/ 28 March 2022

Three reasons the United Nations cannot intervene in Russia’s war on Ukraine

Ukrainian Refugees Hosted At The Moldexpo
A Ukrainian girl is seeng sleeping in the arms of a UNHCR team member, inside the MoldEXPO, area reconverted in shelter for refugees in Chisinau, Moldova on 2022-03-26 (Matteo Placucci/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

With the crisis in Ukraine drawing past one month since the Russian invasion, a humanitarian, political, diplomatic, and environmental crisis continues to get worse. Here are three reasons the United Nations cannot intervene in Ukraine.  

The veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council makes any intervention by the UN in the Ukrainian crisis impossible. The permanent members of the Security Council are the United States, France, United Kingdom, China, and Russia. If just one of the permanent members of the Security Council vetoes a UN resolution, this makes it impossible for the Security Council to invoke Chapter 7 of its Charter to deal with a threat to international peace. 

In the context of the Ukraine crisis, Russia will veto any measure that attempts to censure it or act against it at the Security Council. The only option for the rest of the members of the UN that make up the General Assembly is to effect non-binding resolutions that have more symbolic than substantive value.  

Second, the UN is ignored by major powers that have the most influence in it. This is especially true when using the mechanism of the UN to resolve conflict will become an inconvenience, a hindrance or an irritant to the wider interests of major global players. 

But, when it is in their interests to use the infrastructure of the UN to advance their interests, major powers will gladly use the UN mechanism. In the context of Ukraine, Russia ignored the UN and its conflict mediation mechanisms in pursuing its interests in Ukraine. Russia invaded Ukraine ignoring UN and international norms of respect for the sovereignty of nations and a rules based international order in the conduct of international affairs.

Russia is not alone in contemptuously ignoring the UN in pursuit of its international interests. The US and its allies in Nato violated similar established norms of international affairs in their intervention in Kosovo and Libya, only reverting to the UN to broker peace settlements once their strategic interests were achieved in Kosovo and Libya. With disregard from the most powerful members that make up the United Nations, any action by the UN in Ukraine remains untenable.  

Third, the UN secretary general remains a bureaucrat who serves at the pleasure of major powers on the Security Council. In the context of Ukraine, the secretary general finds himself in between a rock and a hard place. He must walk a thin line of not appearing to favour one side or the other on the Ukrainian conflict. 

This is because the effectiveness of the UN is entirely down to the cooperation of its members and their respect for the core values, norms, and international rules-based order advanced through the UN Charter. More importantly, the secretary general cannot appear to be antagonising the permanent members of the Security Council as they hold large diplomatic, political, and financial leverage over the United Nations. Ukraine reflects the crisis of multilateral diplomacy which weakens the ability of the secretary general to intervene.  

With major powers hopelessly deadlocked in the UN over the crisis in Ukraine, there is space for regional multilateral organisations like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSEC), the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Nato and Brics to immerse themselves in the mediation space to resolve the crisis. 

In addition to this, neutral players that are removed from the conflict and not seen as favouring one side or the other, can lead mediation efforts to resolve the crisis. In this regard, quasi state actors like the Holy See (Vatican) can come into play. The moral authority of the Pope and his stock of diplomatic capital can become a valuable tool in mediating to solve the Ukrainian crisis. 

In addition to this, nations not party to the conflict and that have historically led conflict mediation efforts like Switzerland, South Africa, or Qatar, can take centre stage in conflict mediation in Ukraine. While the UN cannot intervene in Ukraine, alternative players should lead a diplomatic flurry to detente.