What You Need to Know is a series of brief Q&As with leading experts on major legal issues arising out of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the global response to that conflict.

What You Need to Know: Ukraine and How Russia’s War Reverberates at the United Nations

September 20, 2022


Richard Gowan is the UN Director at the International Crisis Group. He has worked with the European Council on Foreign Relations, New York University Center on International Cooperation and the Foreign Policy Centre (London). He has taught at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and Stanford in New York. He has also worked as a consultant for the organizations including UN Department of Political Affairs, the UN Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on International Migration, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Rasmussen Global, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Global Affairs Canada.

This is the first UN General Assembly annual meeting since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, more than half a year ago. What can be done at UNGA about the situation in Ukraine? Should we expect to see any formal action taken related to the war, either to help manage the consequences of the invasion or hold Russia accountable?

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) week is not an opening for peacemaking between Russia and Ukraine. As of now, both sides seem bent on pushing for military victory. Secretary-General António Guterres warned at a pre-UNGA press conference that the chances of a peace deal in the near term are nil. This is a wartime General Assembly, and both Ukraine’s allies and the Russians are in town to gain political advantage, not talk peace.

Ukraine’s friends have one overarching agenda to pursue in New York: Bolstering support for Kyiv among non-Western countries, which have appeared increasingly disengaged from the war as it has dragged on longer than most foresaw. In March, the U.S. and Europeans were able to get 141 General Assembly members to back a resolution condemning Russia’s aggression. While skeptics noted that big non-Western countries like India and China abstained – and the resolution imposed no concrete penalties on Russia – this was still a marked improvement on 2014, when only 100 states backed a resolution opposing Russia’s takeover of Crimea. This April, 93 states backed Moscow’s suspension from the Human Rights Council. That was a solid score given that even some supporters of Ukraine, such as Mexico, argue on principle that isolating countries at the UN only makes diplomacy harder.

“Ukraine’s friends have one overarching agenda to pursue in New York: Bolstering support for Kyiv among non-Western countries, which have appeared increasingly disengaged from the war as it has dragged on longer than most foresaw.”

But Western diplomats admit that they were already encountering “Ukraine fatigue” by the late spring. A lot of African, Asian and Latin American countries were initially willing to deplore Russia’s offensive, but have not wanted to endanger their security and economic relationships with Moscow by doing so repeatedly. The Ukrainian mission in New York is frustrated that the General Assembly has not said more about the war since April. Kyiv’s allies see little gain in pushing through resolutions that would secure diminishing support. 

On the upside, 101 General Assembly members voted last week in favor of allowing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to address the high-level session by video (ironically, all leaders had to speak via video in 2020, thanks to COVID-19, but the UN has been keen to get back to in-person-only sessions). Most African states abstained or did not vote on the issue, but some notable non-Western powers such as India backed the proposal. At the end of the day, I think most diplomats recognized that it is common sense that a leader in a country under siege should be able to give a speech without trekking to New York.

More broadly, a lot of non-Western UN members are nervous about this year’s food price crisis, the broader economic downturn, and the probability that major aid donors will cut assistance to poor states to divert money to Ukraine. These fears surfaced in the first weeks of the war – I recall talking them through with a European ambassador in mid-March – but a lot of Western officials were too focused on the Russian threat to address them sympathetically at the time. As Crisis Group warned at the end of March, European officials were hurting their own cause by going into UN meetings on challenges like famine in the Horn of Africa and insisting on talking about Ukraine.

The Biden administration was one of the first Western powers to grasp that this messaging was counter-productive. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted some well-received talks about food issues in New York in May 2022. One Arab diplomat privately made an interesting point at the time, which was that the U.S. focus on global food prices stood in positive contrast to the Trump administration’s maladroit handling of COVID-19 in multilateral forums in 2020. But the U.S. and Ukraine’s other allies still have to work hard to convince the Global South that they can both pursue hardball diplomacy over Ukraine and help vulnerable states navigate global economic turmoil too.

On that front, it is notable that the U.S., European Union and African Union are jointly co-hosting a summit on food security at UNGA this week. UNGA is friendly “home turf” for Washington and its friends, as Western leaders will be out in force in New York (after a dash to London for Queen Elizabeth’s funeral) whereas Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are absent from the General Assembly meeting. It’s a helpful platform for a high-level pro-Ukrainian “hearts and minds” campaign, where the U.S. and EU can cajole leaders from non-Western countries to see things their way. It helps that global food prices have stabilized in recent months, mainly because markets are pricing in a global recession. But UNGA is a rare opportunity for President Biden and his friends to reach out to a big group of counterparts from the Global South. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – a former ambassador to the UN – will be at UNGA this week to press Moscow’s case over the war. Over the course of the year, we have seen Russia playing up its claim to be a friend of post-colonial African countries like Mali (where Russian military contractors are backing the government). Lavrov will presumably hit similar notes in New York. We’ve seen that Moscow can play up memories of the colonial era – and Soviet support for anti-colonial movements – quite effectively. 

In the end, this week offers the U.S. space to promote its political messages, but the struggle for non-Western support over Ukraine won’t end one way or another this week.

How far does the geopolitical fall-out from the Russian invasion, which has largely pitted Russia against the West, spread through the UN system? Are we seeing new fissures, or just extensions of old ones? What are the anticipated and perhaps unanticipated ways in which the war may shape business at the United Nations during UNGA?

Ukraine’s friends have made an enormous effort to isolate Russia at the UN since February. At various points in the last six months, I’ve heard of initiatives to strip Russian officials of roles in UN processes on road safety and the protection of wetlands that are homes for wildfowl. To be honest, I think some of this is a bit pointless. The war for the future of Ukraine won’t be shaped by who is making policy proposals on safeguarding storks’ nests in swamps.

“Russia, the U.S. and the other veto-wielding permanent members (the P5) seem to see that they have shared national interests in preventing the Ukraine mess from poisoning talks on other issues.”

I think what has got lost amidst a lot of this diplomatic noise is that one much-maligned part of the UN system is working better than we expected in the context of this war. That is the Security Council. As Crisis Group has noted, the Council has been predictably gridlocked over Ukraine, but has kept up a sort of minimal functionality on other crises this year. It has passed some noteworthy resolutions updating the frameworks for international support to Afghanistan (where the UN assistance mission is now the world’s residual point of contact with the Taliban) and Somalia. It has kept rolling over the mandates of UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. We have seen a nasty breakdown with the Chinese and Russians over U.S. proposals to impose more sanctions on DPRK, and Russia used its veto this July to block a proposal to extend UN aid supplies to rebel-held North-West Syria for one year. But the Russians did at least agree to a six-month extension of the aid mandate, and Moscow has not been swinging its veto around entirely egregiously (other than with respect to Ukraine).  

There are a few explanations for this. We hear that French and Chinese diplomats have been quietly working to minimize Council frictions behind the scenes. Some elected members, such as Norway and Ireland, have done hard but necessary work coaxing out compromises on contentious files like humanitarian assistance to Syria. More fundamentally Russia, the U.S. and the other veto-wielding permanent members (the P5) seem to see that they have shared national interests in preventing the Ukraine mess from poisoning talks on other issues. 

Earlier this month in advance of UNGA, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield delivered remarks decrying Russia’s aggression and violations of the UN Charter and committing the United States to a number of principles for leadership at the UN, including “efforts to reform the UN Security Council…The Security Council should also better reflect the current global realities and incorporate more geographically diverse perspectives.” In articulating its view of what it means to recommit itself to “defending the UN Charter” and “protecting the UN’s principles,” is the United States exercising meaningful leadership? Can it live up to the six principles it has set for itself? What realistically could be in store if the United States is “recommitted” to Security Council reform but Russia is not? Or do you see this more as a rhetorical strategy that won’t have much impact in practice?

I doubt that Washington has a model for what it would like to come out of talks on Security Council reform. U.S. officials say they are making a “serious call” for reform discussions, but that is about it. That said, I presume that the U.S. recognized that, given the Council’s obvious impotence over Ukraine this year, a “business as usual” approach to the UN would go down pretty badly when President Biden speaks to the General Assembly. Biden is likely to echo Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s words in his UNGA speech, but it is still unclear whether the U.S. will invest real diplomatic energy in reform following a brief moment of excitement. 

I think that the U.S. has to be careful about appearing to indulge in what we might call “diplomatic populism” on Security Council reform. It is well known that China hates the idea of opening up reform talks because Beijing worries that these could lead to one or both of its regional rivals Japan and India gaining permanent seats in the Council.  This is awfully unlikely. After all, the UN Charter grants all P5 members a veto over any Charter reform. But it is a genuinely neuralgic concern for Chinese officials in New York. The U.S. can win some easy points by ostensibly championing Council reform, albeit in vague terms, and then blaming its geopolitical rivals for the fact that this is impossible. (I predicted that the U.S. would do this in a book chapter in 2020, but it’s only available in Japanese, so my acute predictive powers have been overlooked elsewhere). The U.S. may score some points in this way, but could also hurt its very tenuous relation with China in Turtle Bay as a result.

“I understand that a lot of people – and a lot of governments – look at the UN this year and see a profound mess. It would be nice to design a better global institution. But I still value the residual resilience of what we’ve got.”

That said, my colleagues at Crisis Group and I have been probing ways that the UN could improve its organizational structures’ performance after this year’s shocks. We are intrigued by the Secretary-General’s call for a “New Agenda for Peace” to report on what collective security may mean today in an unpromising environment.  And we would never rule out the possibility that Security Council reform, especially with U.S. support, could be a good thing. But we have been around these issues long enough to know that we should not say it’s anything close to a panacea either.

At the end of the day, Russia’s war on Ukraine has highlighted the organization’s weaknesses, but they were flaws anyone who has studied the organization knew were there. I wrote a piece for Just Security about how the Security Council would fail on Ukraine back in January that was sadly prescient (in fairness I underestimated how much support Kyiv would get in the General Assembly early on). But I take some  comfort from the fact the Council has managed to keep up diplomacy on other topics, which I was not sure would be possible in the first quarter of the year. I have also been pleasantly surprised by the way that Secretary-General Guterres has played a useful role on efforts to mitigate the effects of the war, such as helping mediate the Black Sea Grain deal, which I have discussed elsewhere

If you work in the UN, you learn to appreciate the organization’s small wins, and endure its major failures. I understand that a lot of people – and a lot of governments – look at the UN this year and see a profound mess. It would be nice to design a better global institution. But I still value the residual resilience of what we’ve got.

What You Need to Know: Unpacking the Law in Russia’s War Against Ukraine
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