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Ukraine Crisis and US–Russia Face-off at UN Security Council

Rajeesh Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 08, 2022

    On 31 January 2022, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) witnessed a fiery session that echoed the Cold War era. The two permanent members of the Security Council, the United States (US) and Russia engaged in a bitter diplomatic brawl over the Ukraine crisis. The US accused Russia of threatening peace and subverting global security by amassing more than 1,00,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders. Calling it baseless and US fearmongering, Russia dismissed the allegations.

    Meanwhile, on 1 February, Russia assumed the rotating presidency of the Security Council. The Council is due to discuss Ukraine on 17 February. However, due to the deep divisions between the two veto-wielding members, any promising outcome in the meeting is unlikely. Further, these dynamics would make it difficult for Moscow and Washington to compromise on other issues that need immediate attention. The UNSC is already paralysed by the anti-multilateral policies of the member states and the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Security Council Session on Ukraine

    The 31 January UNSC meeting on Ukraine was convened at the request of the US. The US had called for an open session to discuss the “threat to international peace and security” posed by the Russian military build-up along Ukraine’s frontiers.1 The US representative to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, while requesting the meeting, argued that Russia’s move strikes at the heart of the UN Charter. It not only has grave implications for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, but also would be profoundly destabilising for Europe and the broader international community. She added that this is not a moment to wait-and-watch and that Security Council's full attention is needed on this issue.2

    Russia strongly opposed a UNSC discussion on the issue stating that “positioning troops within its territory is a domestic matter, not a threat to international peace and security”.3 Russia's First Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Dmitry Polyansky, said the US request is a “PR stunt” and shameful for the reputation of the UNSC.4 The Security Council then put the matter to a vote, in which 10 members supported convening the discussion.5 While Russia and China voted against it, India, Gabon and Kenya abstained.

    In the subsequent meeting held on 31 January, the US representative Thomas-Greenfield stated that Russia's actions against Ukraine threatened broader European security, and the Security Council has to prevent the conflict rather than address it after it occurs. Citing the examples of past Russian incursions into Crimea, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova, she said that the current crisis constitutes an escalation and shows a pattern of aggression.6 She stated that Russia has assembled a massive military force of more than 1,00,000 troops along Ukraine's border.

    The US representative also accused Russia of moving nearly 5,000 troops into the Belarus–Ukraine border. She said that there is evidence that Russia intends to expand this to more than 30,000 troops by early February. Further, she urged the Security Council members to assess Russia’s statements and actions and evaluate the risk of the current crisis and reiterated that “diplomacy will not succeed in an atmosphere of threat and military escalation”. The US delegate added that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the consequences will be horrific.7 Later, President Biden also repeated that in the event of an attack, “Russia will bear the responsibility and face swift and severe consequences.”8

    The Russian Permanent Representative Vassily Nebenzia responded that troops have been deployed within the Russian territory, and that it happened on various occasions in the past. Rejecting the US accusations, he asked the US to provide any proof other than the allegations that Russia would invade Ukraine. To establish that the US allegation is fabricated, he cited Washington's previous claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction at the UNSC. Nebenzia also questioned the figure of 1,00,000 troops, pointing out that Moscow has never confirmed that number and accused the West of “pumping Ukraine full of weapons”. He also accused the US of the 2014 change of government in Ukraine that had driven a pro-Moscow leadership from power and installed “nationalists, radicals, Russophobes and pure Nazis”.9

    The Russian representative further stated that the Security Council meeting is ironic “as the US holds the world record for troop deployments outside its borders, and its military adventures have killed hundreds of thousands around the globe”. He added that the Minsk Agreements and the UNSC resolution 2202 should be the basis for the resolution of the Ukrainian crisis. Nebenzia also stated that during its UNSC presidency, Russia plans to hold an annual Security Council discussion on implementing the Minsk agreements on 17 February, and the US can fully express its views.10

    India’s Position

    For India, the Ukraine crisis is a challenging foreign policy issue. Moscow and Washington are New Delhi's key strategic partners, and abandoning one is not sensible. Though ties between Washington and New Delhi have grown significantly in recent years, New Delhi still maintains a special and privileged friendship with Moscow. Therefore, at the UNSC, India's response to the Ukraine crisis was cautious and that explicitly demonstrated New Delhi's strategic autonomy.

    At the UNSC, India's response to the Ukraine crisis was two-fold. First, India abstained from a procedural vote on whether to discuss the situation in the Council. It was a continuation of India's neutral stance on the issue. For instance, in 2014, India abstained from a General Assembly resolution endorsed by Ukraine, the US and the EU, which sought to condemn Russia's annexation of Crimea.

    During the UNSC discussion, India's Permanent Representative T. S. Tirumurti stated that “India's interest is in finding a solution that can provide for immediate de-escalation of tensions taking into account the legitimate security interests of all countries”.11 The Indian statement also recognised the security concerns of all sides. Further, there was no mention in the entire statement about the Russian military build-up at the border, which the US and its allies saw as the trigger for the current predicament. Instead, India urged all parties to engage through diplomatic channels and fully implement the Minsk Package. The Indian statement also expressed concerns over more than 20,000 Indian nationals living in Ukraine and noted that New Delhi's utmost priority is their well-being.

    Summing Up

    On 1 February, Russia took over the Security Council's rotating presidency. Though the UNSC presidency is primarily an administrative role, the president has the authority to schedule meetings, especially emergency meetings. That means no escalation will result in an emergency session of the Security Council this month over Ukraine. Nonetheless, as the Security Council president, Russia has already scheduled a discussion on the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Moscow declared that Washington could fully express its views and concerns over Ukraine during the meeting. However, any promising outcome is unlikely since a simple statement needs consensus support of the 15 members of the Council, and Russia could veto any bid for a resolution.

    As stated earlier, the great power clash in the UNSC could also hinder any compromise over other issues that need immediate attention. For instance, in addition to the meeting on Ukraine, in February, UNSC is scheduled to hold several important discussions pertaining to international peace and security, including on Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan. The Council is also expected to renew the Non-Proliferation (1540 Committee) mandate and discuss the general issues relating to sanctions, particularly its humanitarian consequences. However, Russia believes that the 1540 Committee and its Group of Experts should have a limited role. Similarly, sanctions renewals became more contentious recently, and Russia often opposed draft resolutions. A consensus over these issues would be increasingly difficult in the present context.

    The deepening divide between the US and Russia would be a significant blow to the functioning of UNSC, which is already paralysed by the COVID-19 pandemic. With Cold War theatrics and veto politics threatening to make a comeback, the Ukraine crisis is unlikely to abate any time soon.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

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