On Ukraine, the U.N. is MIA | Opinion

Russian President Vladimir Putin could invade Ukraine any day now, U.S. national security officials have told reporters. Or Putin could patiently wait until all of his diplomatic options have expired before settling on the military route. He could wait for the Olympics Games in China to wrap up, or for the ground to become just a little bit harder for his tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. The Biden administration has been careful to avoid making exact predictions in public, lest those predictions turn out not to be true.

Nonetheless, President Joe Biden and his team are preparing for a Russian invasion in the very near future. How else to explain the State Department's decision to temporarily move the U.S. embassy in Kyiv to Lviv, over 330 miles to the west? Now at 150,000 troops, Moscow's military presence continues to grow on three different sides of the Ukrainian border. On Feb. 14, a U.S. official told CBS News that Russian units have moved into "attack positions." Russian claims of de-escalation to the contrary, the U.S. is still working on the assumption that Moscow has amassed the combat power required to militarily with little to no warning.

Ultimately, nobody knows what Vladimir Putin will do other than Vladimir Putin—and Putin himself may still be debating his options. But however the Ukraine saga unfolds, you can bet that the United Nations will be a largely irrelevant bystander.

The U.N. is traditionally thought of as an iconic, historical building near New York City's East River, the place where U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson dressed down Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin during the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis. At its creation, the U.N. was seen as a global platform where grievances could be aired, problems could be resolved peacefully and war would be averted. As the U.N. Charter makes plain, the organization was designed "to maintain international peace and security" and suppress aggression on behalf of justice and mankind.

If this sounds flowery and downright utopian, that's because it is. International politics isn't all puppies, sunshine and roses. States, much like the individual, are intensely self-interested actors, constantly in search of improving one's position. While Thomas Hobbes's infamous exhortation of man's life as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" may be a bit much for the average person, political theorist Hans Morgenthau's contention that state behavior is motivated by national interest rather than morality, liberty and do-goodery is very much applicable to the present situation in Eastern Europe. This is precisely why the U.N., founded to instill a set of common ideals and universal values onto the world, is so often ineffectual.

The United Nations logo
The United Nations logo is seen inside the United Nations. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

As a community of individual states, the U.N. is only as effective as the ability of those states to cooperate in pursuit of a common objective. This is especially the case on the Security Council, the U.N.'s top decision-making body, which consists of five permanent members (the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China) and a rotating cast of 10 others elected on a temporary basis. Sometimes, cooperation does happen, as it did this summer when the Security Council passed a resolution extending a U.N. humanitarian crossing point into northwest Syria. It happened again last December, when the Security Council carved out a humanitarian exemption into its previous sanctions on the Taliban to ensure human rights organizations would be comfortable enough to send relief to a desperate Afghan population.

But very often, the bonhomie and good faith simply dies on the table due to competing interests. Russia, for example, has issued countless vetoes to kill U.S. and Western-drafted resolutions against the Syrian government, which Moscow supports militarily to this day. China has often used its perch as a veto-wielding member to slow-roll or block additional sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, as it did last month. There are just some issues where the so-called big powers won't agree.

Ukraine is undoubtedly one of them. The U.S. and its other partners on the Security Council may consider Russia the aggressor, but Moscow's veto holds any deliberations on the subject hostage. Resolutions of substance, and perhaps no resolutions in general, fritter away the moment it hits the long, U-shaped table for discussion. While Washington can force a debate on Ukraine as it did on Jan. 31, there is nothing U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield can do other than reprimand Russia publicly for its escalatory behavior. The U.S. and its partners could theoretically kick the issue to the General Assembly, where Russia doesn't have veto power. But the General Assembly is a ceremonial debating society that can only make recommendations and establish fact-finding investigations. There is nothing in Russia's dispensation that suggests bad press would have much credence in the minds of policymakers in the Kremlin.

U.S. options at the U.N., therefore, are extremely limited. The fundamental positions of the U.S. and Russia are too wide to even begin the process of building a bridge.

As news of a possible imminent invasion of Ukraine spreads, U.S. and European officials, from French President Emmanuel Macron to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, are trying to work their magic in order to stop it. We should all hope they succeed. The U.N., a supposed bastion of diplomatic talent, will meanwhile be sitting still, not having much of an effect one way or another thanks to the web of clashing interests that hovers over its building.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.