Ukraine: Yesterday’s Open Meeting
Yesterday evening (21 February), the Security Council convened for an open meeting to discuss the recent escalation of tensions in and around Ukraine, under the agenda item “Letter dated 28 February 2014 from the Permanent Representative of the Ukraine to the United Nations addressed to the President of the Security Council (S/2014/136)”. Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo briefed. Germany and Ukraine participated under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.
The meeting was requested by Ukraine, with support from several Council members—including Albania, France, Ireland, Norway, the UK, and the US—under articles 34 and 35 of the UN Charter, which allow the Security Council to investigate any dispute and any member state to bring to the Council’s attention a situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute, respectively. In its letter to the Council, Kyiv explained that it is requesting the meeting in response to Moscow’s decision on Monday afternoon (21 February) to recognise the independence of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine and cited the “ongoing aggravation” of the security situation on the Ukrainian border. While Russia, as Council president, had initially indicated that it would convene a private meeting, it agreed to an open meeting following requests from France, the US and several other Council members.
Yesterday’s briefing was the third Council meeting on Ukraine in the past several weeks. The Security Council convened for an open meeting to discuss Russia’s build-up of military forces near Ukraine’s borders on 31 January at the request of the US. On 17 February, Russia organised a briefing to mark the seventh anniversary of the Minsk II agreement of 12 February 2015, which outlined steps for ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine through a political settlement. (For more information, see our 31 January and 16 February What’s in Blue stories). Tomorrow (23 February), the General Assembly will hold its regular debate on the agenda item “The situation in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine”.
Yesterday’s meeting followed several days of heightened tensions and a reported deterioration of the security situation in and around eastern Ukraine. Since 17 February, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission reported a significant increase in shelling and ceasefire violations in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
On 18 February, the leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, issued a statement accusing Ukraine of amassing armed forces and lethal weapons along the contact line—a 427 kilometre-long line dividing the Donbas region into areas under, and outside, Ukrainian government control. After claiming that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was planning a military offensive, the separatist leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk, in coordination with Moscow, organised a mass evacuation of local civilians to Russia. According to media reports, over 30,000 people from Donetsk and Luhansk crossed into Russia on 19 February. In an 18 February statement, OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Zbigniew Rau and OSCE Secretary General Helga Maria Schmid expressed deep concern about the significant increase of armed violence in eastern Ukraine and deplored the “spreading disinformation about an imminent military action by Ukrainian government forces”.
On 20 February, Belarusian Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin announced an extension of Belarus’ joint military drills with Russia that began on 10 February, citing the increased military activity in the Donbas region. Although the drill was initially planned to conclude after ten days, Khrenin confirmed that roughly 30,000 Russian troops would remain stationed in Belarus to ensure the “de-escalation of military preparations of ill-wishers near [their] common borders”.
Yesterday (21 February), Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree recognising the independence of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. During a televised address, Putin outlined long-standing grievances against the US and NATO and said that Kyiv has no intention of implementing the Minsk agreements. He also reiterated Ukraine’s importance to Russia and emphasised that Ukraine is “not just a neighbouring country”, but “an integral part of [Russia’s] history, culture [and] spiritual space”. Shortly after signing the executive order, Putin ordered the deployment of Russian troops to the breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine to carry out “peacekeeping functions”.
At yesterday’s Council meeting, the US dismissed Russia’s claim of deploying troops for peacekeeping purposes and maintained that the deployment is a pretext for further invasion. Albania and Ukraine highlighted the similarities between the current situation in Ukraine and the 2008 Georgian conflict, noting that the decree signed by Putin yesterday was identical to the one issued in 2008 in respect of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Several members—including France, the UK and the US— indicated that they will be imposing further sanctions on Russia.
DiCarlo emphasised the need to pursue dialogue to prevent further escalation. This was echoed by several Council members, many of whom reiterated Secretary-General António Guterres’ 21 February statement on Ukraine. The statement was a rare instance of a UN Secretary-General accusing a permanent Council member of violating the UN Charter. In it, Guterres called Russia’s decision to recognise the independence of the breakaway regions a “violation of [Ukraine’s] territorial integrity and sovereignty and inconsistent with the principles of the [UN] Charter”.
Several Council members placed the escalation in and around Ukraine in the broader context of respecting the UN Charter and the principles it enshrines, such as state sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-intervention. It appears that these members took this approach in part to maximise their messages’ resonance with the broader UN membership, which will consider the situation in Ukraine at the General Assembly tomorrow (23 February).
Kenya denounced the growing trend of powerful states violating international law with little regard, stating that “multilateralism lies on its deathbed tonight”. European Council members were united in accusing Russia of violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law. These members also blamed Moscow for reneging on its obligations under the Minsk II agreement, while noting that Russia organised a Council meeting to discuss its implementation only four days earlier. In its statement, Russia emphasised that its decision does not affect the Minsk II agreement, as they are not a party to it.
Several members accused Russia of irredentism. The US argued that Moscow was seeking to re-colonise former Soviet states. Anti-colonial sentiments were prominently featured in Kenya’s statement, which took a tougher stance compared to the 17 February Council meeting on Ukraine. During the procedural vote prior to the 31 January meeting on Ukraine, differences among the A3 (Gabon, Ghana and Kenya) were evident, as Gabon and Kenya abstained, while Ghana voted in favour of holding the meeting. At yesterday’s briefing, the A3 showed greater unity and coordination in their statements.
While only some Council members chose to condemn Russia explicitly for its actions, all members stressed the need to strengthen dialogue and diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Some invited the UN Secretary-General to employ his good offices and to work with the OSCE to find a negotiated solution to the dispute.
There was no indication of possible next steps by the Council to address the situation during the meeting. It seems that Albania and the US may be interested in pursuing a draft resolution on recent developments in Ukraine, but it is unclear at the time of writing if and when the Council may consider a proposed draft. Deep divisions mark Council dynamics on Ukraine, making it difficult for Council members to agree on products regarding the issue. Despite the adoption of resolution 2202 of 17 February 2015, which endorsed the Minsk II agreement, the Council has failed to adopt any resolution focusing on the wider political context of the situation in Ukraine due to strong differences between Russia and the P3 (France, the UK and the US).