Handling Zelensky: The UN’s Dilemma

Vassily Nebenzia, Russian Ambassador to the UN
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia of Russia to the UN holding a media briefing on Feb. 28, four days after his country’s onslaught against Ukraine began. The essayist explains how the UN’s origins, agreed on by the Soviet Union and the United States, secured their “permanent authority.” But now Russia has a permanent stain on its legacy because of its invasion against a sovereign country. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

The United Nations has been widely criticized for failing to stop the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Critics point out that Russia has vetoed every action in the Security Council to stymie or end the Russian attack. Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky even told the Council earlier this month that given its many standoffs, it might as well “dissolve yourself altogether.”

However, those dismayed by the Council’s inaction suffer from a fundamental misconception of how the UN operates. While the organization is seen as primarily a peace body, it was essentially born out of raw power politics. The not-so-secret truth of the UN is that it only came into being through a realpolitik compromise between the two major victors of World War II — the United States and the Soviet Union.

President Franklin Roosevelt, who, during the war, pushed passionately for the creation of the body, proposed the institution on the idealistic grounds that only a universal security body could maintain the peace in the future. But to assure its passage by the US Senate, he had to guarantee that the US had a veto. Similarly, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader, made it clear that he was not willing to join the assembly unless his country got a similar power.

The two men shared a common purpose on how to structure the body, based on a doctrine that protected their national interests and secured their permanent authority. As long as these conditions were met, both nations were willing to accept the UN as it is composed today. They got their way for the simple reason that without their participation, the UN would have been doomed to failure. However, under this formula, the Security Council from now on could act only with the prior consent of the US and Russia (and that of the three other permanent members, Britain, China and France).

Despite its drawbacks, the UN is still capable of influencing the world — especially on something as ghastly and repellent as Russia’s assault on Ukraine. The UN embodies considerable moral authority. Indeed, the General Assembly quickly condemned Russia’s brutal offensive on March 2 by an overwhelming margin of 141 to 5, with 35 abstentions. The Assembly also suspended Russia from the Human Rights Council, leading Moscow to resign from it. Forty-six countries that are party to the Unesco World Heritage Convention said they would boycott a session, scheduled to be held in Russia under its presidency, if it goes ahead. And there are at least seven UN agencies handling refugees, food assistance, health and other related issues in the Ukraine conflict zone.

Meantime, the incessant television coverage of the UN Security Council meetings has shone a damning light on the character of the UN envoy from Russia himself, Vassily Alekseevich Nebenzia, revealing the ambassador to be a man full of lies, bluster and cruelty, as he repeatedly denies that Russia is attacking Ukraine, despite the assault’s high visibility on daily broadcasts. In fact, Nebenzia is often losing his temper, lashing out at some reporters who ask him tough questions, saying they are “provoking” him. His top deputy, Dmitry Polyanskiy, is also perpetuating blatant lies on camera through the Security Council.

Since the war began, the Council has given a hearing to the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN, Sergiy Kyslytsya, and the dozen or so other representatives in the body who have collectively brought evidence of Russia’s war crimes to the public before a vast global audience.

The one spot where the UN’s response to the Ukrainian crisis has been faltering is the role of the UN’s secretary-general. The UN’s leader, António Guterres, has appeared like a bystander to the war. He initially failed to take any action when Russian troops originally encircled Ukraine — for example, by flying to Moscow to meet with Putin to find out if he could help allay his concerns. Secretaries-general like Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant, Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, given their past records, would have acted more proactively to prevent an outbreak of war and would have used all measures to do so.

Most recently, a group of former UN system colleagues wrote a letter to Guterres to voice their concern about the “existential challenge” the UN is facing at this juncture, but the group also said that the secretary-general and his team must show a “clear strategy” to “re-establish peace” in Ukraine, starting with a cease-fire.

To his credit, Guterres displayed real courage after the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, by openly criticizing Russia’s action as deplorable and inexcusable. Normally a secretary-general will not publicly break with one of the five veto nations. If he offends a permanent member, he will almost certainly jeopardize his relations with that government and possibly earn its opposition to his re-election — though, in Guterres’s case, it will not matter, as he is unlikely to seek a third term. But the Guterres situation does pose the question as to whether the UN can play a role as a true mediator if it is considered biased against one of the warring parties.

Some critics say, in any case, that Russia’s behavior is so odious and unforgivable that it should be immediately kicked out of the organization. They cite a major technicality — that Russia’s admission to the UN came after the demise of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, in 1991, but without any formal decision by the General Assembly. Hence it is not really a bona fide member. However, Larry Johnson, the principal legal officer in the UN Office of Legal Affairs in that era, has pointed out that there was no objection at the time to Russia’s admission by the Assembly, by any member state or by any of the other veto nations. With no pushback, Russia’s seating became lawful. Now, 30 years later, it is too late to raise new objections. Meanwhile, Russia can use its veto power to thwart any fresh attempts to oust it.

Curiously enough, Stalin’s other non-negotiable demand when he parlayed with Roosevelt over the formation of the UN was that two other countries under Soviet domination should also be admitted to the General Assembly. Those two nations now remarkably sit at the center of today’s warfare — Ukraine and Belarus. Stalin probably had his own cynical reasons for wanting this done, namely to obtain two extra votes to help back Russia, as Stalin desperately feared being outvoted by Western nations. The irony now is that a Putin victory in Ukraine would end Ukraine’s membership in the UN, leaving the country in the odd position that it would have gained entry into the UN for dubious reasons and would depart it for equally questionable reasons.

The issue of a possible war crimes tribunal for Putin continues to be cited. UN members can request that a criminal complaint be brought against the Russian leader and be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague — but that requires an official sign-off from the Security Council, which will be blocked by a Russian veto. This leaves one possible recourse: the creation of a specialized tribunal like the Nuremberg trial. That determination will have to be left to the 141 nations who censured Moscow at the UN on March 2 for its attack on Ukraine.

Russia, no matter what, must be in turmoil over the actions of the UN. The UN’s current secretary-general, almost three-quarters of its membership and its most notable human-rights agency have all denounced its actions. Russia has descended from being a founder of the organization to its most-reviled member. A monstrous black mark now shrouds its legacy.

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