How Putin Continues to Use The United Nations in His Favor

Aside from swift condemnations of the Russian Federation at the infancy of the Russia-Ukraine war, the United Nations (U.N.) has remained relatively wary of any further meaningful action against the invading nation.

Upon Russia's violent entry into Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the U.N. called it "a violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine" that is contrary to the charter's principles. Days later, on March 2, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution on the backs of 141 member votes deploring Russian "aggression" against Ukraine.

On March 4, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling for the "swift and verifiable" withdrawal of Russian troops and Russian-backed armed groups from all of Ukraine. Other calls for war crimes and other egregious abuses were also put forward by members.

In recent weeks, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres of Portugal issued starker verbal warnings to Russia, calling for an immediate end to violence and an open door for diplomacy.

United Nations Putin Zelensky Russia Ukraine War
The 69th United Nations General Assembly opens on September 24, 2014, in New York City. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right). Russia's U.N. membership has been discussed by multiple countries recently, though it is not expected the nation will be removed for invading Ukraine. Andrew Burton/Getty Images; Stanislav Ivanov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images; MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

"We don't have a moment to lose," Guterres said. "The brutal effects of the conflict are plain to see. But as bad as the situation is for the people in Ukraine right now, it threatens to get much, much worse. The ticking clock is a time bomb."

Under-Secretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo, while in New York on January 13 for a Security Council meeting, called Russia's invasion "a violation of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law."

Today, United States Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told Bloomberg that the Biden administration is working to isolate President Vladimir Putin's government at the global body—an acknowledged challenge due to Russia holding a veto-wielding seat on the Security Council.

In December, Foreign Policy reported that U.S. Representatives Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson said that Russia committed "flagrant violations" of the U.N. Charter that require the nation's removal from the Security Council—including the illegal annexation vote in four Ukrainian oblasts, the perpetration of atrocities in Ukrainian cities such as Bucha, nuclear saber-rattling, and creating risks to the world's food supply.

The resolution called on Congress to find "that the Russian Federation has repeatedly, deliberately, and flagrantly violated the purposes and principles of the United Nations."

Following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's December trip to the U.S. that included requests for additional aid, Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the Associated Press that his government was hoping to engage in a peace summit around the one-year anniversary of the war—with Guterres possibly acting as a mediator.

Russia could only be invited to such a summit if the country faced a war crimes tribunal first, Kuleba added.

Last month, Dmitry Polyanskiy, the first Russian deputy permanent representative to the U.N., chastised "western sponsors of Ukraine" and U.N. members pushing "anti-Russian" messages at least once per month.

China may be Russia's litmus test

Over 11 months into the continuing war, the Russian Federation remains viable and has a seat at the U.N. table.

Putin used the framework of the U.N. Charter as just cause for violence, essentially pointing to the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and self-defense in terms of threats against Russia.

Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter prohibits the threat or use of force, with the only two exemptions being self-defense and action permitted by the U.N. Security Council.

"Circumstances require us to take decisive and immediate action," Putin said in a speech at the onset of the invasion. "The people's republics of Donbas turned to Russia with a request for help."

He even cited Article 51 of Part 7 of the U.N. Charter as just cause, even though Russia invaded Ukraine and was not protecting itself by means of defense.

Article 51 cannot credibly apply to Russia's actions against Ukraine because Ukraine did not carry out an "armed attack," Mikhail Troitskiy, professor of practice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Newsweek.

"While there are many countries in the U.N., including those with peculiar worldviews and mindsets to put it mildly, I do not think more than 5 to 10 U.N. members would agree that Russia was under an armed attack when it invaded Ukraine," he said.

Troitskiy said that a "gray zone" exists between considering Article 51-based justifications as bogus, and voting to condemn Russia's invasion.

"Some countries may argue that Russia still was under some kind of threat from Ukraine in partnership with the West, or that it is good that the West and its 'proxy Ukraine' are being pounded by Moscow," he said. "Therefore, those countries would abstain or vote 'no' on resolutions to condemn Russia. That said, such abstention comes at a cost for those countries' relations with the United States, the European Union, and their allies."

Questions of outright kicking Russia out of the Security Council are cloudier, he said. While a path may theoretically exist via a General Assembly vote, some General Assembly members would likely be skeptical about kicking a non-Western country out of the Security Council upon insistence by the West.

Much of the developing world may join, Troitskiy said, potentially led by China. Some U.S. partners in Asia and Latin America also may not like that scenario.

There also remains precedent and drawing lines of kicking out permanent members or stripping certain nations of their veto rights too easily.

"While those other Security Council permanent members likely have no plans to start a war against another state, they may still consider using force at some point in the future and would not like to be subjected to the same kind of expulsion procedure," he said. "That said, the longer Russia's war against Ukraine drags on—especially if more atrocities are committed—the stronger the pressure will be on the U.N. to act on Russia's permanent Security Council membership.

"My litmus test in that regard would be the position of China. If it starts shifting, expect real trouble for Russia's prospect of remaining on the U.N. Security Council."

Newsweek reached out to the U.N. press office for comment.