United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the United Nations Headquarters, New York City, September 2021
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the United Nations Headquarters, New York City, September 2021
Andrew Kelly / Reuters

“Multilateralism lies on its deathbed tonight,” Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, warned the Security Council in a debate on the looming war in Ukraine in late February. Since then, UN diplomacy has remained in critical condition. Russia has blocked the council from taking any action in response to its “special military operation.” On March 2, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution deploring Russia’s actions by 141 votes to five. Moscow won only the support of Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria. But Russian forces pushed on with their assault regardless.

This war threatens to do long-term damage to the UN. If hostilities drag on in Ukraine, or Moscow ends up occupying part or all of the country by force indefinitely, Russia and the United States will find it very hard, or simply impossible, to cooperate on other crises through the Security Council. Policymakers in Washington and its allies in Paris and London–who represent three of the five veto-wielding permanent seats on the UN Security Council–will have to explore whether there are some issues, such as containing Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, on which they can continue to work with the Russians, regardless of events in Ukraine. And the Western powers will need to invest in those parts of the UN system, such as its humanitarian agencies, that can mitigate conflicts without Security Council mandates.

The spectacle of Moscow flagrantly violating the UN Charter’s core principles, including respecting sovereignty and refraining from the use of force, has caused profound disquiet in New York and beyond. There has been talk in UN and academic circles of reforming the charter to stop Russia or other permanent members of the Security Council from using their veto to shield their own aggressive acts in future. Ukraine has suggested stripping Moscow of its Security Council seat altogether.

These are politically satisfying notions but almost impossible to implement. Russia is able to block both UN Charter reform and any effort to expel it, under rules laid down in the charter itself. And while the United States may condemn Russia’s use of its veto, Washington has objected to initiatives that would restrain the use of the veto in the recent past, and will surely reject any proposals that could limit its own right to block Security Council resolutions it does not like. And although playing around with the UN rulebook may seem smart, it would not give the Security Council additional real leverage over Russia–or, indeed, other nuclear powers–in a future crisis. Rather than forcing dramatic reforms on the UN, the war in Ukraine is much more likely to accelerate a preexisting decline in the organization’s role in maintaining international peace and security.

The Troika

Mounting tensions between China, Russia, and the United States have weighed heavily on the Security Council. The three powers have repeatedly fallen out over the war in Syria, the subject of 17 Russian vetoes since 2011. Moscow stopped the Security Council from condemning its seizure of Crimea in 2014. It has continued to play the spoiler in New York: last year, Beijing and Moscow ensured that the UN responded to the coups in Myanmar and the war in Ethiopia with nothing more than statements of concern.

Great-power rivalry is not the only cause of drift at the UN. Western governments have lost faith in the ability of UN peacekeeping operations, such as those in Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to stabilize weak states. African and Asian members of the Security Council have tried to limit the role of the UN in their neighborhoods, arguing that regional bodies such as the African Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should tackle crises instead. Nonetheless, tensions between the Security Council’s veto powers cast a long shadow over the UN well before the escalation in Ukraine. UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned in 2019 that the relationship between China, Russia, and the United States “has never been as dysfunctional as it is today.”

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration came into office hoping to improve cooperation with Russia through the UN. Last year, U.S. officials led a successful diplomatic push to persuade Moscow to extend a Security Council mandate authorizing UN humanitarian assistance to non-government-controlled parts of Syria. Biden raised this directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin at their June summit in Geneva, and Moscow agreed to renew the mandate fairly smoothly. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, declared that the two powers could “work together to find solutions and deliver actions on the world’s most pressing challenges.”

It will be hard for U.S. and European diplomats to work with Russia if there is a long war in Ukraine.

The notion that Moscow and Washington can use the UN as a channel for global problem-solving now looks exceedingly remote. In New York, diplomats worry that the breakdown over Ukraine will make negotiations on other issues difficult or impossible. But a breakdown is not inevitable. In the aftermath of the initial Russian invasion in 2014, the United States and Russia succeeded in compartmentalizing their differences over Crimea and Donbas from cooperation on other issues ranging from peacekeeping in Africa to the Iran nuclear deal.

This year, in the days immediately following the full-scale Russian assault on Ukraine, Security Council diplomats once again tried to keep regular business going on other topics. Russia and the United States signed off on a statement endorsing continued humanitarian help for Syria, although France eventually blocked it on the grounds that now was not the moment to take joint positions with Moscow. In late February, the Security Council passed a resolution extending sanctions on Yemen. Diplomats say that other routine business, such as an upcoming renewal of the mandate for UN peacekeepers in South Sudan, will go on much as before. Away from the UN, the United States and Russia have managed to keep coordinating on the Vienna talks on revitalizing the Iran nuclear deal, although Moscow has demanded that the United States provide guarantees that Western sanctions on Ukraine wouldn’t harm future Russian-Iranian trade, complicating the already fraught discussions.

But council members acknowledge in private that they will struggle to maintain business as usual for much longer. This is not necessarily because Russian diplomats will use their veto on issues unrelated to Ukraine to score points. In fact, they may keep open the possibility of cooperation on problems in places such as Afghanistan or Yemen to seem reasonable. But it will be hard for U.S. and European diplomats to work constructively with their Russian counterparts if there is a long war in Ukraine or an open-ended Russian military occupation, especially if the West maintains its sanctions on Moscow. Even if, by some miracle, Russia withdraws from Ukraine relatively quickly, it will take a long time to regain trust in New York.

Beyond Ukraine

Some items on the Security Council agenda look especially likely to fail because of tensions between Russia and the West. In Libya, friction between Moscow and NATO powers–already deeply enmeshed in the country’s factional politics–could at a minimum weaken UN efforts to keep a 2020 peace deal on track. In a worst-case scenario, Russia’s allies in eastern Libya, who launched an assault on Tripoli in 2019, could return to war. Meanwhile, France and Russia are already vying for influence in sub-Saharan African countries, with Russian private military contractors deployed in Mali and the Central African Republic. A further deterioration in relations between Paris and Moscow will make it even more difficult to agree on UN mandates for sanctions, peacekeeping, and mediation in the region. In the meantime, Russia and the United States will surely struggle to repeat last year’s relatively constructive talks on aid to Syria.

Another obvious potential flash point could be the annual UN resolution approving the presence of European Union peacekeepers in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Russia came close to vetoing this last November due to disagreements with U.S. and European representatives over the role of the Office of the High Representative, which was set up in 1995 to oversee the implementation of the Dayton peace accords. Moscow argues that the office is too pro-Western and is no longer necessary. Facing heavy EU sanctions over Ukraine, Moscow could decide to carry through on the veto threat this year.

One uncertainty is how China will maneuver at the UN in the coming months. China and Russia have cooperated closely in the Security Council, jointly opposing Western initiatives on conflicts like Ethiopia’s civil war. But the Chinese have taken a low profile during the Ukraine crisis, abstaining on resolutions on the war in the council, the General Assembly, and the Human Rights Council. Beijing has invested in UN peacekeeping in Africa, and will likely want to protect the mandates for blue helmet operations in countries where it has economic or energy interests, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. But it is equally unlikely to break ties with Russia on areas of shared interest such as North Korea and Myanmar.

The UN Security Council is facing a period of increasing paralysis.

Although Western diplomats and their Russian counterparts will face mounting obstacles to cooperation, there will be little benefit in turning negotiations into point-scoring matches. The UN still has value as a framework for dealing with crises beyond Ukraine, such as the growing humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan and nonproliferation priorities including reviving the Iran nuclear deal.

In Afghanistan, UN aid agencies and political officers have a crucial role to play. This month, Security Council members are negotiating a new mandate for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which is meant to coordinate this aid work. These talks are difficult, and would have been so regardless of the war in Ukraine. Russia and China have questioned whether the UN should keep prioritizing human rights in Afghanistan, which Western diplomats feel is essential. But all sides will likely support an ongoing UN presence in the country to help avert the risks of state collapse and a further regional crisis.

If the Vienna talks on the Iranian nuclear program are successful, the Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency will retain a significant role overseeing Tehran’s return to compliance with its nuclear commitments. U.S. and Russian officials in New York will have to put aside their differences, however grudgingly, to monitor this process.

With the Security Council facing a period of increasing fragmentation and paralysis, the United States and its allies will need to see what parts of the UN system they can still use to limit international instability. The Ukrainian conflict marks the most severe test for multilateralism since the end of the Cold War, and the full scale of its impact on international diplomacy is still unclear. But it may still be possible to preserve significant parts of the UN system to face future crises.

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