Preventing War in Ukraine: What Role for the United Nations?

Ukraine and Russia appear to be on the brink of war. After weeks of mass protests led to the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych and the elected Ukrainian government, Russia deployed troops to the Crimean Peninsula who have been joined by patrols of unidentified armed men. In response, the new Ukrainian government remains poised to respond militarily.

Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is quoted as saying the Russia invasion is a “declaration of war to my country.” He furthermore demandedreservists report for military duty.

On the centennial of WWI, the risk of a war in Europe must be taken seriously. Given the multilateral institutions and safeguards now in place, how can the international community respond to prevent further escalation and what can we expect from the UN?

As a starting point, the UN Secretary General should use his good offices to initiate negotiations to try to avoid war. This could involve a direct role or working through a high level diplomat such as Kofi Annan. This process would need to engage the Russians and the Ukrainians with the support from the G8 and the European Union. The role of Annan in helping to end the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008 is a useful example. The UN response should happen as soon as possible in order to ensure a timely de-escalation of the crisis.

War could erupt quickly given the contention surrounding proximity of the opposing troops on the streets of Crimea, the Kremlin’s opposition to the interim government in Kiev, and the historical tug-of-war between the two countries over the status of Crimea. The Secretary General should involve both leading the negotiations between the parties and liaising with the member states of the UN Security Council to maintain the political will for a peaceful resolution. Ban Ki-moon could travel to Russia, Ukraine, China, and elsewhere to meet with influential decision makers and demonstrate how seriously he takes this issue.

An international mediator will have the difficult joint-task of persuading Russia, one of the world’s most powerful states, to refrain from war and eventually begin a phased withdraw of its troops, while at the same time discouraging Ukraine from exercising its right to self-defense under international law.

The UN Charter allows armed self-defense against an aggressor, independent of how a government came to power. Article 51 of the UN Charter declares that “[n]othing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”

So far, Ukraine has shown restraint in not exercising this legal right but this cannot be guaranteed to hold. If Russian forces begin attacking Ukrainian military bases on the Crimean Peninsula, Kiev may decide that the only option is to retaliate.

There are several important arguments and points of leverage a high level diplomat could use to achieve the two central goals aimed at avoiding war. First, in response to Russia’s stated concerns and justification for its actions, the international community could attempt to give assurances that ethnic Russians would be protected in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. This could be one argument used in the UN Security Council to argue for a UN Peacekeeping mission.

Many are rightly skeptical that the UN Security Council would pass any resolution regarding this crisis because of Russia’s permanent, veto wielding, status. Despite the low probability of passing a UN Security Council resolution, a draft resolution could be an additional way to pressure Russia and signal to the public the international community’s resolve.

A mediator could potentially draw on China and other major powers to persuade Russia to step back. China typically supports Russia, but in Security Council deliberations on 3 March, China reiterated its position that state sovereignty and non-intervention are important principles to uphold and that Ukrainian sovereignty should be respected. By sending troops into the Crimean Peninsula, Russia violated the non-intervention principle of Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter.

The issue of Crimean and Eastern Ukrainian autonomy may be a possible area of common ground and agreement. The current threats of economic sanctions, and diplomatic isolation, could be dropped if Russia agrees to withdraw. To diffuse the crisis and given the root causes of the conflict, the international community ultimately needs to enable a win-win scenario where Putin can appear victorious in Russia, without using force and bloodshed, and for a peaceful resolution to become the ultimate achievement.

In these moments of crisis, we should realize the full potential of multilateral leadership and innovative diplomacy in mediating an end to this volatile crisis. It is, after all, exactly these sorts of international crises for which the UN was created.

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