An effort is under way to isolate Vladimir Putin diplomatically by challenging Russia’s right to a permanent seat of the UN security council on the grounds that Russia took the seat from the defunct Soviet Union in 1991 without proper authorisation.
Diplomats are also looking to see if there is a basis for removing Russia from the presidency of the council.
The presidency rotates monthly between the 15 members of the security council, allowing the office holder to shape its monthly agenda and to chair its meetings.
The Russian envoy Vassily Nebenzias was chairing an emergency meeting of the Security Council in New York on Wednesday night as Putin announced his assault on Ukraine. Nebenzias started reading out a text sent to his phone by the Kremlin justifying the attack. He maintained the fiction that an invasion was not under way but instead a special military operation had begun in the Donbas.
Most council members condemned Russia, one of the five permanent security council members, with the UN secretary general António Guterres taking the rare step of accusing Russia of being in breach of the UN charter.
A draft security council motion, condemning Russia and calling for its unconditional withdrawal, is being negotiated behind the scenes in New York and will probably be debated on Friday, but Russia as a permanent member will use its veto.
The Ukrainian ambassador to the UN, Sergiy Kyslytsya, told Wednesday night’s meeting that article 4 of the UN charter says the UN is open only to peace-loving states that accept the terms of the charter. He said Russia’s actions showed it could not comply with those terms.
But he also asked Guterres to distribute to the security council the legal memos written by UN legal counsel dated 19 December 1991 that the Russian Federation be permitted to join the security council as the successor to the Soviet Union. Ukraine claims the constituent republics of the USSR declared in 1991 that the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and with it should have gone the legal right of any of those entities, including Russia, to sit on the council.
No decision to permit Russia to the security council was ever put to the General Assembly. The UN charter was never amended after the USSR broke up. It still references the Soviet Union, and not Russia, as one of the permanent members of the UN security council.
By contrast in 1991 China’s entry into the UN was subject to a resolution. A member of the United Nations which has persistently violated the principles contained in the present charter may be expelled from the Organization by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the security council.
The Russians claim its actions were taken in line with clause 51 of the charter citing self-defence.
The tension between Ukraine and Russia at the Wednesday meeting boiled over at the UN when Kyslytsya at the close of the session looked at his Russian counterpart and said “there is no purgatory for war criminals”, adding “they go straight to hell, Ambassador.”
Guterres in a brief televised statement on Thursday said the “Russian military operation is wrong, is against the charter and unacceptable”. He again appealed to Putin to stop the operation and bring the troops back to Russia.
The Russian diplomatic delegation is working hard to maintain the protection of China, which has been reluctant to abandon Russia, and would never support a motion for expulsion.
But US officials said, “Russia’s aggressive actions here carry risks for China along with everyone else. It’s not in China’s interest to endorse a devastating conflict in Europe and defy the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity it claims to hold dear.”