War in Ukraine tests the limits of UN diplomacy

Weeks of emergency sessions at the United Nations have failed to secure a ceasefire in Ukraine, testing the limits of UN diplomacy and putting the credibility of the global body charged with maintaining international peace and security on the line.

Weeks of emergency sessions at the United Nations have yielded little in way of concrete action to end war

The United Nations Security Council, where Russia has a veto, votes on a resolution during a meeting on Feb. 25 on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The council failed to pass a resolution demanding Russia withdraw its troops, and subsequent meetings have failed to yield any progress toward securing peace. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

"This is the saddest moment in my tenure as secretary general of the United Nations," Antonio Guterres told reporters on Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. 

"In the name of humanity, bring your troops back to Russia. Do not allow to start in Europe what could be the worst war since the beginning of the century."

One month later, Guterres would make another direct and emotional plea, uncharacteristic of the career statesman with a reputation for walking a careful line around conflicts. 

"It is time to end this absurd war," he said. 

The weeks in between have been some of the most dramatic in UN history as the international body wrestles with a conflict that treads dangerously close to the circumstances that launched the Second World War.

But they have yielded little in the way of concrete action to end the war, and maintaining the body's credibility as an organization whose stated purpose is to "maintain international peace and security" is getting harder with each UN session that ends in impasse.

"Now, at more than any other point in recent history, the United Nations is being challenged," said U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield on March 2.

WATCH | UN secretary general expresses dismay at invasion:

Russia needs to end 'absurd' war in Ukraine, says UN chief

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UN Secretary General António Guterres urged Russia to end its war in Ukraine now, saying it is inevitable that it will move 'from the battlefield to the peace table.' 'This war is unwinnable,' he said.

Impassioned speeches but little action

Ukraine's ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, has repeatedly pleaded with his fellow diplomats to intervene in the conflict and directed some of his most pointed remarks at Russia's ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya. 

"Ambassador, do the eyes of Ukrainian children, women and elderly, killed by the Russians, flash before you?" he said in a March 18 session of the Security Council.

"If they do, we may consider how to sponsor a decision to help you deal with perpetration-inducted traumatic stress. But now have some decency and stop the egregious manipulation of the Security Council. It is obscene." 

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya speaks during an emergency meeting of the General Assembly Thursday. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press)

Nebenzya sat stone faced across the aisle during that speech but has made his own accusations on other occasions, calling out Western inaction and alleged crimes committed by Ukrainian forces during eight years of fighting with pro-Russia separatists in Eastern Ukraine. He has continued to deny Russia's role in instigating the war.

"We did not start this war; we want to end it," Nebenzya said on March 11. 

Kyslytsya has often shut down Russia's interpretation of events. 

"Your perverse reading of the [UN] charter is so sick that it's impossible to interpret, calling occupational troops peacekeeping forces, claiming the right to self-defence, lunacy!" he said on Feb. 28.

WATCH | Ukrainian and Russian ambassadors trade barbs at the UN:

Escalating tensions at the UN over war in Ukraine

2 years ago
Duration 3:33
Over the past several weeks, Ukraine and Russia have raised tensions at the United Nations Security Council as they traded arguments back and forth over the invasion of Ukraine.

Such exchanges have done little to bring more meaningful action on the ground. With every emergency session, the divide between Russia and Western allies and Ukraine grows ever wider. 

Strong statements condemning the war have failed to produce a ceasefire or safe passage for civilians in cities under siege. 

Russia has used its veto at the Security Council to stop the only legally binding resolution against the war so far.

Nebenzya casts the lone dissenting vote on the resolution condemning Russia's invasion at the Security Council on Feb. 25. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press)

'A new phase of UN diplomacy'

Since then, Russia has called for several meetings to put forward allegations that Ukraine is developing a biochemical weapons program, with the support of the United States. 

The U.S. has called the accusations "ludicrous," and it and the U.K. both warned they could be a precursor to Russia's own false-flag chemical weapons attack. 

"I think we're seeing the start of a new phase of UN diplomacy," said Ashish Pradhan, a UN analyst at the International Crisis Group, a non-profit think-tank based in New York City. 

"Russia has not only held the UN Security Council hostage in the wake of its invasion but also used the council as a platform to spread misinformation about the existence of dubious U.S.-funded biological military laboratories in Ukraine." 

Russia has tried to put forward allegations at the UN that Ukraine is developing a biochemical weapons program, with the support of the United States, claims the Western bloc of nations have denounced as fabricated. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/The Associated Press)

He predicts this strategy will only intensify, with Russia playing a much more offensive role at the Security Council.

"You see them trying to use the council as a sort of a stage platform to push their own agenda."

Pradhan said there are no mechanisms within the Security Council to fact-check claims such as Russia's in real time. Nor are there any consequences, beyond reputational costs, for making false statements. 

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Sending a message

There have been calls to kick Russia out of the Security Council, but with the country's veto, that would be challenging. 

"Suspending Russia from the [UN] Human Rights Council, there's something more feasible," said Pradhan. "And that's something that would require two-thirds of the General Assembly to vote in support."

Pradhan said the two resolutions condemning Russia and demanding a halt to hostilities and protection of civilians that passed at the General Assembly with overwhelming support could put wind in the sails of those who want to take that symbolic step.

The results of a UN General Assembly vote on a resolution to condemn Russia over the invasion of Ukraine is shown on a screen during a special session of the General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters on March 2 in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

A symbolic message could be what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was trying to send when he addressed the United States Congress on March 16. He didn't call out the United Nations specifically but did strongly criticize international "institutions'' for failing to stop the war.

"The wars of the past have prompted our predecessors to create institutions that should protect us from war. But they unfortunately don't work. We see it, you see it," he said.

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Zelensky pleads with U.S. Congress for no-fly zone, more aid

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky used his address to the U.S. Congress to plead for aid, including a no-fly zone over his country.

He proposed the creation of a new association called United for Peace, or U-24, a union of countries that could stop conflicts immediately.

It's not a realistic proposal, but it does send a message, says Fen Hampson, professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.

"His proposal is like a flashing red neon sign that screams, 'For God's sake, do something to stop the destruction of my country and the killing of my people!'" 

UN reform has long been discussed, with little progress

Exactly how to reform the UN has stumped those who have watched the beleaguered agency struggle to regain its relevance over decades of regional conflicts. 

"Member states have danced around the maypole of UN reform like an annual rites of spring for decades," Hampson said. "It is the same perennial dance that achieves nothing. Delivering impassioned speeches, as our own ambassador has also done, are akin to the wailing chorus in a Greek tragedy. They may unleash cathartic emotions for a global audience but do not lead to real action." 

The UN needs to be viewed as a trusted mediator in order to be an effective broker of peace, he said. 

"The current secretary general, I hate to say, does not have the political stature of some of his predecessors, who were effective mediators, like Kofi Annan or Perez de Cuellar," Hampson said.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres 'does not have the political stature of some of his predecessors,' says Fen Hampson, professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

One obvious opportunity for UN involvement in the Ukraine conflict is peacekeeping, says Hampson.

NATO might choose to send in its own peacekeeping forces, but Hampson says that risks escalating the war. 

"[A] UN peacekeeping mission makes greater sense because it is not an alliance," he said.

The alliance of NATO nations is bound by the principle of collective defence, which means an attack on one is an attack on all. UN peacekeepers, on the other hand, are deployed with the agreement of all parties in a conflict and are supposed to act impartially.

WATCH | NATO caught between need to respond to invasion but not provoke Russia:

NATO leaders walk tightrope over Ukraine crisis

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NATO leaders gathered in Brussels for an emergency meeting on the war in Ukraine, under pressure to supply more planes and tanks to Ukrainian forces, while avoiding provocation with Russia that could end in an all-out war across Europe.

Short of Security Council vote, what can the UN do?

The Security Council would have to approve any peacekeeping mission to Ukraine, which is unlikely to happen given Russia's veto power. 

"The UN has to be cautious. I think, when it comes to specific policy issues like peacekeeping. It won't want to appear like it's getting ahead of itself in putting forward proposals before they're politically feasible," said Pradhan.

"What they can and should be doing, though, is quietly sort of preparing some options."

When asked if the secretary general would consider proposing a peacekeeping mission, Guterres's spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, said that would first require a Security Council mandate.

"Whenever the Security Council is divided, whenever, especially, the five permanent members are divided, it makes achieving peace that much more complicated," Dujarric said. 

"What is also very important for any UN peacekeeping mission is that there is a peace to keep."

A man recovers items from a burning shop Friday following a Russian attack in Kharkiv, which has suffered some of the heaviest shelling of the war. (Felipe Dana/The Associated Press)

The Security Council may be the forum for approving any legally binding UN action, but there are also things the secretary general himself can do, says Richard Gowan, a long-time UN analyst for the International Crisis Group.

"The secretary general can still shape how this awful crisis is seen in the UN system," he said.

"We have to be realistic that Vladimir Putin is not listening and is not going to listen to criticism from the UN. But I think that in terms of maintaining a coalition internationally of countries, calling for the war to end and calling on Russia to back down, it's important that UN officials take the lead."

Mourners kneel in respect as Ukrainian military members carry the casket of air assault paratrooper Volodymy Rurak in Lviv on Friday. Estimates of number of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers killed in the fighting so far vary widely and are hard to verify. NATO estimated this week that between 7,000 and 15,000 soldiers had been killed in action, with thousands more wounded. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)


Kris Reyes

Foreign correspondent

Kris Reyes CBC’s correspondent based in New York. She is a multimedia journalist with more than 15 years of experience in broadcast and digital newsrooms in the U.S. and Canada, as a host, producer, anchor and reporter.