It has been a very intense few weeks of diplomacy at the United Nations. Even before Russia mounted its full scale invasion of Ukraine there were several meetings at the Security Council intended to deter and dissuade Russia from doing so. And it was in the middle of one such Security Council meeting on February 23rd that Vladimir Putin declared war and began the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Two days later, Russia predictably vetoed a Security Council resolution denouncing the invasion and from there, the action went to the entire UN General Assembly and its 193 member states.
Anjali Dayal is an assistant professor of International Politics at Fordham University and a longtime UN watcher. We kick off discussing the significance of this General Assembly vote before having a broader discussion about how Russia-focused diplomacy is playing out at the United Nations.
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Transcript lightly edited for clarity
What Are the UN’s Responsibilities in Times of Crisis Like Russia’s Attack on Ukraine?
Anjali Dayal [00:02:34] Under the terms of the UN charter, the UN Security Council has primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. Uniting for a peace resolution, which dates to 1950, is basically an effort to solve the problem of what to do when the Security Council is divided and won’t act on a question of international peace and security. This is always because one of the permanent members of the Security Council disagrees with the primary consensus of the rest of the Security Council. And so, in that sense, it’s an effort in some ways to circumvent the great power politics of the Security Council with a demonstration that the collective will of the international community may be a different way. It refers matter to the UN General Assembly to undertake. The UN General Assembly can’t issue binding resolutions like the UN Security Council, but it can, as it did today, demonstrate the sort of general consensus among the society of states of the United Nations.
How is the UN Security Council organized? What is the power of a veto in the UN Security Council?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:37] And so let’s go back all the way to last Friday. It seems like an eternity ago, but it was Friday— we’re speaking now on Wednesday, March 2nd—that the Security Council held its resolution on Russia, condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demanding the immediate withdrawal. Can you explain what happened in that Security Council session?
Anjali Dayal [00:04:06] Yeah, last Friday we had a Security Council session, as you said, where a resolution that—the language ended up being a little gentler than condemning—but that took Russia to task for its invasion of Ukraine. And there were at the end of the day, three abstentions, one veto and everyone else on the Security Council voted in favor of the resolution. But because of the structure of the UN Security Council, that single veto from a permanent member, Russia, black balls the resolution. It’s no longer possible for the Security Council to do anything about it within the framework of that chamber, which is when we start to see the move towards the uniting for peace resolution, which is rarely used. This is the 11th time in UN’s history it’s been used, the first time in 40 years that the Security Council has referred the matter to the General Assembly.
Why did the United Arab Emirates, China, and India abstain from voting on the UN Security Council’s resolution to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:04] And I think it’s important just to spend a moment digging into and describing the dynamics at the Security Council that led to that vote, in which I think it was 11 votes in favor, three abstentions and the Russian veto. All of the countries you expect it to be in favor were in favor, the abstentions were China, which is significant for reasons I’ll have you explain, the United Arab Emirates, and India. Now it was just reported like a minute before we spoke so I doubt that you may have seen this, that the United Arab Emirates apparently abstained as opposed to voting with the United States, its close ally in this resolution, as sort of a payback to the United States for what it perceives to be insufficient American support for its war in Yemen. This was reported in Axios just moments ago, which is a fascinating additional diplomatic wrinkle to this all. But can you maybe just kind of discuss or explain why would India and China, most prominently, abstain from this resolution?
Anjali Dayal [00:06:17] Absolutely. I had not seen the news about the United Arab Emirates, but that is a fascinating wrinkle to this problem. China has a really complicated relationship with the questions of sovereignty and intervention at the UN Security Council. It is, as you said, the usual countries we would expect to vote in favor of this resolution voted in favor of it. But critically, crucially, you know, the way the problem was framed was as one of global threat, that what has happened when Russia invaded Ukraine is a threat to countries worldwide because it calls into question one of the primary principles of the UN charter with the first principles of the UN charter, sovereign nonintervention, equality of states, member states in the Security Council, and territorial integrity. And usually those are principles that China is very strongly in favor of. In this venue the discomfort with voting in favor of this resolution, I think shows us two things. It shows us first, that, you know, at the Security Council, there is frequently an alliance between Russia and China voting in favor of this form of territorial integrity and sovereignty as a way of forming a bulwark against the perceived to be more interventionist plans of the other permanent members of the Security Council. But it also shows us something about the success of US diplomacy I think because China didn’t vote with Russia in this case, it didn’t give Russia political cover. Instead, it struck out a position that essentially said, ‘You know, we’re not going to give political cover to this act by Russia, but we’re also not necessarily going to sign on to this resolution with which we have some real reservations.’
Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:16] I agree with your assessment that China’s abstention was a victory for US and European foreign policy. They could have given support to Russia, but they chose not to in a public way. What about India?
Anjali Dayal [00:08:35] Yeah, this is, I think, an important question because unlike the United Arab Emirates, which today voted in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution, India also abstained today from the General Assembly resolution. And here we’ve got this interestingly complicated, long running relationship between India and Russia, where India has focused almost exclusively its diplomacy around securing the safety of Indian students and Indian nationals in Ukraine at the moment. And it’s taken a pretty significant, I think, diplomatic hit from it. But I also think and I’m not in India foreign policy, I’m not someone who is a specialist in the foreign policy of India. But a lot of Indian foreign policy hands are saying this is always to be expected. This was always the way India was going to go on this resolution because of long running historic ties with Russia that involve security cooperation that involve […] cooperation and that involve cultural cooperation. So, the abstention is a way, not necessarily as I understand it in their view of giving Russia political cover, but also not incurring Russian disfavor.
How are small island countries like Papua New Guinea and St. Vincent affected by Russia’s war on Ukraine?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:55] So the vote, owing to the Russian veto, made its way to the General Assembly for a vote today. There was a long lead up to today’s vote, with dozens and dozens of member states speaking ahead of the vote. Monday morning is when the emergency special session started, and it continued all the way through this morning on Wednesday, March 2nd. I don’t know how closely you are following many of the speeches, I sort of tuned in and out fairly often. And one sort of recurring theme that was pretty interesting to me, at least, was how countries that are far removed from this crisis, small island states like Palau or Papua New Guinea even, were describing how the Russian invasion of Ukraine, though happening so far removed from their shores and their borders, nonetheless directly impacted them as a weaker country that has experienced colonization before. You had all these of invocations of the danger to these small states of living in a world in which might makes right, and the rule of law is replaced by the rule of the jungle. And there’s some really fascinating and very articulate expressions of the danger that this conflict poses to them, even though, again, they’re so far removed. What stood out to you, from what you were able to follow during these speeches and the vote today?
Anjali Dayal [00:11:45] As you said, the existential stakes of this question are kept coming up again and again in the course of these speeches. I think it was St. Vincent and the Grenadines that ended up being the last speaker from the General Assembly floor right before the vote and the representative said, ‘This is an existential question for us. The question of our survival as a state depends on whether or not the right of equal sovereignty and territorial integrity apply to all states’ This is something, for instance, the Marshall Islands highlighted yesterday as well, countries, as you said, that are far afield of a security crisis in the heart of Europe, but for whom this UN charter is the legal underpinning for their existence. And the way the debate has been framed by a lot of small island nations, yes, but also by a lot of post-colonial states and a lot of states that came into being at the same time as the United Nations and immediately after, their point is about exactly as you said, what kind of international order we live in. Whether we live in the sort of classically realist international order of power politics where strong states exercise their will unrestrained or whether we live in a world where sovereign nonintervention is a cornerstone principle of international law and people can be called out for that where in theory, even if the principles of the UN charter can’t stop great power aggression, other states can reassert the invalidity and the illegitimacy of the action. And the way that they sort of pressed on this issue was to say that, you know, permanent five members of the Security Council have at different times been guilty of this, but every time they strike this blow, they strike another blow against multilateralism and the system of states that sustains the very existence and independence of small states the worldwide.
What does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine say about modern-day colonialism and the UN’s response to it?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:01] And the dynamic that you described led to a, I think, very interesting and really profound votes at the UN General Assembly today. So, the four countries to vote with Russia are sort of to be expected Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria. They were, with Russia, the five no votes today. Interestingly, though, you saw countries like Cuba, like Venezuela, abstain from the vote, like Serbia, countries that have had long relationships with Russia sort of choosing to abstain as opposed to support Russia because of many of the dynamics that you describe, this sort of tension between being anti-colonialist and supporting Russia. So, to me, those abstentions were really, really interesting and I think significant.
Anjali Dayal [00:15:01] Yeah, absolutely. And I think, you know, one thing that we really see come to the fore is this idea that, you know, Ukraine is a founding member of the United Nations. The independence and sovereignty of Ukraine—and this is something that states coming to the floor addressed again and again—is of obvious critical importance to Ukrainians. The first issue at hand is, of course, the humanitarian disaster that will result from this invasion. But critically, for these states, the idea that another founding member of the United Nations might without notice, without sanction, without comment, be subject to this kind of activity from a permanent five member. I think that, as you say, strikes at the heart of the multilateralist project, brings to the fore these anti-colonialist projects, and can make these previous coalitions not so significant.
What is the importance of the UN General Assembly vote to condemn Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:10] So as you said earlier, unlike action at the Security Council, a vote at the UN General Assembly is not legally binding, it can’t force Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine right now. So, stepping back, what would you say is the significance of this vote at the General Assembly today? Like, what difference do you think it may make or not?
Anjali Dayal [00:16:35] I think ultimately the structure of the United Nations, the structure of power we have in the international system, all of those things by design the United Nations is never going to be able to stop the aggressive actions of one of its permanent five members. It lacks that capacity. It was deliberately constructed to not interfere with the plans of the permanent five members. But what a vote like something at the UN General Assembly can do is demonstrate in this case how diplomatically isolated Russia is in this plan. As you noted, you know, the five countries that voted with Russia, not so surprising, and countries that have themselves sought political cover from Russia for past actions that the UN has taken them to task for. So, in that sense, that the General Assembly vote can show us that Russia is diplomatically isolated, that the vast majority of countries would prefer to abide by the terms of the UN charter in the way that they’ve laid out with explicit reference in the resolution that they voted on. They want to live in a world where the equal sovereignty of member states, and the territorial integrity of states is primary, where a multilateral system continues to flourish. Now that isn’t, of course, going to stop Russia from continuing its invasion. It is not going to solve this problem, it is not going to ameliorate the intense human suffering that’s going to come from this but as diplomatic bodies go, sending that signal is about the most it can do, and it sent that signal fairly strongly today.
Why is it significant that most UN member states are aligning themselves with the US and EU focus on isolating Russia?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:14] So I also think that there’s some political importance to this demonstration of diplomatic isolation. You know, the kind of strategy that has been explicitly stated from the Biden administration, from its European partners, from NATO and I say the West more generally has been one that seeks to isolate, economically and politically, Russia from the rest of the world. And to me, at least, what this vote demonstrates is that first of all, it’s like a manifestation of that of that strategy, it is what the point of that strategy is to accomplish. It also seems to be a reflection that the rest of the world kind of supports that US led strategy on Russia. Do you accept that sort of premise?
Anjali Dayal [00:19:13] Yeah, I think that’s right, and I think there is a real sort of underlying conversation about the intensive diplomatic work that the Biden administration and their European allies have been doing over the last couple of days and weeks. I don’t know because I’m not privy to these conversations, obviously, but the sort of speed at which diplomatic and security decisions have been taken across Europe that are quite different than ones that were in place even a week and a half ago and the speed with which a huge coalition of states signed up to co-sponsor first the UN Security Council resolution and then the UN General Assembly resolution tells us something about the intensity of this diplomatic effort and how vital it is, perhaps for wildly different motivations, I think, but for a majority of states to be seen to be aligning themselves with this effort.
Why did the UN separate political questions from humanitarian ones in the case of Ukraine? What might the UN do next to deter Russia from committing more violence in Ukraine?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:16] So I misspoke earlier, I said that Serbia abstained from the resolution. In fact, it voted for the resolution, and the Serbian representative to the United Nations ahead of the vote itself gave his explanation of vote, restated his country’s grievances with NATO, but nonetheless said that what Russia did crossed a red line and so voted in favor of this resolution, which is, I think, even more surprising. What comes next do you suppose at the United Nations in terms of kind of collective diplomatic action intended to either punish Russia or deter it from taking even more drastic steps in Ukraine?
Anjali Dayal [00:21:02] I think, honestly speaking, this is where the secretariat comes to the fore as they did with Syria. The Security Council separated out the political portfolio from humanitarian portfolio in Ukraine. And so, the efforts around humanitarian relief and refugee assistance and questions of displacement will proceed separately from political questions. And the hope is perhaps to make some political headway around those humanitarian questions, even when the political and military questions remain at an impasse. This is also, I think, where we will see, with the appointment of a special representative, with the work of UN agencies, at this point, the key effort becomes to offset the crisis, the humanitarian crisis, that this invasion will provoke. So, at this point, the primary responsibility of the secretariat will be to help people who are fleeing from this violence and to help bring aid to people who are caught in it. In terms of member state efforts, it’s going to prove to be very difficult to get any action on the Security Council vis-a-vis this question, primarily because there is no way around that Russian veto. The uniting for peace resolution is possible because a permanent member can’t veto a procedural question, which is how the uniting for peace resolution ends up with the UN General Assembly. But that Russian veto is always going to be there on other political questions and on other questions of condemning Russian action.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:55] Well, what about other venues of the United Nations, like the UN Human Rights Council? I mean, you saw this dramatic walkout in Geneva of diplomats when Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, spoke. But Russia happens to be a member of the Human Rights Council right now. We’ve seen instances in the past and I’m thinking of Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011, in which member states voted to boot a member from the Human Rights Council. I mean, could we see those kind of lower tier UN venues being used as further opportunities to isolate or punish Russia?
Anjali Dayal [00:23:35] I think that’s definitely a possibility. As we saw today Russia does not have that many friends at the UN at the moment. And so being booted from the UN Human Rights Council, that’s actually a fairly costless thing for other states to vote to do. So, in that sense, you know, it is definitely a possibility. I think also when we think about what the next steps for the UN are, one of the key things the UN can do at this point is start trying to collect and produce information about things like human rights violations, about things like casualties and these other organizations will be key venues for that.
Is it possible for Russia to be ousted from its UN permanent member status as proposed by Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:20] Lastly, I wanted to get your take on this idea, suggested not so subtly by Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations that Russia’s seat at the UN is in fact illegitimate for some reason dating back to the early 1990s and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Can you maybe just like briefly explain the premise of that argument, which to me seems far-fetched and not likely to happen? But I’d love to hear you kind of flesh it out because it has been getting some attention.
Anjali Dayal [00:25:00] Yeah, I saw a New Yorker writer tweet it out earlier today, for instance. I mean, I think it is getting legs in popular debates in a way that sort of belies how unlikely and obscure the idea actually is and to put it in plain language terms essentially, Ukraine is arguing that because Russian membership was never formally voted on, Russia has no legitimate legal right to occupy the permanent seat at the UN Security Council. Now this is an idea that’s been floating around for a while in Ukrainian international law circles. But, as you said, this is not really a real proposition, in part because if we leave everything else aside there is no interest in the larger international community in interrogating and questioning whether or not Russia should uphold the legal obligations that the Soviet Union undertook. This is particularly the case when we think about nuclear issues. There is no world in which other states want to meaningfully open up the question of whether or not Russia is obligated to uphold its obligations under the many, many weapons of mass destruction treaties the Soviet Union was party to. So practically, this is not really something other member states want to open up. Legally, it seems to be a dubious argument, as well. As an end run around the problem of the Russian veto, we can see why it would have real appeal to people who are desperate for some recourse that isn’t going to be immediately stymied by Russia with its permanent membership and its veto power.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:00] Well, Anjali thank you so much for your time. Maybe before I let you go, what else will you be looking towards at the United Nations? I mean, personally, I’m going to be, as you mentioned earlier, keenly focused on how UN agencies like the UN refugee agency UNICEF, the World Food Program, the UN Humanitarian Coordination Center, is responding to this crisis and whether or not these agencies will receive the funding they need to mount a robust response to this crisis. What else will you be looking towards at the United Nations?
Anjali Dayal [00:27:36] I think one thing that’s really been dramatic, I think for a lot of people across a lot of different venues is the absolutely stunning diplomatic job Ukraine has done in the first week of this invasion. Their political messaging, their ability to reach audiences, and their ability to sort of build coalitions around this issue has been astonishing to watch, I think. And that’s something we’ll be looking for, to watch how they proceed along these diplomatic lines at the UN and to see what other avenues open up as a result. I’m also interested in watching how these smaller states try and reaffirm multilateral structures in the face of what is likely to be a long and horrifying conflict. And in that sense, you know, for them, this question of multilateralism and of sovereign nonintervention, is life or death. And so, I do expect to see this thing come up again, and I’ll be looking for sort of how it takes hold and what kinds of diplomatic projects open because of it.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:46] Well, Anjali, thank you so much for your time.
Anjali Dayal [00:28:49] Thank you for having me.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:52] All right, thank you all for listening. Thank you, as always to Anjali Dayal. She is out with a new book about the United Nations and peacekeeping, which I will link to in the show notes of this episode. And just one disclaimer that the opinions and views expressed in this episode belong solely to those of us who expressed these opinions and views. All right, we’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!