Eastern Team
30 September 2022

Jakub Olchowski
IEŚ Commentaries 700 (212/2022)

Credibility of international organizations in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (part 1)

Credibility of international organizations in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (part 1)

ISSN: 2657-6996
IEŚ Commentaries 700
Publisher: Instytut Europy Środkowej

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has contributed not only to the accelerated erosion of the international order but also to a decline in trust in international organizations. The limited effectiveness of key inter-state organizations, the controversial activities of some important non-governmental organizations, and Russia’s consistent disregard for international law may translate into a further decline in the credibility of international institutions. Ukraine has been skeptical about their effectiveness in maintaining security since 2014, and in a broader perspective, the erosion of these institutions undermines the principles of the entire current architecture of international security.

The level of trust in international institutions in Ukraine has remained low for years. It became noticeable especially after the annexation of Crimea and the Russian aggression in Donbas. This was due to both the indolence of international organizations (the United Nations – UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – OSCE) and the ineffectiveness of international law (especially the often criticized Budapest Memorandum – although it should be remembered that this document is a political agreement and not a binding international convention). With the apparent distance from Ukraine’s aspirations, unequivocally in favor of integration with NATO and the European Union and treating it as a strategic goal and a civilizational choice, disappointment with these structures has also grown in recent years.”

Effectiveness of international organizations. Although NATO and the EU reacted decisively to the Russian invasion launched on February 24, 2022, the prospect of Ukraine’s accession to these organizations, which are the institutional pillars of the West, remains distant, and in the case of NATO – still uncertain. Moreover, this prospect will remain frozen as long as the Russo-Ukrainian war continues. At the same time, the largest collective security system (UN) and the largest security organization in the Northern hemisphere (OSCE) remain, in fact, helpless in the face of Russia’s actions. In both cases, this is principally due to its presence within these organizations.

OSCE. In the case of the OSCE and its monitoring mission in Donbas, which has been operating since 2014, Russia has repeatedly conducted obstructive actions, also with the use of separatist pseudo-republics. Decisions to extend the mission’s mandate were blocked, observers were restricted in their freedom of movement, their work was impeded, the mission’s headquarters were blocked by armed men and its employees were kidnapped and detained. Ultimately, at the end of March 2022, the mission ceased to function in practice, and its reactivation is currently unlikely.

However, the OSCE remains one of the few fora for institutional communication between the West and Russia (and Belarus), hence, no major changes in its functioning should be expected despite the fact that Russia consistently demonstrates its disrespectful attitude towards international law and international organizations, including the OSCE (incidentally, Joseph Stalin referred to the League of Nations in a similar way).

The last significant manifestation of the OSCE’s activity in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine was the publication of the expert mission report on April 13, 2022. It states that during its actions in Ukraine after February 24, Russia violated international humanitarian law, violated human rights (including the right to life, the prohibition of torture, or inhuman and degrading treatment), and also committed war crimes. Russia was against the establishment of this mission and refused to cooperate with it. There is also a dispute resolution mechanism within the OSCE, based on the Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. However, it is impossible to apply this mechanism: the convention under which the Court operates has been ratified only by 34 out of 57 OSCE member states – Russia is not among them.

United Nations. The United Nations is treated disrespectfully as much as instrumentally by Russia. The rocket attack on Kyiv, carried out by Russia during the visit of the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres (April 28, 2022), was an expression of disregard and a kind of demonstration of power. In the instrumental dimension, Russia consistently uses its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to block all UN initiatives and actions that are unfavorable to it. Despite this, the organization managed to adopt (albeit at the level of the General Assembly) resolutions on the territorial integrity of Ukraine (March 2014), Russia’s aggression against Ukraine (March 2022), and the suspension of Russia from the UN Human Rights Council (April 2022); in addition, the International Court of Justice issued a decision calling for an immediate end to the military operation in Ukraine. The UN also contributed to the signing of the so-called grain agreement that allows Ukrainian grain to be exported from Black Sea ports (July 2022).

This does not change the fact that the actions of the United Nations undertaken since 2014 against the Russian aggression on Ukraine do not substantially affect the humanitarian situation or the prospects for ending the conflict. However, critics of the United Nations often fail to take into account that the organization’s low effectiveness is due to its design, which still reflects the international balance of power of 1945. The shape of the UN established at that time was given by the victors of World War II, securing their own interests and positions by granting themselves the status of permanent members of the Security Council – with the right of veto. It should also be remembered that international organizations do not have (unlike states) the attribute of sovereignty, which in practice means that their subjectivity and agency are strongly limited and depends on the will, or lack thereof, of the member states1, which incidentally affects the possibility of reforming the UN. It has been talked about for many years, but the obstacles are still the divergent interests of individual states. Hence, Russia can use its status instrumentally on the Security Council (which does not mean that this does not happen with the rest of the so-called “Big Five”, i.e. the United States, China, France, and Great Britain). Changing the structure of this body would require the consent of all permanent members. A certain possibility for limiting the activities of a permanent member of the Security Council in a situation where it is a party to the conflict is provided by Art. 27 of the United Nations Charter. However, it would require, again, the support of all members of the Security Council. A state may also be excluded from the United Nations, but only “upon the recommendation of the Security Council” (Art. 6 of the UN Charter). Another possibility may be the fact that the Russian Federation, as the successor of the Soviet Union, never signed the UN Charter and the General Assembly did not vote to confirm its status on the Security Council. However, this would require not only the approval of the Security Council (which is easy to block), but also a very broad consensus of the member states, which is difficult to find, considering both the influence of Russia in many parts of the world and the awareness that the reconstruction of the organization could bring about a domino effect and mean the decomposition of the entire UN system, which, despite its numerous flaws, dysfunctions, and archaisms, is the only global system of collective security and, in fact, the only general and universal organization. The resolution adopted on April 26, 2022, which will automatically order a debate in the General Assembly forum, when one of the permanent members of the Security Council uses a veto can be considered a certain compromise. It is worth noting that Russia, and previously the USSR, used this privilege most often: 151 times out of a total of 307 cases of vetoing.

On September 20-23, 2022, the annual session of the General Assembly was held – this year in the shadow of war and at a time, as the secretary general put it, “of great peril.” There were many voices condemning Russia, but the absence of the leaders of Russia, China, and India was significant. At the same time, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, after making a statement in which he blamed the West for leading to the war and accused Ukraine of totalitarianism, left the extraordinary session of the Security Council, which was held during the session of the General Assembly. Such signals and behaviors from member states negatively affect the stability and credibility of an organization that is not only struggling with conflicts in various parts of the world (apart from Ukraine, also Myanmar, Mali, Congo, Eritrea, Xinjiang, Yemen, etc.) but also with numerous global problems of a different nature, including increasing geopolitical rivalry between permanent members of the Security Council.

1 The only exception in practice is the European Union, which is an integrating rather than a coordinating organization. The European Union as an entity, therefore, has more decision-making powers than “traditional” international organizations (UN, OSCE, NATO, Council of Europe, etc.).