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Ukraine: Briefing

Tomorrow afternoon (27 September), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing on the situation in Ukraine. Albania and the US requested the meeting following a letter sent by Ukraine to the president of the Security Council. Ukraine’s letter requesting the meeting cited two articles of the UN Charter: article 34, which allows the Council to investigate any dispute, and article 35, which permits any member state to bring to the Council’s attention any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute. The meeting will focus on the referendums that Russia has been conducting since 23 September in territories that it currently occupies in eastern and southern Ukraine. Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo is expected to brief. Ukraine will participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.

Tomorrow’s briefing will take place against the backdrop of escalating tensions resulting from Moscow’s decision to partially mobilise army reserves to support Russia’s war effort in Ukraine and to conduct referendums from 23 to 27 September in the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia regions. These decisions, announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin on 21 September, come as Russian forces have been sustaining significant military setbacks due to Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the northern Kharkiv region and the southern Kherson region. In a 13 September address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Ukrainian forces have retaken roughly 8,000 square kilometres since launching their counteroffensive in early September. Russian forces have since reportedly struggled to re-establish an effective front line along the Oskil River in eastern Ukraine.

While the effects of the partial mobilisation of some 300,000 Russian military reserves on the battlefield remain unknown, Moscow’s anticipated annexations have raised concerns over the possibility of further military escalation by Russia, including its potential use of non-conventional weapons to defend newly annexed territories in eastern and southern Ukraine. Kyiv has said that the referendums and expected annexation of Russian-held territories will not deter Ukrainian forces from continuing their counteroffensive. In a 20 September tweet, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say”. Experts have warned that Russia could, citing referendum results, attempt to claim self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter to justify tactical nuclear strikes against Ukraine.

Analysts have differed in their assessment of the likelihood of a Russian pre-emptive nuclear strike. Some have suggested that Putin’s explicit threats about the use of nuclear weapons during his televised address on 21 September are cause for concern. In his speech, Putin said that “citizens of Russia can be sure that the territorial integrity of our Motherland, our independence and freedom will be ensured…with all the means at our disposal”, adding that “we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us”. Experts have noted that Putin’s statement goes beyond Russia’s nuclear doctrine of 5 February 2010, which permits the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons in conventional warfare that “threatens the very existence of the state”.

Many others have doubted the likelihood of Russia employing tactical nuclear weapons following the annexation of territories it occupies in Ukraine. These experts argue that the radioactive fallout from a nuclear strike on Ukraine, which would most likely spread to Russia, and a resulting NATO intervention in the war, are sufficient to deter Moscow from employing such weapons.

At tomorrow’s briefing, DiCarlo is expected to provide an overview of the security situation in Ukraine. She is likely to reiterate Secretary-General António Guterres’ support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Guterres has, on several occasions, said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a violation of the UN Charter. Most recently, at the 22 September high-level Council briefing on Ukraine, the Secretary-General stressed that “any annexation of a State’s territory by another State resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the UN Charter and of international law”.

DiCarlo may also refer to the findings of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Ukraine. In an oral update to the Human Rights Council on 23 September, COI Chair Erik Møse confirmed that the commission “has concluded that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine”, citing accounts of sexual violence and indiscriminate killing and torture of civilians by Russian forces. The COI also “processed two incidents of ill-treatment against [Russian] soldiers”.

At tomorrow’s briefing, several Council members—including the US and European members—are expected to condemn Moscow’s partial mobilisation of reservists and heightened nuclear rhetoric. These members may also deplore the referendums that Russia has been conducting since 23 September, which they regard as fraudulent and a clear violation of the UN Charter and international law. On 23 September, the leaders of the Group of Seven (G7)—comprised of France, the UK and the US, among others—issued a statement condemning “the sham referenda that Russia attempts to use to create a phony pretext for changing the status of Ukrainian sovereign territory”. The statement also notes the “hasty methods” by which Russia has organised the referendums and “its blatant intimidation of local populations” which, they claim, “in no way respect democratic norms”.

Russia is expected to justify the referendums and its annexation plans. Addressing the General Assembly on 24 September, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia had “no choice but to…launch a special military operation to protect Russians and other people in Donbass” given “Kiev’s policy to impose a total ban on the Russian language, education, the Russian media and culture”. Accusing the West of a “temper tantrum over the referendums”, Lavrov said that “any sovereign, self-respecting state that realises the responsibility it has to its own people would do the same”.

China has refrained from condemning Russia since the start of the war. It has consistently called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and a return to dialogue and diplomacy. However, the issue of referendums is politically sensitive to Beijing. China’s “One China” policy regarding Taiwan, which views Taiwan as an inseparable part of China’s territory, may prompt a more critical response from Beijing on Russia’s referendums in Ukraine.

Some non-Western Council members—including India and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—have been reluctant to condemn Russia, suggesting that isolating Moscow may be counterproductive to promoting a peaceful settlement to the war. These members—along with Brazil, Kenya and Mexico—have advocated prioritising diplomacy and dialogue. However, Russia’s actions are likely to negatively affect the prospects for dialogue between the parties. On 20 September, Ukrainian Press Secretary Serhii Nykyforov reportedly said that the referendums will eliminate the “smallest chance for a diplomatic solution”. Moreover, in a 21 September tweet, Kuleba accused Putin of showing “utter disrespect to China, India, Mexico, Turkey, other Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Latin American nations which have called for diplomacy and an end to Russia’s war on Ukraine”. Several non-Western Council members may be inclined to call for de-escalation and condemn Russia’s partial mobilisation and referendums. The recent findings of the COI may also prompt these members to take a more critical position towards Russia.

It appears that several Council members may be preparing a draft resolution rejecting the results of Russia’s referendums and condemning its expected annexation of territories it has occupied in Ukraine. A similar scenario occurred in 2014, when Russia staged a referendum in Crimea on 16 March, followed by its annexation ten days later. In anticipation of the 16 March 2014 Crimean status referendum, the US tabled a draft resolution stating that Ukraine had not authorised the referendum and declaring that it had no validity. While the draft resolution failed to be adopted because of a Russian veto, a similar General Assembly resolution was subsequently adopted on 27 March 2014.

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