Main Image Credit UK Permanent Representative to the UN Barbara Woodward, Ukrainian Ambassador to the UN Sergiy Kyslytsya and US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield sit together after an emergency UN Security Council meeting on 23 February 2022
While diplomacy could not stop Russia’s invasion, it will be essential to providing an exit route and a sustainable peace.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reflects a failure of diplomatic endeavour in near impossible circumstances. Russia now finds itself an international pariah, President Putin is effectively an outlaw and European security is reeling. Diplomacy needs to resume quickly to chart a route out of the crisis and restore stability to a continent whose security landscape has changed dramatically.
Despite the diplomatic failure, there was no lack of effort. In the preceding months, as demonstrated by US intelligence disclosures in December 2021, Western governments finally had a realistic sense of what might be coming. While hoping and working for the best, they were preparing for the worst.
A procession of Western leaders, headed by French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz, visited Moscow to try to talk sense into Putin. NATO and the US reached out with offers to discuss potential security concerns and confidence and security building measures. But it was too late.
With hindsight, fingers could be pointed at missteps by the West over the previous two decades in not being alert enough to decisions perceived by Russia to impinge on its core security interests. But the biggest error was that the West did not make clear the unacceptability of previous Russian aggression, especially its annexation of Ukrainian territory in 2014. Nor was it made clear that there would be consequences if aggression resumed, even against a non-NATO European country. If it was not understood then that the last point was true, Ukraine has shown it to be so.
There is no doubt, however, where responsibility for war rests. Putin treated his international interlocutors as well as his Ukrainian neighbours with contempt. We have no evidence that different diplomatic engagement in the run-in would have altered his course.
What Value Diplomacy?
What role can diplomacy play in dealing with an interlocutor whose word cannot be trusted, or whose version of reality is so starkly different?
Let us start with the importance of clarity, not obfuscation, in diplomatic engagement. The role of UN secretary-general is sometimes styled as that of the world’s top diplomat. The current secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, called on Putin to think again as the invasion began and called out what he termed Russia’s ‘perversion’ of peacekeeping. He has kept up a clear line since.
The secretary-general’s stance reflects an understanding of fundamental importance. Russia’s invasion is above all a tragedy for Ukraine. But as the Ukrainians have consistently said, it is not just about Ukrainian, but European, security. More than that: it is about what behaviour by states is permissible in the 21st century. Russia’s actions are a violation of its obligations under the UN Charter. Accordingly, the global community has an interest in Russia’s actions being called out for what they are, resisted and reversed.
Putin’s warped worldview and callous actions have so far only galvanised the West, strengthened NATO and made it more attractive to potential new members, while making Russia itself a pariah
Russia now finds itself ostracised. At the UN, even China abstained in the Security Council vote on 25 February condemning Russia. Given Russia’s veto, meaningful Security Council decisions may be impossible. But other countries made their views clear at an extraordinary meeting of the UN General Assembly on 2 March. They condemned Russia’s invasion by 141 votes to five, with only Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea backing Russia. China again abstained, as did India.
Russia’s rights of representation were suspended at the Council of Europe, the organisation dedicated to upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law in the continent. In several other bodies, including the UN Human Rights Council, the Conference on Disarmament and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), other countries walked out when Russian foreign minister Lavrov or his delegates attempted to justify Moscow’s actions.
What of Russian diplomats themselves? It may or may not have been a coincidence that Putin timed his invasion when the UN Security Council rotating presidency fell to Russia in February, leading to the grotesque spectacle of the Russian ambassador chairing an emergency Security Council meeting at the very moment that Russian forces moved in.
Russian diplomats serve their country loyally and professionally. Yet some must surely be wondering how much they can stomach, and how far Russia’s interests are served by Putin’s deadly decision-making.
Successful 21st century statecraft will be about more than self-interested power-plays and cruel, self-defeating and misjudged acts of realpolitik.
Towards a New Security
In Europe, NATO has deployed additional military assets to reinforce eastern Allies and upped its military readiness. Allies have also provided additional military supplies to Ukraine. Alliance heads of government made clear that Russia had ‘rejected the path of diplomacy and dialogue repeatedly offered … fundamentally violated international law, including the UN Charter’ and that its ‘actions are also a flagrant rejection of the principles enshrined in the NATO-Russia Founding Act: it is Russia that has walked away from its commitments under the Act’. An end, for now, to dialogue with NATO.
In a major development, the German government has committed to increase its defence spending, including to exceed the NATO target of 2% of GDP. The EU, whose membership includes several non-NATO countries, has announced an emergency package to support the Ukrainian armed forces. These are seismic shifts in the European security landscape.
Thus Putin’s warped worldview and callous actions have so far only galvanised the West, strengthened NATO and made it more attractive to potential new members such as Finland and Sweden, while making Russia itself a pariah. All of this must be counter to Russia’s interests on any rational assessment.
For all the diplomatic protests and international disgust, it is critical that Western capitals keep or open communication channels to Russia’s senior leadership
Putin has also thrown pan-European security arrangements, including those centred on the OSCE, into the air. Russia has long played fast and loose with its commitments there, including the military confidence and security building measures in the Vienna Document. The invasion of Ukraine showed complete disregard for the fundamental principles of the Helsinki Final Act, including sovereign equality, refraining from the threat or use of force, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and respecting the territorial integrity of states.
There is not going to be a return to business as before any time soon. Yet, as we approach the 50th anniversary in 2023 of the ‘Helsinki process’, the principles of both the UN Charter and the OSCE need to be turned into a more sustainable reality.
For all the diplomatic protests and international disgust, it is critical that Western capitals keep or open communication channels to Russia’s senior leadership, lest its decision-making become even more insulated and dangerous.
When the fighting stops – indeed, to help it to stop – arrangements will need to be negotiated to oversee a true ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian forces. Russia will need a diplomatic as well as military exit route.
Longer-term stabilisation and security arrangements will also be necessary. NATO, the EU and the OSCE are all likely to have a role to play in these, for both hard and soft security arrangements will be required. There will need to be a security reset in Europe. There will need to be justice and accountability too, including for potential war crimes.
Sometimes diplomacy fails and ends. For now, the artillery, rockets and guns have taken over. Ukrainians are bravely defending themselves. But diplomacy will have to resume if there is to be a route out of the crisis and towards re-building security and stability for Ukraine and Europe.
Progress will also require a profoundly different Russian approach. It is far from clear whether that will be possible under the country’s current leadership.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Peter Jones CMG
Distinguished Fellow; Former COO and Director-General, FCDO