Ukraine: High-Level Briefing
Tomorrow morning (24 February), the Security Council will convene for a ministerial-level briefing on the situation in Ukraine to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of the country. Malta’s Minister for Foreign and European Affairs and Trade Ian Borg will chair the meeting and Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to brief. Several member states—including Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Poland, the Republic of Moldova, and Ukraine—are expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell Fontelles will also participate under rule 39.
One year 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 15 February, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had documented 21,293 civilian casualties, including 8,006 deaths, while noting that true figures are likely to be considerably higher. OHCHR has confirmed that at least 456 children have been killed in Ukraine and 684 injured. Moreover, the humanitarian and displacement crises in Ukraine continue to deteriorate. According to a 10 February OCHA humanitarian impact situation report, 17.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, while approximately 13.4 million people have been forcibly displaced by the war. That figure includes 5.4 million internally displaced people and eight million refugees who have fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries.
General Assembly-Related Activities
Coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the war, Ukraine requested a resumption of the 11th Emergency Special Session (ESS) of the UN General Assembly, which took place on 22 and 23 February. At the ESS, on 23 February, member states adopted a resolution titled “Principles of the Charter of the United Nations underlying a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine”. The resolution underscores the urgent need to reach a peaceful settlement to the conflict that is consistent with the UN Charter, including the principles of sovereign equality and the territorial integrity of states. The resolution contains five references to “a comprehensive, just and lasting peace”, reflecting growing calls by member states for an end to the war.
Ukraine and its allies have advocated a peace in line with the UN Charter, conditioned on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine’s internationally recognised border. Other member states have called for an immediate cessation of hostilities without any preconditions, which could freeze the frontlines of the conflict and see Russia seize a significant amount of territory in eastern and southern Ukraine. Western governments have framed support for the resolution as support for upholding the rules-based international order.
The war in Ukraine has been described by analysts as a global geopolitical turning point. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is seen by many western governments as an attempt by Moscow to revive the concept of spheres of influence in world politics. In a 5 December 2022 article, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz described the war in Ukraine as bringing in an ”epochal tectonic shift”, or Zeitenwende, in which new and emerging powers compete for influence in a new multipolar world. Securing a peace consistent with the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity is considered by Ukraine’s western allies as paramount to reinforcing one of the most fundamental tenets of the rules-based international order: namely, the commitment to refrain from the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of a member state.
One of the main ways in which Ukraine and its allies have responded to Russia’s invasion is by seeking to isolate it politically in international fora such as the General Assembly. Previous General Assembly resolutions on Ukraine have contained strong language condemning Russia and its invasion of Ukraine. During consultations on the resolution that was adopted today, it seems that some members expressed concern regarding the multiple references explicitly criticising Russia. The co-authors of the resolution, in turn, removed all but one such reference “deploring the human rights and humanitarian consequences of [Russia’s] aggression against Ukraine”. The resolution received 141 votes in favour, with seven against, and 32 abstentions. Thirteen member states did not cast a vote. Among Security Council members, Russia voted against the resolution, three abstained—China, Gabon, and Mozambique—and the remaining 11 members voted in favour.
At the ESS, member states also voted on two draft amendments proposed by Belarus. Several member states criticised the manner in which these amendments were presented, noting that they were put forward without constructive engagement with the co-authors during the consultations. The first set of amendments sought to delete the resolution’s sole remaining critical reference to Russia, as well as a paragraph demanding that Russia withdraw its military forces from Ukraine, thus removing the principal precondition to a peaceful settlement to the war in line with the UN Charter. These amendments received 11 votes in favour, 94 against, and 56 abstentions, while 32 member states refrained from casting a vote. Russia voted in favour of the amendments, while six Council members abstained—Brazil, China, Gabon, Ghana, Mozambique, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—and the remaining eight voted against.
The second set of amendments proposed the insertion of paragraphs urging the start of peace negotiations and calling on member states to address the root causes of the conflict and to refrain from sending weapons to the conflict zone. These amendments reflect Moscow’s narrative that the conflict’s origin can be traced to NATO’s eastward expansion. They also reflect member states’ growing calls for all parties to return to dialogue and diplomacy, as well as views on the need for a broader discussion of the European security architecture that takes into account the legitimate concerns of all parties. These amendments received 15 votes in favour, 91 against, and 52 abstentions, while 35 member states did not cast a vote. Two Council members voted in favour (China and Russia), five members abstained—Brazil, Gabon, Ghana, Mozambique, and the UAE—and the remaining eight voted against.
The outcome of the ESS votes signalled the international community’s continued support for Ukraine and commitment to its sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. It also reaffirmed the international community’s commitment to the principles enshrined in the UN Charter. However, the high number of abstentions and absences, particularly on the draft amendments, demonstrates a persistent unwillingness by some member states—predominantly from the Global South—to be perceived as aligning themselves with either side to the conflict. Approximately 41 percent of African states and about 28 percent of Asia-Pacific states either abstained or did not cast a vote on the resolution. When assessing the votes on the draft amendments, the proportion increases to roughly 76 percent for African states and 62 percent for Asia-Pacific states.
The 32 member states that abstained from voting on the resolution include some of the leading members of the Global South, such as China, India, Senegal—which currently chairs the AU—and South Africa. Analysts have noted that many of the member states that have and continue to abstain from voting on the General Assembly resolutions have close economic, historical, or military ties to the Kremlin. However, these member states’ reluctance to condemn Russia at the General Assembly is not the same as approval of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Rather, some analysts have argued that the lack of enthusiasm stems from a dissatisfaction with the approach taken by western governments to addressing the war and its ricocheting effects on the global economy. Many African and Asia-Pacific member states have expressed support for an immediate cessation of hostilities given their primary concern over the spillover effects of the conflict, including on global energy and commodity prices. They have also been uncomfortable with sanctions on Russia, with many enhancing economic relations with Russia since the start of the war.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Guterres is expected to reiterate the UN’s position that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a violation of the UN Charter and international law. He may also note that despite the Security Council’s inability to take effective measures on the crisis in Ukraine, UN agencies and the Secretariat have managed to make a difference on the ground. At the opening of the ESS, Guterres noted that the UN “worked in concerted and concrete ways to forge solutions”, citing his diplomatic achievements in securing the evacuation of civilians from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol in April 2022 and the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July 2022.
Council members are likely to reiterate their established positions on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (For more information on Council dynamics, see the In Hindsight in our February 2023 Forecast.) China may outline its vision for a peaceful solution to the war in Ukraine. During the Munich Security Conference, on 18 February, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that Beijing would propose a peace plan on the anniversary of the war. The proposal marks a new phase of China’s intensified diplomatic engagement on the war in Ukraine.
Some countries have expressed concern that China’s peace plan may not include a Russian military withdrawal from Ukraine. China’s position has remained cautious throughout the war. While it abstained from voting on the first set of amendments proposed by Belarus seeking to delete a paragraph demanding Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine, it voted in favour of the second set of amendments calling for the start of peace talks, for broader discussions on the root causes of the conflict, and for member states to refrain from sending weapons to the conflict zone. This comes amid US claims that China may be considering supplying weapons to Russia, which Beijing denies. This week, Wang Yi held meetings in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian officials.
Russia is likely to express its displeasure about the outcome of the ESS vote, while accusing Ukraine’s allies of having coerced member states into supporting the resolution. It may also provide an update regarding its draft resolution requesting the Secretary-General to establish an international, independent commission to investigate the 26 September 2022 incident that caused physical damage to the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea. At the time of writing, it was unclear whether and when Russia might table its draft resolution for a vote.