Multiple UN agencies are mobilizing to alleviate the suffering inflicted by Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. But in the UN Security Council there is only gridlock as Russia wields veto power as one of the five permanent members.
Russia has not only vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning its invasion, but used the council to spread Kremlin disinformation, including widely discredited claims about U.S.-funded biological laboratories in Ukraine, experts say.
The actions of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, condemned as a "war criminal" by U.S. President Joe Biden on March 16, coupled with the Security Council's reaction so far, have sparked calls for reform with one European defense minister even suggesting that the UN be scrapped amid questions whether the world body is up to the task of maintaining global security and peace. And given the showdown in the Security Council, some UN watchers are predicting years of inaction ahead as during the darkest days of the Cold War.
The current crisis is the most alarming episode of a longer-term trend at the Security Council, largely pitting Russia and its ally China against the West, said Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group think tank, in an interview with RFE/RL.
"The Security Council has been on a path to irrelevance for quite some time. It's now over a decade since we first started to see the U.S. and Russia deadlock over Syria in the Security Council. Since 2011, Russia has cast its veto 17 times on issues related to Syria and China has often joined in these vetoes," Gowan said.
The United Nations, which was established in 1945 in the wake of World War II, is facing its greatest challenge ever, according to Mark Malloch-Brown, a former UN deputy secretary-general and current president of the Open Society Foundations, a private funder of NGOs backed by investor and philanthropist George Soros.
Russia's "brazen crime of aggression" is a "threat to the post-1945 order," Malloch-Brown told a virtual conference hosted by the International Peace Institute on March 11. "This is not just another war. This is a system-shaking, system-breaking conflict with huge consequences that go way beyond even the tragedy of the destruction of life and property in Ukraine itself."
On February 25, a day after it invaded Ukraine, Russia was alone in the UN Security Council in voting against a resolution condemning its actions. China abstained, which was viewed as a win for Western diplomacy, given it came just weeks after Beijing and Moscow declared a "no limits" partnership.
Vetoed in the Security Council, the same resolution passed in the General Assembly, where no country has veto power, but where resolutions are mostly symbolic as they are nonbinding.
On March 2, during a special session dedicated to Ukraine, the resolution deploring Russia's actions was approved by 141 votes to five. Moscow won only the support of Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria. Thirty-five countries abstained.
'An Extraordinary Moment'
"The message of the General Assembly is loud and clear," said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. "End hostilities in Ukraine now. Silence the guns now. Open the door to dialogue and diplomacy now."
"This is an extraordinary moment," declared U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield after the General Assembly vote. "Now, at more than any other point in recent history, the United Nations is being challenged. If the United Nations has any purpose, it is to prevent war, it is to condemn war, to stop war."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailed the outcome as well, saying it showed "that a global anti-Putin coalition has been formed and is functioning. The world is with us."
The momentum was short-lived, however. While Moscow suffered a setback in the General Assembly, back at the Security Council on March 11 Russia called for a debate amid claims its military had uncovered evidence of a U.S.-funded military biological program in Ukraine.
Thomas-Greenfield said Russia was playing out a scenario put forth in the council last month by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken -- that Putin would "fabricate allegations about chemical or biological weapons to justify its own violent attacks against the Ukrainian people."
Russia's claims were quickly discredited. UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu said the "United Nations is not aware of any biological weapons programs."
"The labs are not secret," said Filippa Lentzos, a senior lecturer in science and international security at King's College London, in an e-mail to the AP news agency. "They are not being used in relation to bioweapons. This is all disinformation."
Since an agreement made in 2005, the Pentagon has assisted several Ukrainian public health laboratories with improving the security of dangerous pathogens and technology used in research.
Describing the March 11 session as "high farce," Malloch-Brown said it highlighted how the Kremlin was using the Security Council to spread its disinformation.
"Obviously a council member must have the right to bring issues to the council, but when the culture of council behavior is reduced to this sort of performative art for Russian prime-time news programs and is completely detached from any plausible truth about chemical activities inside Ukraine and is indeed being used as a rationale and a justification for a potential chemical weapons attack against the people of Ukraine, I think we have to really be concerned as to where this is going," Malloch-Brown told the IPI virtual gathering.
The International Crisis Group's Gowan noted that while the claims may have been outrageous, it had been part of the Kremlin's playbook for a while. "Russia [has] convened a series of informal Security Council briefings, where it brought in essentially propagandists to lay out its version of what was happening in Ukraine and to accuse the Ukrainians of fascism," Gowan said.
"And I think the reason that Russia does this is precisely that, in a world of more and more splintered official media and fragmented social media, the Russians can use screen grabs from these council meetings and broadcast their versions of events at home," Gowan said, noting that the Soviet Union accused the United States of using biological weapons during the Korean War in the 1950s.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been described by U.S. defense officials as the largest conventional military attack since World War II, with over 3 million Ukrainians fleeing the country amid Russia's widespread bombardment of civilian targets.
While there have been calls by Ukraine and others for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone, most Western leaders are wary of such a move, fearing a wider conflict with Russia.
Czech Defense Minister Jana Cernochova has called for the UN to step in with peacekeepers, arguing not to do so would question the point of having the UN around. "When something of this scale is happening and the UN is unable to take firm steps, then it is hopeless. They should find a way to send in blue helmets, that is, soldiers who would oversee respect for human rights and supplies. If the UN is incapable of doing that, then it is time to change it," Cernochova told Czech public TV on March 13.
But such a force would need the approval of the Security Council, said Farhan Aziz Haq, deputy spokesman for the UN secretary-general, in written comments to RFE/RL.
"Questions concerning the deployment of a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine are in the hands of the Security Council. The secretary-general doesn't have this type of authority," Haq told RFE/RL.
While sending in peacekeepers is not easy, the UN has stressed that its agencies have been active on several fronts to alleviate the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people impacted by Russia's aggression.
"The UN and our humanitarian partners are committed to staying and delivering, to support people in Ukraine. Our staff are working on both sides of the contact line, always guided by the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, humanity, and independence," wrote Haq. "We are providing lifesaving humanitarian relief to civilians in need, regardless of who or where they are."
Haq cited the work of the United Nations' World Food Program, which he said was reaching 3.1 million people "through the use of cash-based transfers as well as in-kind food distributions."
"Over the weekend, a UNICEF convoy of 22 trucks arrived in Ukraine with 168 tons of supplies, including midwifery kits, surgical kits, obstetric kits, oxygen concentrators, cold boxes, blankets and winter clothes, water, sanitation and hygiene kits, dignity kits, early childhood education kits, and adolescent kits," Haq added.HU
'Performative Black Arts' And 'Deadlock'
Such efforts are what the UN should focus on, argued Malloch-Brown.
"It needs to take stock of what it can do and what it can't do, and perhaps recognize it is in the humanitarian, human rights, information reporting, and possibly coordinating with the IFIs (international financial institutions) the development response to a global economic crisis that will follow this," he said. "[This] is where its comparative advantages lie, and the Security Council is perhaps condemned to remain performative black arts followed by deadlock for years to come."
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called on the UN on March 2 to reconsider Russia's status as a permanent member of the Security Council.
Kuleba called for a "thorough and unbiased" legal review of Russia's permanent membership. "We are confident that when the analysis is complete, it will be evident that Russia's presence at the UN Security Council is illegitimate," Kuleba said.
That would be easier said than done. "There are clauses in the UN Charter about expelling members that egregiously break the organization's rules, but that requires a recommendation to do so from the Security Council, which Russia could block," said Gowan.
"Similarly, there's a lot of talk, as we've seen in the past, over Syria, over rewriting the UN Charter to make it harder for Russia, or other permanent members to use their vetoes during situations like this, but again, Article 108 of the UN Charter says, you can't reform it without the ratification of all five permanent members of the council. So, Russia has a stranglehold on any serious reform proposals," said Gowan, adding that expelling Russia from the UN's Human Rights Council could be an option as it only requires two thirds of the General Assembly members to approve.
Expelling Russia from the UN outright, Gowan said, could have unintended consequences.
"Most U.S. diplomats and others recognize that forcing Russia out of the tent, in the long term is going to be more destructive than positive because just as Japan and Germany and Italy stormed out of the League of Nations in the 1930s and then became more destructive, we'd have to assume that Russia outside the UN would feel even less restraint than it does today, Gowan said. "Although, to be frank, Russia doesn't seem to feel very restrained right now."