Theorising the Relevance of the UN amid Russia-Ukraine War

 By Danish Yousuf


Russia’s war in Ukraine has yet again put the relevance of International Organisations like the UN into jeopardy. Unable to resolve the conflict or provide a mediation ground, the role of the UN envisaged after the League of Nations puts the intended purpose of the organisation in disarray. Extrapolating from the UN’s Peacekeeping Operations and its operationalisation, an optimistic yet plausible argument can be made that UN should provide for an international police force to ward off political tensions between the states; and make the international environment peaceful by introducing higher authority above the states, as seen in the domestic politics. International realm is characterised by anarchy, wherein no political authority or institutions exist to resolve the differences of states, unlike domestic politics where institutions of states are present. The inability of the UN to hold powerful nations accountable and prevent wars from happening, has intensified the demands for repairs in the international body’s long acknowledged deficiencies to prevent wars of aggression. However, it must be noted that its track record in peacekeeping and delivery of humanitarian aid is remarkable, further providing an impetus to envisage an international police force.

UN: An Organisation that must Supersede P5

UNSC is the core of the decision-making body in the UN. It has five permanent members with veto power and 10 other members which have no veto and are rotated among UN members. The “permanent five”, as per UN library records have used their veto power 262 times 1 since 1946, in many cases to impede international objections to their own acts, including military force. It is interesting that when there is sufficient political will this body has the legal ability to prevent or stop many situations with catastrophic repercussions for people, governments, and regions throughout the world2. At the same time, there is considerable dissatisfaction with the Council’s performance when it does not play such a role. Inaction of the council has been attributed to the specific use of veto. The UN Charter specifies that the Security Council must act in accordance with the UN’s “Purposes and Principles,” therefore a veto in the face of genocide, crimes against humanity, and/or war crimes does not conform with the UN’s “Purposes and Principles.”3. However, the collective action legalised by the council has its limitations. As argued by Anthony Pahnke4the Security Council members, having veto power, primarily think in terms of national self-interest rather than international collaboration.

The Security Council, in crude terms, representing an organisation reflects the interests of the great powers; who in peacetime might engage in good for the world, but if their interests are not served, they can simply opt out and dismiss any efforts to form a conducive environment of peace. The problem of transcending national interests is a pre-eminent one, but as argued by Hedley Bull, substantial attempts and efforts can be made by international society to agree on certain common values and interests irrespective of the individual state’s primordial or self-interested identities.

There seems to be a tension between values or ideals that a society ought to achieve and the practical realities of power at hand. For instance, in the context of the Russia- Ukraine crisis, fear of West coming close and Kyiv’s bonhomie with Europe, created insecurity within the Russian regime, which culminated in its perception of declining relative power vis-à-vis the West. This power equation overwhelmed the moral aspects of the Russian regime, even if it shares liberalising tendencies with the West. Besides, it found consolation within human rights and concerns for people, which compelled Russia to act in this tragic manner. Resolving this dilemma is more philosophical rather than political, but the solution could be theoretically possible with consequences for policy makers. As Fareed Zakaria argued5, it is not democracy which makes peace possible between states, but the liberal values that got consolidated forming a tradition of power dissolution which precludes absolute authorities. Similarly, rather than power politics, the values like protection of human rights or concerns for humans should be invoked and must be embedded within the nation-state to avoid going wary against each other.

In February 2022, Russia vetoed the UN Security Council resolution demanding that Moscow immediately cease its actions in Ukraine and withdraw all soldiers, a move that many Council members described as regrettable but unavoidable.6 However, classical realist scholars acknowledge this problem as pre-eminent and argue that there is a tension between “moral command” and the requirement of the “political action”7. Logically, even if Russia and the U.S. converge on morality, the uncertainty over lack of reciprocity and cheating by either states could privilege the politics over moral values. Unless, the political action aimed by self-preservation is made a taboo, with concrete norms and standards of behaviours, treating war as morally reprehensible; the wars will continue and self-defeatism of morality will continue. The task is arduous but is the only way out.

Peacekeeping Is Effective, but the Situation is Changing

The division within the UN can be resolved through diluting self-interested behaviour and working towards setting norms and regimes, which regularly reiterate and concretise the notion of values and moral command. Since certain common values can prevail, the persistence of conflicts will then call for deeper roles of peacekeeping missions. Rather than just doing peace keeping; roles for policing can also be thought; with enforcement policies aimed at disciplining the states. For instance, there are examples of the UN in action to stop atrocities in Rwanda, Sudan, Myanmar, Yemen and elsewhere. The UN peacekeeping operations mitigated group conflicts within a state by implementing strong legal rules and providing a conducive environment for the maintenance of peace. Similarly, it can be argued that group conflict also manifests itself in inter-state conflicts; so, the expansion in roles makes a valid sense. The argument is not that morals and values will make wars unthinkable; rather agreeing on common values and identifying oneself with these, transcending the civic identities in general, will help recognise the deviant states whose disciplining can be ensured through legal, economic means, with international police on stand-by; to react in dire circumstances.


The Russia-Ukraine crisis has failed to abate making it difficult to negotiate peace to end the war. Therefore, at a micro level, given the damage to the human values, imagining a negotiation framework is a perfect start, though remains extremely unviable according to present circumstances. It is the collective responsibility of the UN in terms of both political and economic support to make sure that violent conflicts get resolved. However, the UN as an organisation also needs to expand its norms building and agenda setting roles. Percolation of norms and moral commands is an evolutionary process; with socialisation in international relations playing a major role in making states understand the repercussions of bad actions. Political means to arrive at a solution is short term respite, but efforts undertaken to internalise the norms against war will go a long way to make the international system more benign and pleasant. A durable solution will be a political solution, but moral conscience should take primacy over politics. No matter how slow and painful such a process would be, it is the only way forward in Ukraine. The mandate to search for a moral solution should and cannot be dictated by an individual nation’s aspirations, but a collective one.

Views express by the Author is personal. 


1 Security Council – Veto List. Dag Hammarskjöld Library. Accessed on 13 June 2022.

2The Origins and History of the Veto and Its Use. Cambridge University Press. Accessed on 14 June 2022.

3 Questioning the Legality of Veto Use in the Face of Genocide, Crimes against Humanity, and/or War Crimes. Cambridge University Press.

4 Pahnke, Anthony. The Russia-Ukraine war provides an opportunity to reform the UN. Aljazeera. Accessed on 14 June 2022.

5 Zakaria., Fareed. The Rise of Illiberal Democracy. Foreign Affairs. Accessed on 12 June 2022.

6 The Russia-Ukraine war provides an opportunity to reform the UN. UN News. Accessed on 18 June 2022

7 McQueen., Alison . Political Realism and Moral Corruption. Department of Political Science, Stanford University. Accessed on 14 June 2022.