Antonio Guterres and Volodomyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

How the United Nations is Responding to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine | Richard Gowan

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has posed a major test for the United Nations.  And while some parts of the UN system have admirably risen to the occasion, the Security Council has not.

On the line with me to assess the UN’s response to Russia’s invasion is Richard Gowan, the UN Director for the International Crisis Group. We kick off discussing a recent diplomatic mission by UN Secretary General to both Moscow and Kyiv before having a longer conversation about how his major international crisis is impacting diplomacy at the UN. Towards the end of the conversation Richard Gowan discusses a recent paper he wrote outlining the opportunities that this crisis may present for reforms at the UN.

Ukraine War and UN Reform — International Crisis Group

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity 

What Did Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres Achieve During His Trip to Moscow?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:57] It was on April 26 that Guterres visited Moscow to the chagrin of many, it should be noted, not least of whom were the Ukrainians who did not like the optics of the secretary general meeting in Moscow before Kyiv but during his meeting with Putin, according to a UN statement, Guterres apparently secured an agreement, quote, in principle for the humanitarian evacuation of civilians stranded in that steel plant in Mariupol. Now, I don’t know about you, Richard, but I have to admit that at the time that quote in principle, part of the statement seemed to be doing a lot of work. And it seemed not likely to me, at least, that Putin would follow through a position informed — I should note that while Guterres was in Kyiv visiting with Zelensky and visiting that mass atrocities site in Bucha, the Russians launched their first missile attacks in Kyiv in weeks. Yet we are now speaking on Tuesday, May 10th and just a few days ago it was announced that all civilians, about 500 or so, have been evacuated from that steel plant in an operation overseen by the UN and the ICRC. So, what does that whole sort of episode tell you about the possibilities and maybe limitations of UN diplomacy right now?

Richard Gowan [00:04:19] Well, I think it was a significant win for the secretary general. Guterres had faced a lot of criticism for failing to go to Moscow before the war. He did seem very cautious about challenging Putin over what he was planning back in January and February. And then the first two months of the war. He spoke out against Russia’s actions, but he seemed diplomatically pretty marginal. And there was a rising tide of unease, I think, among UN officials that the organization and its top official were missing in action during a catastrophic war for the UN system. And so Guterres went really, I think, to deal with that internal criticism and we weren’t sure what he would be able to deliver. Now, there’s a lot of gossip about the trip, but what we are hearing that seems credible is that while Guterres actually had a very difficult conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov, which went on for hours, during which Lavrov offered very few concessions, Putin was quite pragmatic. And Putin did take this idea of the evacuation from Azovstal pretty seriously. Similarly, when Guterres got to Kyiv, there was a lot of concern that Zelensky, who has been very negative towards the UN for obvious reasons during the war, would not want to deal with him or accept any proposals that Russia had signed off on. But that wasn’t the case. Zelensky actually seized on this opportunity to get the civilians out of Azovstal in a very eager fashion. So, despite the incident with the missile, which UN officials are now very keen to play down, Guterres came away feeling that he’d been able to do some real business with both Putin and Zelensky, and events have shown that both sides were being sincere in offering to allow for this very specific civilian evacuation. And so suddenly Guterres looks a tiny bit more like a real diplomatic player of Ukraine than he did a month ago.

What can the UN do to reduce violence in Russia’s war on Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:55] So do you think there is opportunity or potential to seize upon that diplomatic win that resulted in the evacuation of 500 civilians from that besieged steel plant to using or enhancing the secretary general’s role as, quote, good offices in a more meaningful way, either through perhaps other evacuations or to play an increased diplomatic role more broadly between Kyiv and Moscow?

Richard Gowan [00:07:32] I think we have to be a little cautious. Last week, as it was clear that the evacuations were working, Norway and Mexico, who are both elected members of the Security Council, floated a council statement that was very brief but did encourage Guterress to continue his good offices regarding the conflict. Now, Norway had actually tabled a similar text for discussion in the first weeks of the war, but other council members had not been willing to support it. This time, all of the council was actually willing to agree to this text. But Russia said we don’t want a reference to good offices and so the compromise language was efforts. The Security Council welcomed the secretary general’s efforts over Ukraine. Now, to most outsiders, this little language point may seem obscure and unimportant, but it does matter because what the Russians were signaling was, yes, they are happy to have Guterres engaged; yes, they’re willing to talk to him, but they don’t want him to start thinking that he’s going to be the mediator in this war. They don’t want to imply that Guterres is sort of the primary peacemaker in the conflict. So, I think that what we take away from that is the Guterres has more openings to shuttle diplomacy. He has got a toehold in discussions with Moscow and with the Ukrainians, but he’s still not positioned to be the big peacemaker. It’s more likely he’ll be focusing as he was in the recent weeks on humanitarian diplomacy and efforts to protect civilians rather than sort of work out a long-term deal.

What did the recent UN Security Council statement on Russia say?

Richard Gowan [00:09:32] And it is significant that this UN Security Council statement was the first statement, active unanimity, by the Security Council since the conflict began, correct?

Richard Gowan [00:09:48] Yes. And although it’s very thin, it’s just a few lines long.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:52] Yeah, it’s like four sentences. I read it before we spoke and a lot of it is pre ambulatory.

Richard Gowan [00:09:59] Exactly. You could have read it while I was taking a breath, frankly. I mean, it doesn’t call out Russia for its aggression in contrast to previous.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:08] It doesn’t even say war.

Richard Gowan [00:10:11] It doesn’t even say war. But still, the fact it exists at all is pretty remarkable because tensions in the council have been running extraordinarily high. There’s a very, very toxic mood, especially between the Russians, the US, and the UK. And so, the fact that they could even agree on a slip of paper is encouraging for Guterress. And hopefully he will pick that up and indeed we’ve seen him pick it up because just now he’s been in Moldova talking about the need to support Moldova while there’s a war in neighboring Ukraine. You know, he does now seem to be trying to engage more around this conflict than was the case during the first couple of months.

Has the UN Security Council statement affected Guterres’ actions?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:59] Interesting. Not to get too deep in the weeds, but do you suspect that his trip to Moldova was only arranged after the passage of that UN Security Council statement endorsing his efforts?

Richard Gowan [00:11:17] It’s really unclear and actually we know that even much earlier in the conflict when it wasn’t clear that the Guterres would be welcomed by Putin or Zelensky, UN officials had been saying, well, maybe a visit to Moldova is an alternative option. So, we don’t really know if this was something that was on the cards for a while or whether it was a last-minute decision, but it definitely looks different now. I mean, there’s definitely a sense that Guterres is seized of the conflict, and he’s going to be continuing with this shuttle diplomacy around the region, although, you know, he’s also just been in Africa. He was in Nigeria so he’s also trying to show that he can keep track of other situations in other regions, too, even while doing more around Ukraine.

What does UN humanitarian aid look like on the ground in Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:10] And maybe also just worth noting that while Guterres was in Moldova, the Russians launched their first major barrage of missiles and artillery at Odessa, a port city not far from Moldova. Before we dive more deeply into Security Council dynamics, I just would love to have you sketch more broadly what other parts of the UN system, particularly the humanitarian actors, have been doing in and around Ukraine and the humanitarian response to the crisis in Ukraine thus far, like what we’re seeing today.

Richard Gowan [00:12:53] Well, I think it is worth emphasizing something which has got lost in a lot of coverage of UN diplomacy around the war, which is that despite the overarching paralysis of the Security Council, other parts of the UN are actually stepping up quite well in response to what is going on between Russia and Ukraine. We’ve seen that in the General Assembly, where you’ve had big majorities of countries voting to condemn the war. The Human Rights Council is holding another special session, I think, in Ukraine this week. It’s launched a commission of inquiry that should be able to gather some pretty compelling evidence about war crimes in Ukraine. The International Criminal Court, the ICC, is also investigating the situation. And we’re hearing that even some US senators who are normally extremely skeptical of the ICC because they worry that it would investigate the US or Israel are actually sort of telling the Biden administration to back up what the court is doing. You know, the humanitarians are there, too, and obviously they’re getting a lot of credit for the work with the ICRC in terms of getting civilians out of Mariupol. But, you know, organizations including the World Health Organization are on the ground trying to get convoys through to cities sort of under fire. There are over a thousand UN staff in Ukraine right now, I think, primarily working on the humanitarian response. So, this is, as you know, a failure for the UN system. It’s a failure for the UN Security Council. It’s been a huge test for the UN Secretary-General, but other parts of the system are operating as best they can against this very bleak backdrop.

Is the UN Security Council able to pass other resolutions not related to Ukraine despite the toxic diplomatic atmosphere?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:51] So the Security Council has obviously taken a very big and significant reputational hit. And earlier you said just how grim and toxic the atmosphere seems to be at the Security Council right now. Are there any anecdotes or things you can share that illustrate just how bad things have gotten at the Security Council?

Richard Gowan [00:15:18] Well, I mean diplomats say without exception, that the mood is foul and it’s worth noting that quite a lot of Western diplomats are now under instructions to only talk to the Russians when it’s absolutely necessary. So basic day to day interactions between Russia and other council members are impeded. I mean, I understand there’s only been, I think, one private discussion among the permanent members of the council at a very senior level, that is the ambassadorial level, since the war began, and that was on North Korea. Other than that, there’s been basically no top-level coordination among the P5. And yeah, I mean, all council members, including council members from regions that are not so directly affected by the war just say that they can see the mood turning sour. What’s striking is that this hasn’t actually completely disrupted the work of the Security Council. Now, despite this very high level of mutual animosity, the Western powers and Russia have been able to compromise, to pass resolutions, on a whole range of other issues unrelated to Ukraine, including Afghanistan, including Libya, including Somalia. So, the mood is bad, but there is still some sense that everyone wants to keep council diplomacy going on other files, which is not something that we thought was guaranteed when the war began. I mean, there was a scenario in which simply the mood would be so bad that it would be impossible to do any deals on any issues.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:15] That’s interesting to hear because that to me was always one of the key variables, whether the day-to-day work of the Security Council, which often has nothing to do with Ukraine or hot conflicts in Europe — you know, things like renewing mandates of peacekeeping missions in Africa — whether or not that kind of routine day to day work would be disrupted. And you’re telling me that so far it really hasn’t in a significant way?

Richard Gowan [00:17:39] No, not really. A lot of non-Western diplomats are saying that they feel that the agenda of the council has been hijacked and dominated by what’s going on in Ukraine. I mean, in essence, there’s at least one meeting on Ukraine every week. The US currently holds the rotating presidency of the council and is making sure that there’s at least one Ukraine event a week. There’s an event coming up on international food security and Ukraine. There’s a discussion of technology and conflict that the US is hosting that is bound to involve a lot of talk about Russian cyber-attacks. You know, Ukraine is sort of a constant drumbeat in council discussions, but there has been a conscious decision, I think, by the US and its allies to make sure that the UN machinery at least keeps turning over on other files. But, you know, the very bad mood doesn’t infect discussions of African affairs or other parts of the world too badly. It does pop up now and again — the Colombian president was here about a month ago, I think, and not in the Security Council, but outside the council, he made some condemnatory remarks about Russia’s war and in response, Russia blocked a Security Council statement welcoming progress in the Colombian peace process. So, it does flare up now and again, but it hasn’t totally overwhelmed the body.

Will Russia’s war on Ukraine impact the opening or closing of the Turkey-Syria border crossing for humanitarian aid?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:26] So it is around this time of year, for the last few years, that humanitarian agencies start to get exceedingly nervous that their last access point from Turkey to Syria will be closed. These are access points that were opened, created by an act of the Security Council. What was it like almost in 2015? It was a while ago, but in subsequent years the Russians have sought to limit humanitarian access through these border points and have limited the number of border crossings that they will allow. And the mandate for these resolutions essentially kind of expire one year from the time it was passed last and if I’m recalling correctly that usually happens around June. I have to imagine, and correct me if I’m wrong, that perhaps fallout from the heightened tensions at the Security Council might mean that this last border crossing for humanitarian access from Turkey to Syria might indeed forever be closed. What’s your thinking on that kind of precarious situation?

Richard Gowan [00:20:42] Yes and that is a very concrete risk and it’s a very concrete risk that a lot of diplomats in New York are very, very aware of. I mean, as I said, it’s been possible for council members to compromise on other files like Afghanistan and Libya, but the reality is that the mandate for this cross-border aid into Syria that you’re describing was especially last year, basically negotiated bilaterally between the US and the Russians and then the council took what the two powers decided and put it into a resolution. Now, as far as we understand it, that US Russia channel over Syria is now closed and I don’t think Russia will necessarily just veto this crossing, but I think the Russians will demand a lot of concessions from the US for keeping the mandate alive. You know, they probably sort of insist that more UN aid is channeled through Syrian government mechanisms, for example. And I think it would be awfully difficult for the US to make major concessions of that type and so that may well lead to a veto of this mandate, which will lead to a lot of suffering for the Syrian civilians trapped in the Idlib pocket.

Will the UN charter be rewritten, as demanded by some Ukrainian forces?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:09] And I should note that I have done episodes on that very specific issue of this podcast over the years, and I’ll refer people to, and I’ll post links to it in the show notes of this episode. You’re describing just a very tense and precarious and really toxic atmosphere at the Security Council. Obviously, this comes in the wake of a major geopolitical earthquake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Now, in the past, in times of like huge international earthquakes, tectonic shifts in how countries relate to each other and power shifts in international affairs, we’ve seen big reforms of global governance and of the international system. And you have this fascinating piece on the website of the International Crisis Group in which you have a premise that I completely agree with, that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not a, quote, San Francisco moment, referring to the diplomacy that led to the advent of the United Nations. Still, there are interesting and unique opportunities that this crisis brings for important reforms to the UN system, nonetheless. Can you maybe describe your thinking in reaching that specific conclusion? And then we’ll go through some of the possibilities for reform that you outlined in that piece on the Crisis Group’s website.

Richard Gowan [00:23:35] Well, look, in this piece, which was originally a lecture actually for the Geneva Center for Security Policy, I was trying to confront a lot of talk that we’ve been hearing in the UN bubble but also beyond that, this crisis shows that we have to fundamentally rewrite the UN Charter and fundamentally rewrite the rules of global governance. The Ukrainians themselves have been pushing that narrative. Ukraine has been arguing that Russia should be expelled, at least from the Security Council or perhaps from the UN altogether. We’ve heard a lot of people come forward with good ideas for reforming the global system at this moment and the reality is that I just don’t think this is likely to work out. There are a number of reasons for that. The simplest reason is that Article 108 of the UN Charter says that you can’t rewrite the charter without all of the permanent members agreeing. So, Russia and China can block any changes they don’t like. Beyond that, I don’t actually think that we have seen a total collapse of the UN system for the reasons that we were just describing. Maybe the Security Council is not totally defunct. Other parts of the UN system, like the General Assembly, are actually quite active in response to the war over Ukraine. So, I just don’t feel this is a moment where diplomatically or politically really massive UN reform is likely to arise although the council’s failure over Ukraine sits there alongside its failure over Rwanda as a condemnation of the institution in many ways. I mean, what I think we’re headed into is a period similar to the period after the Iraq war in 2003, where for two years there was a lot of excited talk about Security Council reform in the UN and in think tanks all around the world and then there were some improvements to the UN at that moment, like the foundation of the Human Rights Council. But the sort of fundamental goal of Security Council reform proved entirely impossible, and the Security Council remained just as it was before the invasion of Iraq. And I think we’re going to have a similar period of talk now with the Security Council will once again prove quite resilient to change.

What is shock proofing the international economy and how might it improve the work of the UN?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:25] So in that context, there are some perhaps opportunities for, I don’t know if you would call it incremental reform, or other perhaps additive ways that the international system with the UN at its center can be nudged in a direction to deal with some common international challenges. And the first possibility for reform you cite is shock proofing the international economy. What do you mean by that? And what opportunities might exist?

Richard Gowan [00:27:03] Well, this is one of the sort of curious things about the Ukrainian war, which is obviously it comes hot on the heels of COVID 19. And last year, Guterres put out a report called Our Common Agenda in which in essence, he tried to lay out a big picture vision of the future of multilateralism and he tried to learn lessons from COVID. And his primary lesson from COVID was, here was a crisis that strained supply chains and led to fears of major food shortages in addition to all its medical effects and there wasn’t any sort of central international directorate that could deal with those global consequences of a disease outbreak. Now, fast forward to Ukraine and actually the Ukrainian war is having some surprisingly analogous effects on the international economy. We’re facing big food price spikes. We’re facing disorder in the energy markets. And overall, the economy is going to take a huge hit just as it did over COVID. And I think Guterres is starting to see that maybe you can join all the dots and maybe set up some sort of new coordination mechanisms, not as alternatives to the Security Council, but in parallel to the Security Council, which would be mechanisms that would bring together key governments, the international financial institutions, aid agencies like the World Food Program,  to manage these shocks, and especially to help protect poorer countries from the consequences of these huge shocks to an interconnected global economy.

How can the UN tackle mis and disinformation in the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:29:05] And another opportunity you said is tackling misinformation and disinformation. How is this an opportune moment for international cohesion on that?

Richard Gowan [00:29:20] Well, again, there’s a funny parallel between COVID and Ukraine. I mean, as you know, there was a huge amount of misinformation around COVID; there still is a huge amount of misinformation around COVID. And the UN set up a number of online projects to try and counter that misinformation that are generally thought to have worked quite well, at least where people listen to the UN. The UN has been working on cooperation with tech companies and so forth to fight misinformation about the pandemic and I think there is some interest in the UN now about whether it’s possible to transfer some of those lessons to the flood of misinformation that is pouring out through social media about what’s going on in Ukraine. Now, this doesn’t mean that you set up some sort of UN ministry for truth, but it could be that the UN can work more with Facebook, more with Twitter and other similar platforms just to try and moderate content to try and identify hate speech and conspiratorial speech. And, you know, the UN, which still has a global reputation for impartiality, could have some comparative advantage in identifying what is true and what is not in a very, very murky international media environment.

How could the UN improve arms control?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:30:42] The third opportunity, which I was surprised to see included in your list, because I’ve been at this for a long time, and it’s been hard for me to see much progress on arms control, but you mentioned arms control and confidence building after Ukraine. What opportunities right now do you see for cohesion on arms control?

Richard Gowan [00:31:04] I don’t see very many opportunities for cohesion on arms control, but I see a need for the UN and specifically the UN secretary general to at least start opening up some conversations about the really awful state of international arms control and the lack of security transparency mechanisms worldwide that have become very obvious around the Ukrainian situation. I mean, the reality is that a lot of the international arms control mechanisms that were set up in the late Cold War and after the Cold War have now fallen apart. We are in an environment where a lot of states are being tempted to proliferate with nuclear weapons. We’re in an environment where information sharing between governments on security issues is declining fast. And it seems to me that the UN secretary general cannot magically fix all these problems. He cannot negotiate nuclear deals between the P5, but he can at least use his convening power and he can at least use the expertise of the UN’s disposal to start some conversations about what 21st century arms control needs to look like in a very distrustful environment. And I think that’s as much part of the Secretary-General’s security mandate as going to Moscow was part of his security mandate. Just as with going to Moscow, it may not work out immediately or as well as he would like, but Guterres needs to do this because we live in an increasingly scary environment, and you need to face up to that.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:32:53] Lastly, how will we know if we’re making any progress on these three discrete areas of potential opportunities for reform?

Richard Gowan [00:33:05] Well, as part of this process, that Guterres kicked off with his report, Our Common Agenda, the UN is going to be hosting a summit in 2023 with a rather grand title of The Summit for the Future. Now this summit is going to focus on many things, including development, climate change and equality but what Guterres wants to do is bring together leaders in September 2023 and have a big discussion about the state of the world. He’s also starting to think about his own legacy as he approaches the latter stage of his career as secretary general. And there is a bunch of parallel UN thinking and drafting process is going on with UN officials working on what’s being called A New Agenda for Peace that might address some of the issues I’ve just been talking about. And these will all converge in this summit for the future. And so that will be the moment when we can see whether all the hopes and fears that we’re talking about today coming out of COVID and coming out of the Ukrainian experience will lead to serious improvements to the way the UN system is working or whether there just isn’t any real political energy there.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:34:29] Well, Richard, thank you so much, as always, for your time. This was very helpful, and I encourage everyone to read your report. It was great.

Richard Gowan [00:34:36] Thank you very much.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:34:39] All right. Thank you all for listening. And thanks, as always to Richard. I always love chatting with Richard and we usually catch up a couple of times a year, typically around the UN General Assembly in September and I suspect we’ll be speaking again soon. All right. We’ll see you next time. Thanks everyone, bye!