Tomorrow morning (8 September), the Security Council will convene for a briefing on the situation in Ukraine. Albania and the US, the co-penholders on political issues in Ukraine, requested the meeting to discuss the regional and municipal elections that Russia is organising in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in Ukraine. Assistant Secretary-General for Europe, Central Asia and the Americas Miroslav Jenča* is expected to brief. Ukraine is expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.
The elections that are the focus of tomorrow’s meeting are being held in the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia regions, in which Russia conducted referendums between 23 and 27 September 2022. On 30 September 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally annexed these four regions. In a speech delivered that morning, Putin said that “[p]eople living in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are becoming our citizens. Forever.” Citing Article 1 of the UN Charter, which outlines the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, he emphasised that the decision to annex the four occupied regions in Ukraine was “an inherent right of the people…based on our historical affinity”.
Western countries and the UN strongly condemned Russia’s referendums and annexation. Secretary-General António Guterres delivered a strong retort to Moscow during a 29 September 2022 press briefing. Noting that Russia’s annexation has “no legal value” and that it “flouts the purposes and principles of the UN Charter”, Guterres stressed that Moscow’s escalation “deserves to be condemned…[and] must not be accepted”.
Russia’s decision to conduct referendums in the four regions in Ukraine prompted Albania and the US to request a Security Council meeting, held on 27 September 2022, to discuss what they considered to be an escalation of the conflict. On 30 September 2022, Albania and the US tabled a draft Security Council resolution on the matter. The draft text condemned Russia’s referendums, noting that they had not been authorised by Kyiv, and declared that any actions taken by Russia on the basis of the referendums, including annexation of its occupied regions in Ukraine, have no validity. In this regard, the draft resolution called on all member states to not recognise any change to the status of the regions. The draft resolution failed to be adopted because of a Russian veto. It received ten votes in favour, one against (Russia) and four abstentions (Brazil, China, Gabon, and India). (For more information, see our 26 September 2022 and 30 September 2022 What’s in Blue stories.)
The UN General Assembly subsequently resumed its 11th Emergency Special Session (ESS) on Ukraine, following a request submitted by Albania and Ukraine. During the ESS, which took place between 10 and 12 October 2022, the General Assembly adopted resolution A/ES-11/L.5, which condemned Russia for organising “illegal so-called referendums” in the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia regions, while calling on all member states to reject their validity and not to recognise any change to the status of the four regions. The resolution, which was prepared by the EU, received 143 votes in favour, five against (Belarus, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Nicaragua, Russia, and Syria), and 35 abstentions. Ten member states did not vote.
On 31 August, Russian-installed authorities initiated regional and municipal elections in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia regions. According to media reports, early voting is set to conclude today (7 September) in certain areas, while other regions will continue voting over the weekend, with polls expected to close on Sunday (10 September).
At tomorrow’s meeting, Jenča is likely to reiterate the UN’s position on the referendums held by Russian authorities nearly one year ago. During the Council’s 27 September 2022 meeting, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo asserted that the referendums “cannot be called a genuine expression of the popular will”, adding that “unilateral actions aiming to provide a veneer of legitimacy to the attempted acquisition by force by one State of another State’s territory, while claiming to represent the will of the people, cannot be regarded as legal under international law”.
Jenča is also expected to provide an update on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine. She may condemn the frequent Russian attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. On 3 and 4 September, attacks on port facilities and grain infrastructure along the Danube River in the Odesa region resulted in civilian injuries and damage to agricultural assets. Denise Brown, the Humanitarian Coordinator for Ukraine, condemned these attacks in a statement on 3 September.
More recently, on 6 September, a Russian missile struck an outdoor market in Kostiantynivka, a town in the eastern Donetsk region in Ukraine, leading to 49 civilian casualties, including 17 deaths. This attack coincided with an unannounced two-day visit to Kyiv by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during which he pledged new aid for Ukraine exceeding $1 billion.
Several Council members are expected to condemn Russia for holding elections in the four regions under its occupation. These members view the elections as a deceptive manoeuvre by Moscow aimed at strengthening its control over territories it unlawfully seized in 2022 and a further bid to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. On 4 September, Leendert Verbeek, President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, criticised Russia’s decision to organise the elections, which he described as a “flagrant violation of international law” that “only creates an illusion of democracy but clearly violates the right of citizens to participate in the conduct of local public affairs”.
Several members may point out that Russian forces do not fully control any of the four regions where the voting is taking place. Given that the vote is taking place amid active armed conflict, some members may argue that it is unreasonable to assume that populations in areas in conflict can freely express their will. Furthermore, considering that the vote deviates from Ukraine’s legal and constitutional framework, some Council members may urge Russia, which they perceive as the occupying power, to uphold its obligations under international humanitarian law to respect Ukrainian laws in the administration of occupied territories.
Some Council members are likely to refer to the “conference room paper” issued by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Ukraine. Released on 29 August, this document provides a comprehensive overview of the evidence collected and evaluated by the COI, as presented in its March 2023 report to the UN Human Rights Council (A/HRC/52/62). Among other things, the paper concludes that “the holding of the so-called referendums…was in violation of international humanitarian law”, noting that the commission “documented instances of coercion, threats, unlawful confinement and forcible transfers of local officials and public service employees, including school personnel, to force them to cooperate”.
Russia is expected to portray the elections in the four regions as a legitimate democratic procedure, and to imply that they adhere to international electoral standards. It may also condemn attacks allegedly carried out by Ukrainian troops on 7 September, which wounded members of a local election commission in the town of Volnovakha in the eastern Donetsk region, according to the local electoral commission.
Tomorrow’s meeting will be the first of several on Ukraine scheduled for this month. On 12 September, the Council will convene at Russia’s request for a meeting under the “Threats to international peace and security” agenda item to discuss “the supply of Western weapons to Ukraine and other factors negatively affecting the prospects for resolving the crisis in Ukraine and around it”. On 20 September, Albania is expected to hold a high-level open debate on “Upholding the purposes and principles of the UN Charter through effective multilateralism: maintenance of peace and security of Ukraine”. This meeting, which will be held during the General Assembly’s high-level segment, is one of the signature events of Albania’s Council presidency. On 26 September, at Russia’s request, the Council will hold a meeting to mark the one-year anniversary of the attack on the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea.
*Post-script (8 September, 10:15 am): A previous version of this story indicated that Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo is expected to brief. The story was amended to reflect that Assistant Secretary-General for Europe, Central Asia and the Americas Miroslav Jenča eventually briefed at the meeting.