Ousting Moscow from the UN Security Council
Ten months after Moscow’s initiation of a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, calls concerning the expulsion of Russia from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) have amplified. On the 14th of December 2022, members of the Helsinki Commission introduced a resolution calling for the removal of Moscow from the UNSC to the House of Representatives of the United States (US). The resolution found that the participation of Russia in the UNSC and other UN agencies violates the organisation’s principles and purposes, and hinders the maintenance of peace and security. Similarly, on the 26th of December, Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for depriving Moscow of its permanent seat at the UNSC in light of its invasion of Ukraine and blatant violation of the UN Charter.
The Security Council represents the UN’s most powerful organ. It aims to safeguard the balance of power, mitigate international and transnational crises, and decrease the numbers as well as the propensity of military conflicts. The UNSC is composed of fifteen seats occupied by non-permanent members, and five seats belonging to the permanent five (P5), that is, France, Russia, China, the US, and the UK.
The permanent members are recognised by the rest of the international community as great powers with the legitimacy to authorise the use of force to ensure international peace. Moreover, to avoid the failings of the League of Nations, the UN’s predecessor, the P5 are granted veto powers. Indeed, one of the essential reasons the League of Nations failed was because of the redistribution of power within the organisation in favour of smaller states at the expenses of bigger powers. According to the Netherlands’ representative to the League of Nations in 1946, Jonkheer Beelaerts van Blokland, the disregard for the interests of great powers engendered the League’s failure, and its subsequent demise. As such, the current veto powers enable the P5 members to protect their national interests and perpetuate the UN’s existence. However, as the war rages on in Ukraine, these veto powers have enabled Russia to block resolutions condemning its illegal actions.
Two strategies have been laid out by scholars and pundits to expel Moscow from the UNSC and bring an end to the impasse caused by its veto rights. The first consists in excluding Russia from the UN as a whole. Under article VI of the UN Charter, “upon the recommendation of the Security Council”, a member of the organisation can be expelled by the General Assembly (GA) if it persistently violates the Charter and represents a threat to international peace and security. Yet, as argued by Dr Thomas D. Grant of the Launterpacht Centre for International Law at the University of Cambridge, this strategy is unlikely to succeed due to the necessity for a UNSC recommendation. This recommendation is only formulated if the organ achieves a vote by majority while no permanent member uses its veto rights. Considering the strong relationship between Beijing and Moscow, as illustrated by the statement made by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in February 2022 concerning their countries’ “No Limits” partnership, it is unlikely that China would not use its veto power to oppose a recommendation aimed at expelling Russia from the UN.
The second strategy consists in replacing Russia with Ukraine in the UNSC. While this strategy is subject to debates, its ability to circumvent Russia’s veto powers makes it popular. As one of the USSR’s three successors, Ukraine can claim the seat of its predecessor. This claim would entail a Ukrainian representative advancing credentials to occupy the USSR’s seat at the next UNSC meeting. Undoubtedly, the representative of Russia would oppose Ukraine’s move. In line with rule 17 of the UNSC’s Provisional Rules of Procedure, Moscow’s diplomats would still be allowed to sit at the table until the other members vote on whose credentials are to be rejected. Crucially, since this matter is a procedural one, expelling Russia’s diplomat and replacing them with their Ukrainian counterpart would only necessitate nine votes, and such a vote cannot be vetoed. Consequently, Ukraine may claim the USSR’s seat at the UNSC and replace Russia.
While such a move would result in Russia losing its veto rights and enable the UNSC to address the ongoing conflict in Ukraine more efficiently, its consequences remain largely ignored. How, thus, would a hypothetical ousting of Russia from the UNSC affect international peace and security?
Threat to international peace and security
The expulsion of Russia from the UNSC would engender three dramatic developments in world politics. Firstly, the UNSC would no longer represent an “institutional manifestation of a central coalition of great powers”. The UNSC serves primarily as a forum that enables “cooperative efforts” in an anarchic international system. Indeed, all P5 members benefit from it, as it enables them to advance their national interests and secure concessions from other P5 members while avoiding military conflict. For instance, in 1993, Russia successfully obtained a more open American stance on Tajikistan and Georgia in exchange for supporting a resolution sponsored by Washington on Haiti. Similarly, in 1990, the US agreed to let the World Bank lend money to China in exchange for Beijing ceasing its opposition to resolution 678, which permitted military actions against Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. Today, in the context of the return of great power politics, the UNSC’s importance to international peace and security becomes even more important, as it remains the sole “talking shop for jostling powers” where diplomacy is used instead of force. Therefore, excluding Russia from the UNSC risks increasing the threat to international peace and security, as one of the most important diplomatic means at the possession of great powers to converse with Moscow becomes unavailable.
Secondly, the UNSC risks losing its legitimacy if a great power is replaced by a smaller one. Great powers are recognised by other states as actors with the legitimacy to uphold the international order. They are therefore expected to preserve the balance of power and contain crises and wars, the same tasks for which the UNSC was created. However, by allowing Ukraine to replace Russia at the UNSC, the institution risks losing its legitimacy as Ukraine is neither recognised by other members of the international community as a great power, nor does it possess the means to claim a great power status. Hence, states that are more powerful than Ukraine are unlikely to perceive its permanent seat at the UNSC as legitimate. Indeed, why would India, a rising nuclear great power with one the world’s most capable armies and economies, and a candidate for a permanent seat at the UNSC for decades, perceive a Ukrainian veto as legitimate? Similarly, it is difficult to imagine how any of the remaining powers of the UNSC would consider a Ukrainian veto to any of their proposals as legitimate, considering the relative weakness of Ukraine in comparison to permanent members like China and France. And as illustrated by the legacy of the League of Nations, stability within institutions such as the UNSC is at risk when the members with actual power are “overruled in the decision process”. Consequently, replacing Russia with Ukraine may instigate a loss of legitimacy for the UNSC, as its veto powers are no longer solely wielded by powerful states.
Finally, removing Russia from the UNSC will not change the balance of power, and will likely decrease the credibility of the council. In fact, despite its numerous military failures in Ukraine, Moscow still retains formidable military and nuclear capabilities. And as a nuclear power capable of annihilating an opponent with retaliatory nuclear strikes, Russia has effectively secured its survival in the international system. Therefore, ousting Russia from the UNSC will not lead to a decision like resolution 678 on Iraq in 1990. The nuclear capabilities of Russia mean that the structure of its relationship with the West and NATO is effectively governed by “mutually assured destruction” (MAD). As such, even if Russia is expelled from the UNSC, no permanent member would support a military confrontation with Moscow to put an end to its invasion of Ukraine, because MAD makes it impossible to survive such a conflict. Furthermore, due to its material power, Moscow will simply ignore UNSC resolutions that go against its interests. This, in turn, would decrease the credibility of the UNSC as its resolutions would be blatantly disregarded by Moscow, and coercion by the Council would prove impossible.
In sum, removing Russia from the UNSC risks increasing the threat to international peace and security while achieving no quantifiable change on the battlefield or in the behaviour of the Kremlin. Moreover, the risk of the UNSC losing its legitimacy due to veto rights being given to a small state, as well as its inability to coerce Russia into changing its behaviour will further increase international instability. Specifically, the international community will be deprived of one of the key roles played by the UNSC, namely its ability to mitigate military conflicts.
Instead of risking the UNSC’s legitimacy and credibility, Western powers could increase the amount of technologically advanced weapons transferred to Kyiv. In fact, empowering Ukraine militarily would enable it to defeat Russia. The Ukrainians have already forced Russia to retreat from Kyiv and the Kharkiv region with their ingenious military tactics. More advanced weaponry, as President Volodymyr Zelensky has demanded, would allow Kyiv to further retake territories it has lost to Moscow in the first days of the war, and deliver a decisive blow to Vladimir Putin’s plans.
Furthermore, the delivery of advanced weapons, such as fighter aircrafts, to Ukraine is unlikely to engender a wider confrontation between NATO and Russia. Indeed, throughout the Cold War, instances of smaller states being supported in their fights against greater opponents exist. For instance, during the initial stages of the Angolan civil war, the US provided funding to the anti-communist forces that fought against groups allied to the USSR. Similarly, the USSR’s failure in Afghanistan in the 1980s has been in part caused by the US support to the mujahidin. According to the National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 75, the US’ objective was to increase Moscow’s costs in Afghanistan, leading to the subsequent transfer of technologically advanced Stinger surface-to-air missiles to the Afghans. Importantly, in none of these conflicts did support for those smaller actors result in a military confrontation between NATO and Moscow. Moreover, MAD has effectively deterred Moscow from initiating any attack on the alliance, meaning that the costs of a military retaliation by Russia for the delivery of advanced weapons to Ukraine is highly unlikely.
Therefore, rather than ousting Russia from the UNSC, a feasible strategy that can put an end to Moscow’s invasion consists in a further increase in the quantities and quality of weapons delivered to Kyiv by the West. These weapons would facilitate a Ukrainian victory on the battlefield, while simultaneously preserving the UNSC from the loss of legitimacy that the expulsion of Russia would cause. The road to victory for the Ukrainians would ultimately go through the battlefield, not a permanent seat at the UNSC.