What's In Blue

Posted Fri 23 Feb 2024

Ukraine: High-level Briefing

This afternoon (23 February), the Security Council will convene for a briefing on the situation in Ukraine, which will be held at ministerial level. Ukraine, supported by Slovenia, requested the meeting to mark the two-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022. Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to brief. Ukraine and several other member states are expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.

Two years into Russia’s military incursion, the war continues to have devastating consequences for civilians. As at 22 February, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had documented 30,457 civilian casualties, including at least 10,582 deaths, while noting that true figures are likely to be considerably higher. OHCHR has confirmed that at least 587 children have been killed in Ukraine and 684 injured. Moreover, the humanitarian and displacement crises in Ukraine continue to deteriorate. According to a 12 February OCHA humanitarian impact situation report, 17.6 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, while approximately 9.6 million people have been forcibly displaced by the war. That figure includes 3.7 million internally displaced people and six million refugees who have fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries.

As the war enters its third year, the conflict has transitioned to a new phase, marking the most precarious period for Ukraine since the start of the war. In January, Ukrainian forces adopted a more defensive strategy following the conclusion of their latest counteroffensive, which did not succeed in breaching Russian defence lines. Ukrainian forces have also began scaling back operations due to a shortfall of artillery shells and uncertainties regarding the continuation of Western military assistance, which threaten Ukraine’s ability to hold the front lines.

Meanwhile, Russian forces appear to be gradually regaining the upper hand on the battlefield. Following months of sporadic fighting, on 17 February, Russian forces captured the city of Avdiivka in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine. Avdiivka has been located along the front lines since 2014. The capture marked Russia’s most significant territorial gain since it took control of the city of Bakhmut in May 2023. Moreover, Russian forces are reportedly launching a series of mutually-supporting offensives along the Kharkiv-Luhansk sector that collectively have the potential to result in operationally significant gains.

For the majority of 2023, the fighting had been characterised by positional warfare and a static front line, with both sides achieving only occasional, slight territorial gains in some key areas. The conflict had evolved into a war of attrition.

In recent months, focus has shifted to the political arenas of Brussels and Washington DC, where Ukraine has been seeking financial and military support from its key allies. On 1 February, the European Council agreed to provide Ukraine with up to 50 billion euros in grants and loans until 2027. The new financial aid package is considered essential for supporting Ukraine’s economy, as Ukrainian officials have cautioned that a cessation of Western aid could lead to a budget crisis. The aid, however, is not intended for arms and ammunition. In a national address on 1 February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the EU’s support and stressed that Ukraine is now “waiting for America’s decisions”, a reference to the US’ supplemental aid package that has been stalled in Congress for several months.

The potential re-election of former US President Donald Trump in November poses a significant strategic challenge for Europe, given his well-known scepticism of NATO. At a 10 February rally, Trump said that he would encourage Russia to do as it wishes to any NATO member that falls short of the commitment to allocate two percent of their GDP to defence spending. European leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have openly acknowledged the need to prepare for a potential fracture in the transatlantic alliance.

Meanwhile, in Russia, President Vladimir Putin is preparing for elections in March, with his most prominent opponent—the lawyer and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny—dying in a penal colony on 16 February. Despite warnings that the Kremlin’s military spending is fuelling inflation, Russia’s extensive reserves of oil and natural gas—which it has been selling at a discount to countries such as Brazil, China, and India—have allowed it to withstand Western sanctions. Moreover, Russia has been successful in strengthening ties with its allies, allegedly acquiring ballistic missiles and drones from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Iran, respectively.

At today’s meeting, Council members are likely to reiterate established positions on the war in Ukraine, with most members expressing continued concerns about the humanitarian situation, the safety and security of nuclear facilities, and the protection of civilians and civilian objects. Guterres is expected to provide an overview of the political and humanitarian situation in Ukraine. He is likely to highlight the fundamental importance of the UN Charter’s purposes and principles, while calling on all parties to respect international law and international humanitarian law.

Despite the shifting dynamics of the war, Ukraine’s allies on the Council are expected to maintain a unified and steadfast stance in condemning Russia’s invasion as a breach of Ukraine’s sovereignty that constitutes a clear violation of the principles outlined in the UN Charter. These members are expected to reiterate calls for Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders. Russia, for its part, is expected to reiterate its claim that Western interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs triggered a political crisis that led to what it describes as an unconstitutional coup d’état in 2014, followed by attempts to suppress protests by force in the Donbas region. Moscow is also likely to contend that its “special military operation” is intended to safeguard the residents of the Donbas following Kyiv’s failure to fulfil its commitments under the 2014 Minsk Agreements.

Several Council members are expected to advocate for diplomacy and dialogue as the path towards a negotiated settlement between the parties. Ukraine’s allies are likely to reference the resolution adopted by the General Assembly in February 2023, titled “Principles of the Charter of the United Nations underlying a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine”, which received 141 votes in favour. The resolution underscored 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.

Before the Council session in the afternoon, member states are convening this morning for the annual General Assembly debate on “The situation in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine”. This year, Ukraine has decided not to pursue a resolution at the General Assembly to mark the two-year anniversary, partly due to concerns that such a text would garner less support, particularly from Arab states, given US backing of Israel. For many countries in the Global South, the situation in the Middle East exposes perceived Western double standards: while Western countries have been urging member states for months to condemn Russian actions in Ukraine, some have concurrently expressed steadfast support for Israel, despite the significant civilian casualties and the extensive airstrikes on the Gaza Strip carried out by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Kyiv has concentrated its diplomatic efforts on securing international support for Zelenskyy’s ten-point peace formula. On 14 January, Switzerland hosted the fourth meeting of national security advisors and other high-level officials in Davos to discuss fundamental principles for restoring peace in Ukraine. This followed previous meetings on 24 June 2023 in Copenhagen, Denmark; on 5 and 6 August 2023 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; and on 28 and 29 October 2023 in Valletta, Malta. Some Council members may raise the ten-point peace formula as a platform for negotiations at today’s meeting.

The gathering in Davos saw participation from over 80 countries and international organisations. Russia was not invited. In a joint communiqué following the meeting,  co-chairs Switzerland and Ukraine noted that “the meeting laid the necessary prerequisites for the preparation of a meeting of leaders of states and governments, which can give a start at a high level to establish a common and universal basis for achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace for Ukraine based on the Ukrainian Peace Formula”. Moscow has criticised the initiative, stressing that discussing potential solutions to the crisis without including Russia and disregarding Moscow’s legitimate security interests is futile.

At today’s meeting, some Council members may criticise the Security Council’s approach to addressing the situation in Ukraine, noting that the Council chamber remains a battleground for opposing narratives about various aspects of the conflict. In 2023, the Council held a total of 47 formal and informal meetings, similar to its level of engagement in 2022, when it held 46 meetings on the file. In contrast, the Council convened for six votes or adoptions on Ukraine-related products in 2022, while holding only one such vote in 2023. At the outset of the conflict, Ukraine and its allies aimed to isolate Russia by adopting resolutions with broad support at the 11th Emergency Special Session (ESS) of the General Assembly, condemning Russia’s actions. As the conflict progressed, the urgency for such resolutions appeared to decrease, with an apparent fatigue among member states towards Ukraine-related discussions. This is particularly true among members from the Global South, who argued that the emphasis on Ukraine detracted from other critical issues, such as conflicts in Africa. The perception of a double standard became more pronounced after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

With hostilities in Ukraine showing no signs of abating and an ever-present risk of escalation, the two-year anniversary of the war may offer an opportunity for Council members to reflect on how the UN can better support diplomatic efforts aimed at finding an end to the conflict. In doing so, Council members may recall the 6 May 2022 presidential statement adopted by the Security Council, which expressed support for the Secretary-General’s efforts in search of a peaceful solution. Such efforts could include the appointment of a personal envoy that would aim to facilitate communication between relevant stakeholders. While a negotiated settlement may appear distant, establishing diplomatic lines of communication between the parties may contribute to preventing further escalation of the conflict.

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