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What is Russia's place on the U.N. Security Council?


Today marks exactly two months since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. Since then, efforts to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin into ending the war have mounted. There's been unprecedented sanctions levied against Russia and talks of an expansion of NATO at their border. But at the United Nations, some of these efforts have stalled. Russia is one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, which gives it the power to veto any security resolution. That's led to questions about just how effective the U.N. is during times of conflict and what can be done to reform its current structure. To talk about this now, we are joined by Richard Gowan. He's the U.N. director at the International Crisis Group. Welcome.

RICHARD GOWAN: Thank you very much for having me on the show.

RASCOE: So could you explain to us briefly, why does Russia have veto power on security resolutions?

GOWAN: The winners of the Second World War - Britain, France, China, the U.S. and Russia - have had this power since the body's inception. And the Russians have always used their veto quite aggressively over proposals on issues, like Syria, that they do not like.

RASCOE: Well, so what are the consequences of that, of having five very powerful countries with the ability to block any security resolution?

GOWAN: Well, it means that these five countries fundamentally dominate U.N. diplomacy in matters of war and peace, and a lot of smaller countries really resent that. But the reality is that the U.S., for example, wants to keep its veto because it can use it to defend Israel from negative resolutions in the Security Council. And I think that if Russia didn't have a veto, it would probably walk away from the U.N. altogether.

RASCOE: And there is no way that Russia could ever be removed from the Security Council, right?

GOWAN: There's an irony here. There is a article in the U.N. charter that says that countries can be expelled from the U.N. altogether. But to do that, you have to get a recommendation from the Security Council, and Russia can use its veto to block the recommendation. So you're trapped.

RASCOE: Is there any way to pressure them further? Obviously, there are sanctions. There are all these actions that are being taken to isolate Russia. But it seems like as long as they are part of this very powerful body, how isolated can they be?

GOWAN: Well, the U.S. and other allies of Ukraine are working really hard to isolate Russia in other parts of the U.N. system or to condemn Russia. And actually, the U.N. General Assembly has actually spoken out very firmly over this war. It's passed two resolutions, back in March, very explicitly condemning Russia. And, you know, these votes have passed by big margins. I mean, I think we're going to see Russia really penned in across the U.N. now. But what they care about most is the Security Council seat and the veto. That's the part of the U.N. that matters to Russia politically. So they're willing to take these hits in other U.N. forums, knowing that they're still safe in the Security Council.

RASCOE: When you have a member that is, as you said, engaging in this behavior that the rest of the world has said is unacceptable - you know, and they're OK with being isolated to a certain extent - like - I guess, like, what does that mean for diplomacy in the U.N. itself?

GOWAN: I think if you look at the track record of the U.N., what it is useful for is dealing with conflicts that don't involve the main strategic interests of the veto powers. So the U.N. is very useful in terms of deploying peacekeeping forces to weak countries in Africa, like South Sudan. And it has a very important role to play in getting humanitarian aid into challenging countries, like Afghanistan today. That's where the U.N. usually makes a difference. Whenever you come to a crisis directly involving one of the big powers, the council always gets deadlocked. That was true in 1960s over the Cuban missile crisis. It's been true, very sadly, on repeated occasions over the last decade over Syria, and it's true today of Ukraine.

RASCOE: You said recently that the war in Ukraine is, quote, "the single biggest crisis to hit the U.N. since the end of the Cold War." So how do you think that diplomacy that you're talking about with the U.N. will look going forward?

GOWAN: Look, there is a scenario in which relations between the Western powers and Russia become so bad that they can't even keep up routine diplomacy in the Security Council over issues other than Ukraine. And there's also a scenario in which - I think not very soon, but at some point down the road - Russia and Ukraine make some sort of peace settlement. And actually, the Security Council could have a role in endorsing that or even sending U.N. peacekeepers to help monitor the settlement. I don't think that we're doomed to a new Cold War at the U.N., but I certainly think that, even in the best-case scenario, relations with the Russians are going to be awfully, awfully difficult in New York for a very long time to come.

RASCOE: Richard Gowan is the U.N. director at the International Crisis Group. Thank you so much for being with us.

GOWAN: Thank you very much indeed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.