Given how the Ukraine crisis is being discussed in the media at the moment—to say nothing of political and military circles—you’d be forgiven for thinking the UN doesn’t exist. All the talk is of what “the west” should or could do, or whether and how NATO might get involved in supporting the effort to hold back the advance of the Russian army. But there’s a fundamental flaw with that line of thinking: what Putin is doing in Ukraine is actually none of the west’s business. Or even NATO’s, come to that.
How so? Well, consider the facts. NATO is a purely defensive organisation—a loose alliance of states bound by mutual treaty. Unless and until NATO territory is attacked, no NATO country has any mandate to take the fight outside its own borders—and even then, the collective defence argument does not hold water for a pre-emptive strike. The case for “the west” as a whole is even worse. Leaving aside the problems of defining such a nebulous entity, the absence of any specific treaty obligations means it has even fewer grounds than NATO to take Russia on.
For in a world unbound by international obligations, the decision to confront Russia reduces to the age-old question of national interests—the basis for Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine, after all. In the absence of a larger architecture to frame it, the question of whether to take on Russia is essentially about committing to an act of war. And as the stakes involved in a conflict between nuclear powers are so high, there is an understandable reluctance to do so, a reluctance which explains the frustratingly slow trickle of arms supplied to Ukraine under the guise of “lethal aid.”
But we do not live in a world unbound by international obligations. However much we may have hitherto ignored it, the UN Charter—to which all 193 members of the UN are signatories, including Russia—commits its members to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations” (Article 2.4). Furthermore, in its opening statement, Article 1.1 requires members to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace.” That’s pretty unambiguous.
So in a world that lived up to its obligations, the position of the UN would be clear. Following a vote to confirm that it was in breach, Russia would be given a limited time—a week, say—to leave Ukraine, failing which the full might of an Emergency Force would be unleashed upon it in the name of the UN, using an ad-hoc coalition of countries willing to act on its behalf. Foreign boots would barely need to touch the ground: with the technology now available, any Russian forces still in Ukraine could be decimated within hours. The great advantage of this approach—even if the forces charged with delivering it belonged to NATO countries—is that not only would the action be legal under international law, Russia would be left with no specific enemy to retaliate against. You cannot nuke a principle—especially one you are signed up to yourself. The UN would simply be doing what it is supposed to do.
Could it happen, though? Well, there is a precedent. This is exactly what happened during the Suez Crisis in 1956—where just the very threat of such action was sufficient to cause the aggressors in that case (Israel, backed by Britain and France) to withdraw from Egypt. And there is another hopeful sign. Earlier this month, for the first time in 30 years, the UN dusted down the venerable “Uniting For Peace” Resolution 377—which allowed it to side-step Russia’s veto at the Security Council, overwhelmingly vote to “deplore” its actions in Ukraine, and to demand its immediate withdrawal. Though the UNGA has yet to follow this up with a vote recommending the establishment of an Emergency Force, it could—and should—now do so. Just as in Suez, that is the only practical way to avoid escalation.
For this cannot be allowed to become another fight between rival hegemonies. That has been the history of warfare since time immemorial: humanity has generally settled its scores in blood. But that is now no longer possible. All-out war between the “great” nuclear powers would be an act of instant suicide—not just for the belligerents, but for all of us. Those who survived the conflict would find themselves in a world where the main centres of civilization had not only been reduced to radioactive ruins, but left in the grip of a devastating nuclear winter that would persist for years. No rational actor would ever commit to it.
Putin may not be a rational actor, of course, and that is the fear. Like the cornered rat that once attacked him when he was young, he may decide that with no way out he is ready to risk everything—and take the world with him. There are reports that he has already moved his family to a secret underground city in preparation. But even if he were willing to take the ultimate step himself, he cannot do it alone. There isn’t a launch button under his desk he can just push. There’s a chain of command, and those charged with executing his wishes may be somewhat less willing to carry them out—like the brave Soviet submarine officer Vasily Arkhipov, who refused to follow orders to launch a nuclear strike on the US during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
Can we take that risk, though? The stakes could not be higher. But the more urgent question is whether we can afford not to. For what is the alternative? Ukraine (a founding member of the United Nations, no less) will certainly pay a heavy price for our ongoing procrastination. And even if the war were to end in a negotiated settlement, with Ukraine forced to promise neutrality and cede Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea, it would simply confirm that the core principle of the UN Charter—that “All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means”— is not worth the paper it is written on. And what then? For there can be no doubt that Xi Jinping is watching the outcome closely. If Putin is allowed to get away with Ukraine, Taiwan is next in line.
Then there are the Baltic States. Though these are now NATO countries, Putin has not concealed his ambition to restore them to the Russian Empire. If we’re hesitating to act now because threatening Russia—with or without UN sanction—might invite nuclear retaliation, what happens if he moves on to a NATO country? The US has already said NATO will respond with “full force”—which must include nuclear. So if we’re prepared to take the ultimate risk then, why not now? Why would we be willing to do so for the security of a NATO member and not for a member of the UN? Worse, what would happen if we failed to act even then, and ended up withdrawing behind an ever-shrinking series of ineffectual red lines? This is not a problem that is going to go away. The nettle will have to be grasped. And if not now, then when?
For this is about much more than the cold calculation of risk. Though the world sat on its hands over Syria (allowing Putin to step into the vacuum of power), we at least had the excuse that it was a civil war, and thus notionally outside the scope of UN action. Ukraine is different. We cannot sit and watch yet another sovereign nation be reduced to rubble in slow motion, relayed in full colour and in real time, and just suck our teeth and hope that sanctions will eventually work—or that an assassin will get to Putin. Through our membership of the United Nations, we have all agreed that this should not be allowed to happen. It’s time to screw our courage to the sticking-place, and do what we have committed to do. Because above all, it might just work.
At the very least, we should surely be talking about it.
Simon Prentis is the author of SPEECH! How Language Made Us Human. This article summarises the argument of the final chapter of the book—an argument with added relevance in the current circumstances.