requested the open meeting, citing the threat posed to international peace and security by the recent build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border. At the time of writing, it was uncertain if the meeting will take place as scheduled, since Russia has requested a procedural vote, which will take place this morning, in an effort to block the meeting. (A procedural motion requires at least nine affirmative votes to pass, and the veto does not apply.) If the meeting takes place, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo will brief, while Belarus and Ukraine are likely to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.

Today’s possible meeting follows several months of heightened tensions around Ukraine’s borders. Since November 2021, US officials have been warning that Russia has been transporting irregularly high quantities of troops and military hardware to Ukraine’s borders. According to US and NATO officials, Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops and military equipment, including tanks and rocket launchers, along Ukraine’s borders with Russia, Belarus and Moldova. In addition, starting from 17 January, Moscow has been sending thousands of troops and advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile systems into Belarus—which borders Ukraine and NATO members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland—in preparation for a military exercise set to begin in early February.

US officials have warned that Russia’s moves may portend a significant military action, such as an incursion into Ukraine. Moscow for its part has repeatedly denied plans to invade Ukraine, with Russian officials publicly maintaining that their country does not want war. According to media reports, Ukrainian officials say that while the threat posed by Russia is concerning, it is uncertain whether Moscow will undertake military action. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reportedly argues that the stark public warnings by US and European allies might complicate diplomatic efforts towards a solution to the crisis and harm his country’s economy, advocating instead for “quiet military preparation and quiet diplomacy”.

The recent tensions come as the conflict in Ukraine enters its eighth year. The conflict, which erupted shortly after Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, has witnessed ongoing sporadic fighting between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists in the two breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. It has claimed the lives of more than 14,000 people, including approximately 3,000 civilians, and injured more than 7,000 civilians, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). In addition, some 1.5 million people have been internally displaced since the outbreak of the conflict, according to Ukrainian government figures.

The February 2015 “Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements”, also known as the Minsk II agreement—which outlines steps for ending the conflict in Ukraine through a political settlement—has thus far failed to achieve tangible progress towards the conflict’s resolution. Moscow has consistently blamed Kyiv for the lack of implementation of the Minsk agreements. On the other hand, Ukraine has accused Russia of interfering in its internal affairs by supporting the separatists in its eastern regions and violating international law in connection with the annexation of Crimea—a position which has been supported by the US and European members of the Security Council.

Analysts have differed in their assessment of the motivation for Russia’s recent military build-up and the probability of Moscow launching a military operation against Ukraine. Some have noted that Russia’s frustration regarding the lack of progress in resolving the crisis in Ukraine might have played a role in its decision. Many analysts point to Russia seeking broader concessions from the US and NATO regarding security arrangements in Europe, particularly on its borders, which are a matter of concern for Moscow. Those analysts have noted that Russia’s current military build-up near Ukraine’s border constitutes the second such major build-up in the past year; in April 2021, Russia transported some 80,000 troops to its border with Ukraine in response to a two-month joint US-NATO exercise which took place in Albania and parts of eastern Europe.

On 17 December 2021, Russia publicly presented a list of demands in two draft treaties, one with the US and another with NATO. As well as seeking guarantees that Ukraine would not be offered NATO membership, Moscow’s demands go beyond the immediate conflict in eastern Ukraine. They include a call for NATO to withdraw its troops and weapons from former Soviet countries that joined the alliance after 1997, and for the US to remove nuclear weapons positioned in Europe.

The US and NATO delivered their written responses to Russia’s demands on 26 January. The responses, which were not made public, reportedly rejected barring Ukraine from NATO membership. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that the US response includes proposals for “reciprocal transparency measures” regarding force posture in Ukraine, measures to increase confidence regarding military exercises and manoeuvres in Europe and measures relating to arms control in Europe. The New York Times reported that NATO’s response similarly outlined proposals for “areas of negotiation about arms control and transparency of military exercises” and suggested the reopening of liaison offices between NATO and Moscow. In a 28 January videoconference meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron, the former said that the US response does not address “Russia’s principal concerns” regarding NATO expansion and the deployment of strike-weapons systems near Russia’s borders, among other things, according to an official transcript of the call issued by the Kremlin.

Throughout the tense stand-off with Russia, several diplomatic initiatives have been pursued in an attempt to de-escalate the situation. These include a 13 January meeting in Vienna under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and a 21 January meeting between Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva. On 26 January, a meeting of the Normandy format—a group comprised of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine that was created in 2014 to address the conflict in Ukraine—was held in Paris, marking the first time the group had met since December 2019.

Zelenskyy described the Paris meeting as a positive step, while emphasising the importance of upholding the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine stipulated by the Minsk II agreement. Another meeting of the Normandy format is scheduled to take place in Berlin during the second week of February. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson reportedly said that the next meeting could identify “solutions to problems that have been piling up for seven years”.

If today’s meeting takes place, many speakers are likely to urge the resolution of the tensions on Ukraine’s border through dialogue. DiCarlo may echo Secretary-General António Guterres’ messages conveyed during a 21 January press conference, in which he said that “there should not be any military intervention”, noting that an invasion of one country by another contravenes international law. She is likely to call on all concerned parties to de-escalate the situation and focus on the diplomatic path forward.

Deep divisions, particularly between Russia, on the one hand, and the US and European members of the Council, on the other, colour Council dynamics on Ukraine. These dynamics make it difficult for members to agree on Council products or the holding of Council meetings on Ukraine. Members hold differing views regarding the need to convene an open Council meeting on the current situation along Ukraine’s borders. It seems that some members view an open meeting as a way for the Council to adopt a preventive approach to de-escalating the situation. However, others may feel that an open meeting can amplify the divisions among Council members on the issue and may have an adverse effect on the diplomatic processes aimed at resolving the crisis.

Disagreements about the prospect of a public Council meeting on Ukraine have played out in the media in recent days. In a 27 January press statement announcing the US’ request for the meeting, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield (US) said that the Russian military build-up poses “a clear threat to international peace and security and the UN Charter”. She added that the Security Council is a crucial venue for diplomacy as the sides continue pursuing diplomatic initiatives to de-escalate the situation. A senior US official quoted by CNN said that Thomas-Greenfield will “present the facts of the case and clearly articulate what’s at stake for European and global peace and security” at the meeting. The official added that today’s prospective meeting would provide Russia the opportunity to explain its actions. In a 28 January tweet, Russia’s Deputy Permanent Representative Dmitry Polyanskiy questioned the characterisation of the situation as a threat to international peace and security and called the initiative for a Security Council meeting “a public relations stunt”.

Should the meeting take place, the US and European members of the Council are likely to call on Russia to engage in diplomatic dialogue and to avoid interfering with Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia is likely to contend that the mobilisation of its troops on its sovereign territory and that of its ally Belarus does not constitute a threat to international peace and security. It is likely to blame the US and NATO for threatening its security and call on them to take its demands seriously.

*Post-script (12:00 pm): the meeting took place as scheduled, as the procedural vote resulted in 10 votes in favor, two against (China and Russia) and three abstentions (Gabon, India and Kenya). Belarus, Lithuania (speaking also on behalf of Estonia and Latvia), and Ukraine participated in the meeting under rule 37 of the Council’s procedural rules of procedure.

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