Firm, Unified Response Needed to Russia’s Aggression

A woman stands in an abandoned school, damaged after a shell strike, in Krasnohorivka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine. The world is facing “a moment of peril,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres told a General Assembly session, 23 February, dedicated to the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine.
Credit: UNICEF/Ashley Gilbertson

By Andrew Firmin
LONDON, Feb 25 2022 – It is now clear diplomacy matters little to Vladimir Putin. Despite the efforts of a string of presidents and prime ministers to prevent conflict, on 24 February, Putin started the war he’d been itching for.

What now seems evident is that Putin expects to maintain a Cold War-style sphere of influence around Russia’s borders. It isn’t only his treatment of Ukraine, seemingly punished for orienting a little more towards the west and entertaining a vague idea of joining NATO, that shows this.

Putin intervened decisively to prop up a fraudulently elected dictator in Belarus; in return, Belarus became Russia’s client state, the launching point for forces now heading towards Kyiv.

In January Russian troops were despatched to suppress a protest movement for political and economic change in Kazakhstan. It’s now established that demands for democracy or even displays of autonomy will not be allowed in what Putin sees as Russia’s buffer zone, and force will be used if required.

Power without accountability

The invasion began with Putin’s recognition of two areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been Russian-controlled and Russian-aligned since the 2014 conflict. Russian troops were despatched to those regions shortly after, even though they remain part of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.

That was the prelude to the bigger invasion now under way.

This decisive move was preceded by a bizarre televised ceremony of statesmanship in which one by one members of Putin’s security council lined up to give an opinion that coincided with his, in scenes reminiscent of a Soviet-era show trial.

The staged discussion began with the delivery of an angry speech from Putin, not for the first time, in which he denied Ukraine’s right to an existence separate from Russia.

This is what untrammelled, unaccountable power looks like, and this is where it leads: to the making of erratic, emotional and possibly catastrophic decisions. Putin has eliminated all real political opposition. He’s changed the rules to stay in power as long as he likes, won elections that weren’t remotely free or fair and jailed opponents – or even ordered them killed.

He’s crushed independent civil society and media, ordering organisations to close, smearing them as foreign agents and making virtually all forms of protest illegal. Even solo protests by brave Russian citizens against the law have been brought to a quick end.

The disastrous results offer a powerful reminder of the value of democracy, accountability and independent scrutiny of power. The cost of Putin’s unchecked, unpredictable rule is clear: this conflict will bring death and human rights violations on a large scale.

At a time when the world should be fighting climate change, conflict zones will see further environmental devastation. Unimaginable resources will be spent not on addressing climate change, developing essential infrastructure or improving the lives of local communities but on destruction and immiseration.

This has costs for Russia too. Putin’s aggression will cause his country immense diplomatic and economic harm. Having extracted some potential concessions, he’s thrown them away. The conflict has potential to become an extended one.

Although Russia has far superior forces, it could still incur heavy losses. Conflict could even revivify NATO and encourage more countries to join – the opposite of what Putin might have been trying to achieve.

Conflict in short, is bad not just for Ukraine but also for Russia. But there’s no one left who can tell Putin that. This is terrible news for Russians, and it’s increasingly endangering the world.

Need for an international response

A response of international censure must follow, and it must be a unified response. As Russia’s neighbours, the 27 states of the European Union (EU) and other European states such as the UK must hold a strong common line. States that have previously kept on friendly terms with Putin, such as Germany and Hungary, should get on board.

This means the cessation of trade that benefits Putin’s military machinery and his inner circle. As part of this, Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, must stay offline whatever the short-term pain for Europe’s gas supplies; Germany acted commendably fast on this and now must stick to its position.

The UK, long a safe haven for the fortunes of Russian oligarchs and Putin allies, must finally get tough on Russian money laundered in London. Not nearly enough has been done here so far.

Putin moved to buffer himself from sanctions by reaching new trade and energy deals with China on the eve of the Winter Olympics, but these would not be sufficient to mitigate economic pressure exerted by unified action by democratic states.

EU countries also have a responsibility to accept and respect the rights of refugees who may be driven from Ukraine by conflict. They must respond with empathy and compassion – something they have rarely shown so far.

At the global level, it must be recognised that Russia’s invasion is a clear violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty – ironically from a state that is quick to rebuff any international questioning of its appalling human rights record as intrusive foreign interference in its sovereign affairs.

Since China’s international representatives always push a public position of respect for sovereignty and non-interference, it should face sustained diplomatic pressure to distance itself from its ally.

Given the disparity between the military strength of the two countries and Russia’s evident determination to go to war, it should be clear that this is a war of aggression – a conflict without the justification of self-defence – which is one of the most serious crimes in international human rights law.

No one is buying Putin’s lame attempts to somehow position Ukraine, a country that has repeatedly made clear it does not want war, as the aggressor.

This act threatens to undermine the international order – and it is coming not just from a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, but one that signalled its contempt by launching its invasion even as the Security Council was meeting.

There are signs that Russia is already losing friends at the UN. Current Security Council member Kenya, which previously abstained on a vote on Ukraine, spoke out powerfully against Russia’s latest imperial action.

Russia’s status as a Security Council permanent member means the body can do nothing. This sorry state of affairs only strengthens civil society’s longstanding calls for Security Council reform.

But at the very least more states – and more global south states – should follow Kenya’s lead and condemn Russia’s aggression, on the basis that Putin’s trampling of international norms endangers us all. There should be no path back to respectability for Putin.

Vital role of civil society

In the context of conflict, there’s a need to monitor and collect evidence of human rights violations – with the aim of one day holding the perpetrators and commissioners of crimes to account in the international justice system.

Civil society can play a vital part here – not only in defending human rights and monitoring violations, but also in building peace at the local level and providing essential humanitarian help to people left bereft by conflict.

As Russia’s propaganda machine goes into full effect there’s a need to build links of mutual understanding and dialogue between Russian and Ukrainian citizens. To do this, alongside their other efforts, democratic states should invest in local civil society, which in these bleak times is needed more than ever.


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The writer is Editor-in-Chief, CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance of over 12,000 members in 175 countries.

World’s Custodian of Peace Remains Glaringly Irrelevant

Russian military operations inside the sovereign territory of Ukraine “on a scale that Europe has not seen in decades, conflict directly with the United Nations Charter,” Secretary General Antonio Guterres told journalists February 24. Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 25 2022 – As a new political twist to an old saying goes: the dogs bark but the military caravan moves on.

Despite ominous warnings from an overwhelming majority of member states both in the General Assembly and the Security Council— against a military attack on Ukraine —Russian President Vladimir Putin stood defiant when he ordered a full-scale invasion of a sovereign territory.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in a hard-hitting statement, said the invasion was a violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine– and inconsistent with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

But a lingering question remained: has the 15-member UN Security Council (UNSC), which is mandated with the task of maintaining international peace and security, outlived its usefulness.

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir, a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University (NYU), told IPS there is no more glaring example of how irrelevant the United Nations Security Council, which is the custodian of global peace and security, has become, than the debate at the UNSC.

Despite overwhelming opposition from both the Security Council member states and the General Assembly, he pointed out, Putin went ahead with his planned invasion of the Ukraine, knowing full well that he is grossly violating the UN Charter.

“What has transpired was a clear reflection of how the Security Council has outlived its usefulness, and demonstrated the dire need to reform it to meet the changing global order,” he added.

While the UN General Assembly has the ability to pass resolutions criticizing individual member states, he argued, it has no power to enforce any measure.

“The UNSC does have the power to take action, but it is limited to establishing peacekeeping missions. More often than not, the five permanent UNSC members with veto power almost always exercise that power to defend their interests, regardless of how the issue being debated impacts world peace and security”.

Thus, it is a given, he said, that the Russian ambassador will veto any of security resolutions to which the Kremlin objects. There is really no other recourse that the UN can take to correct what is fundamentally flawed in its current structure.

“The time is overdue to reform the UN so that the Security Council reflects the changing geostrategic reality and its impact on the global order to ensure that the UNSC lives up to its founding premise to ensure peace and security,” he declared.

Ian Williams, President of the Foreign Press Association in New York, told IPS: “If Moscow wants to play by the rules, according to the Charter, Russia is not on the Security Council and does not have a permanent seat.”

The Soviet Union is in the Charter and Russia usurped the seat with no resolution at the General Assembly or on the Council. Russia never applied or was formally accepted into membership, he pointed out.

Maybe the Secretary General and the President of the General Assembly, along with other members, could simply deny them.

“Unless such decisive action is taken it’s difficult to see the organization surviving this League of Nations moment. Others have stretched the Charter – but Putin has taken it past breaking point, said Williams, a former President of the UN Correspondents’ Association (UNCA) and author of UNtold: The Real Story of the United Nations in Peace and War.

Thomas G. Weiss, Distinguished Fellow, Global Governance, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Presidential Professor of Political Science, told IPS this is precisely what the Security Council voted to halt when Iraq invaded Kuwait (in August 1990).

“Even if one mouths the fiction that Ukraine was created by the Bolsheviks, Ukraine is more of a “state” than Israel or all countries “created” after decolonization. The UN is as central or peripheral as it always has been”.

The veto was agreed so that action versus one of the P5 was unthinkable. The only remaining option is the General Assembly which would at least force China to take a public stand as to whether state sovereignty matters, said Dr Weiss, Director Emeritus, Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, The CUNY Graduate Center.

Samir Sanbar, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General who headed the Department of Public Information, told IPS the U.N. could prove its useful role by taking initiatives —perhaps through back channels and the “good offices of the Secretary General ‘ to offer practical proposal to diffuse escalating tension.

He pointed out the role “discreetly played” by the first Asian secretary General, U Thant, to diffuse the escalating Cuban Missile crisis and Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold’s efforts to avert a big power confrontation over an American pilot held by China and also over the conflict in the Congo.

Also, a group of third world member states could move to make potential proposals, said Sanbar, who served under five different Secretaries-Generals during his tenure in office.

Asked about the irrelevance of the UNSC, Martin Edwards, Professor and Chair, School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, told IPS: “This is an old claim. I remember all the handwringing after the Iraq war. The Security Council didn’t go away then, and it’s not going away now”.

Even though Putin launched this savagery during the meeting of the Council Wednesday, ”we need to remember that permanent members are not constrained by the Council. The veto ensures this.”

But that having been said, the Council still has value for efficient coalition building. While Russia can’t be meaningfully censured by the Security Council, the speeches from two nights ago make clear that Russia is isolated, thus making it easier for Ukraine’s allies to cooperate by imposing harsh sanctions, he noted.

“And Russia is not getting expelled because no proposal to expel Russia will make it through the Security Council to go to the General Assembly”.

So, the fact that diplomacy is going to shift away from the UN is not necessarily surprising. The US and Europe have a better sense of who stands with them and who supports Russia, and they can work with these allies to impose harsh sanctions quickly, declared Edwards.


Asked if there is a precedented for a member state, in violation of the UN charter, being suspended or ousted from the UN, Dr Ben-Meir said although the UN Charter includes a provision for suspending any country that violates the charter, no country had ever been suspended or ejected, regardless of how egregious its violation of the charter might have been.

And while many UNSC resolutions have condemned specific countries, such as Israel for violating the Palestinians’ human rights, or threatened to take punitive action against a state, they have largely been rebuffed, as the UNSC fundamentally lacks an enforcement mechanism.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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