It was one of the sharpest, most sweeping rebukes in the recent history of the United Nations. On Oct. 12, 143 countries led by the U.S. and its allies voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demand that Russian President Vladimir Putin withdraw all of his troops from Ukrainian territory.
Just five countries — Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Nicaragua and Syria — voted against the measure, and nearly three dozen abstained. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hailed the vote as a “remarkable” demonstration of international unity against Russian military aggression.
Still, the diplomatic triumph in New York carries little weight and has had virtually no impact on events on the ground. Ukrainian citizens are still bearing the brunt of brutal Russian attacks aimed at knocking out electricity and clean water systems ahead of winter. It’s a familiar pattern: U.N. attempts to play a larger role in stopping Europe’s biggest, deadliest ground war since its founding in 1945 have come up short.
Two weeks before the U.N. condemnation, the 15-member Security Council considered a more substantive, binding measure forcing Moscow to abandon its war in Ukraine. Russia, one of the council’s five permanent members, issued a veto that effectively killed the resolution.
The two votes encapsulated the United Nations’ power as a global forum and the hard limits on its ability to truly influence 21st-century conflicts, especially those involving the world’s most powerful militaries. Indeed, analysts say the idea that the United Nations is capable of halting major wars — one of the foundational concepts behind its founding just months after the end of World War II — isn’t applicable today.
“It was unrealistic to think the U.N. would have the clout and the leverage to actually make something happen in terms of something big: a war, World War III, or what we’re seeing now with Ukraine and Russia,” said Jim Townsend, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration. “There is always the potential that the U.N. could help, but usually when the big guys are out bumping into each other, the U.N. isn’t going to do anything except clean up the battlefield afterward.”
The ability of the major powers to veto binding U.N. Security Council resolutions may be the most glaring roadblock, but it certainly isn’t the only one. Economic and geopolitical realities of the 21st century have made it much more complicated to gain consensus among the 15 Security Council members when it comes to matters of war and peace.
Russia was the only country to vote against the binding October resolution, but four other nations, including permanent Security Council member China, abstained. The other three permanent members — the U.S., Britain and France — voted yes.
Brazil, Gabon and India, which are serving two-year terms as nonpermanent members of the council, also abstained from the vote. The measure called for the withdrawal of Russian troops and condemned Russia’s “annexation” of four eastern Ukrainian provinces.
“Any annexation of a state’s territory by another state resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the principles of the U.N. charter,” Mr. Guterres said ahead of the vote.
The United Nations hasn’t halted Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or even emerged as the leading honest broker to help the two sides negotiate a cease-fire, but it has played a crucial role in managing some of the fallout. U.N. relief agencies have spearheaded massive humanitarian aid initiatives for Ukrainian citizens at home and for refugees forced to flee the country. The United Nations said it has given food and financial aid to more than 8 million people since the start of the war on Feb. 24.
Limits of U.N. sway were on display again after reports said Iran was supplying drones that Russia was using to attack Ukrainian cities. The U.S. and its allies said the world body was supposed to enforce a 2015 resolution on Iran’s missile programs.
Russian diplomats warned Mr. Guterres and his staff that they would have to rethink cooperation if the United Nations did not “abstain from engaging in any illegitimate investigation.”
“Otherwise, we will have to reassess our collaboration with them, which is hardly in anyone’s interests. We do not want to do it, but there will be no other choice,” Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters last month.
In their most substantive achievements, U.N. leaders helped broker a July deal to resume grain shipments from Ukrainian ports amid rising global food costs, and inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency have spent months trying to defuse a tense standoff at Ukraine’s embattled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
Both of those instances could be considered success stories for the United Nations and its role in Ukraine, but they also have cast a spotlight on the real-world limits to the organization’s power. Over the weekend, the Kremlin said it was pulling out of the grain deal, sparking fears that Russian troops would reimpose a Black Sea blockade to stop Ukrainian exports.
Russia has not reimposed that blockade so far, but the announcement carried major ramifications.
Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, said global prices for wheat have increased by 5% since Russia’s announcement.
“Millions in Africa and Asia will face malnutrition and hunger because of Moscow’s cruelty,” Mr. Nikolenko said in a Twitter post. “Ukraine wants to continue grain exports to those in need. Don’t let Russia starve the world.”
At the Zaporizhzhia plant, which has been under Russian military control since the early days of the war, IAEA inspectors spent weeks negotiating with Russian troops before they were allowed inside the facility. Russia has not heeded the IAEA’s urgent calls for a safe zone around the power plant, which is the largest nuclear facility in Europe, and the situation remains unsettled.
Calls for change
The Russia–Ukraine war is accelerating calls for major structural changes inside the Security Council. Heads of state and even Pope Francis have publicly urged the United Nations to overhaul the way it does business. In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia should lose its status as a permanent member of the Security Council and forfeit the veto power that comes with it.
“So long as the aggressor is a party to decision-making in the international organizations, he must be isolated from them – at least until aggression lasts,” Mr. Zelenskyy said. “Reject the right to vote. Deprive delegation rights. Remove the right of veto, if it is a member of the U.N. Security Council, in order to punish the aggressor within the institutions.”
In a book released last month, Pope Francis suggests that the U.N. Security Council cannot handle the “new realities” of the 21st century, according to media excerpts.
Indeed, the Biden administration also has taken the position that the core U.N. mission must remain the prevention of major wars and that Russia’s unchecked invasion undercuts that mission. U.S. officials are now pledging to use their veto powers sparingly and encouraging fellow permanent members to follow suit.
“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,” U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in a March speech at the United Nations.
“That is our job here today. It is the job you were sent here to do — not just by your capitals, but by all of humanity,” she said.
In a speech this spring in San Francisco, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield outlined some specific changes that Washington supports to make the Security Council more effective and relevant.
“We should not defend an unsustainable and outdated status quo. Instead, we must demonstrate flexibility and willingness to compromise in the name of greater credibility and legitimacy,” she said.
The U.S. plans to exercise its veto powers only in “rare, extraordinary situations,” the ambassador said.
“Any permanent member that exercises the veto to defend its own acts of aggression loses moral authority and should be held accountable,” she said.
Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya did that on Sept. 30 by defending the Kremlin’s decision to torpedo a resolution condemning the annexation of Ukrainian provinces. Those provinces, he said, welcomed a Russian takeover.
“The residents of these regions do not want to return to Ukraine. They have made an informed and free choice, in favor of our country,” he said.
Amid the deadlocks over the U.N. role in Ukraine, broader reform ideas have gained steam, including support for increasing the number of permanent Security Council members. One of the most common reform proposals would add Brazil, Germany, India, South Korea and South Africa as permanent members, greatly increasing representation from around the globe.
Such a move still wouldn’t impede the ability of Russia, China or other permanent Security Council members to wield veto power and block measures supported by an overwhelming majority of countries. To do that, more sweeping reforms are needed.
France has put forward one idea. Under the French proposal, permanent Security Council members could not use their veto power “when a situation of mass atrocity is observed, such as in the cases of genocidal crimes, crimes against humanity and large scale war crimes.” Such a situation would, in theory, apply to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Other proposals include a veto override by a vote of a supermajority, at least two-thirds of member countries, against a permanent member.
All of those proposals face serious hurdles. They would require changes to the U.N. founding charter, meaning the five permanent Security Council members would have to approve them. That reality, some analysts say, underscores the inherent flaws in the U.N. structure that could prevent more comprehensive reforms.
• Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.