Biden Plans U.N. Showdown if Russia Invades Ukraine

There’s lots of history at the Security Council, but few changes.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
A meeting of the United Nations Security Council
A meeting of the United Nations Security Council
A meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York on Sept. 23, 2021. AP Photo/John Minchillo, Pool

Putin’s War

The Biden administration is planning for a high-profile public showdown with Russia at the United Nations Security Council if Moscow intervenes in Ukraine. There is little concrete the United States can do at the U.N. to compel Russia, which wields veto power in the Security Council, to stand down in Ukraine. But the Security Council, with its iconic horseshoe-shaped table and seats reserved for the world’s big powers, has provided a visually powerful set piece for some of modern history’s most dramatic geopolitical confrontations, from the Cuban missile crisis to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

The Biden administration wants to take advantage of that to highlight Russia’s diplomatic isolation and, if possible, to place a wedge between Russia and its most powerful ally, China, which has been one of the council’s proponents of defending the territorial sovereignty of U.N. member states.

The effort would present U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield with a major test of her debating skills, as she will go head to head with Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia. The United States has already been briefing key allies in Europe and in the U.N. Security Council on Russian military activities, and preparing for a potential public standoff, according to a senior U.S. official.

The Biden administration is planning for a high-profile public showdown with Russia at the United Nations Security Council if Moscow intervenes in Ukraine. There is little concrete the United States can do at the U.N. to compel Russia, which wields veto power in the Security Council, to stand down in Ukraine. But the Security Council, with its iconic horseshoe-shaped table and seats reserved for the world’s big powers, has provided a visually powerful set piece for some of modern history’s most dramatic geopolitical confrontations, from the Cuban missile crisis to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

The Biden administration wants to take advantage of that to highlight Russia’s diplomatic isolation and, if possible, to place a wedge between Russia and its most powerful ally, China, which has been one of the council’s proponents of defending the territorial sovereignty of U.N. member states.

The effort would present U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield with a major test of her debating skills, as she will go head to head with Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia. The United States has already been briefing key allies in Europe and in the U.N. Security Council on Russian military activities, and preparing for a potential public standoff, according to a senior U.S. official.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the confidential nature of U.S. diplomatic outreach, said Russia’s military threat strikes “at the heart of the U.N. Charter.”

“There is a value to bringing attention to the crisis,” the official added. “It would demonstrate how isolated Russia is in the Security Council, and on the world stage.” It would also provide an opportunity for American officials to counter what the United States expects will be a wave of Russian misinformation.

Ever since the Cold War, the U.N. has served as a kind of theater for big-power standoffs, a place where Adlai Stevenson, U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s U.N. envoy, challenged Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin to admit his government had deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba.

“Adlai Stevenson’s presentation of the photographs of Soviet missile sites in Cuba taken by U-2 spy planes provided compelling evidence to support the Kennedy administration’s diplomatic arguments against the Soviet Union,” said Michael Dobbs, the author of One Minute to Midnight, a book about the Cuban missile crisis. “Since Western journalists were barred access to Cuba, there was no one reporting from the front lines of the crisis … the U.N. became a focus of public attention during the missile crisis.”

Still, Dobbs said he doesn’t believe “the Security Council debates played much of a role in Khrushchev’s decision to withdraw his missiles.” Both Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Kennedy, he noted, realized they “were playing with fire” and sought an exit from the crisis through back-channel negotiations between Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to Washington at the time.

Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell made his flawed case for war in Iraq before the Security Council in February 2003, brandishing a vial of a teaspoon worth of simulated anthrax powder designed to illustrate Saddam Hussein’s alleged ability to wreak havoc with weapons of mass destruction.

In the case of the Cuban missile crisis, the presentation, which was backed by overhead images captured by American U-2 spy planes of Soviet missile sites, helped rally international backing for America’s position. In contrast, Powell’s presentation dealt a lasting blow to American credibility on the international stage.

Powell, accompanied by then-CIA Director George Tenet, delivered an intelligence-backed presentation to the 15-nation council, drawing on satellite reconnaissance photographs, intercepted telephone calls, and information supplied by Iraqi defectors. He accused Iraq of engaging in an elaborate concealment effort, deploying mobile labs and drones capable of spreading biological and chemical agents. Recalling that less than a teaspoon of anthrax mailed in an envelope caused havoc in the U.S. postal system in 2001, he claimed that Iraq could not account for 16,500 liters of anthrax, enough to “fill tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of teaspoons.”

Following the U.S. invasion, the CIA concluded that Iraq had largely destroyed its chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons program shortly after the first Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s.

“Instead of a smoking gun in the form of documentary evidence of Iraqi WMD [weapons of mass destruction] he waved around a mock vial of anthrax that proved nothing at all,” recalled Dobbs, who covered Powell’s presentation for the Washington Post. “The subsequent failure to find WMD in Iraq certainly damaged U.S. credibility.”

Diplomats say they expect a replay of the kinds of debates that played out in the Security Council after Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, where Russian-backed separatists laid claim to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and later went on to annex the Crimean peninsula in 2014.

“I would anticipate we will have a Security Council showdown,” said one Security Council diplomat, who requested anonymity as they are authorized to speak publicly to press. “You bring it to the council, you lay out your arguments, force the Russians to defend their position, and try to peel off China from Russia.”

The U.S. plans are preliminary and may not come to fruition if the United States and Russia reach an agreement in ongoing talks. But there is also some skepticism about the ability of the United States to shame Russia into reversing course in Ukraine.

“I think the only thing which could matter is sanctions. All the rest I doubt very much it could have any impact on Putin’s calculation,” said Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador to Syria who served as France’s second-highest-ranking official at the U.N. Duclos currently serves as special advisor to Institut Montaigne.

“We know what the U.S. playbook will be if Russia does take military action, because we saw this all before in 2014,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at the International Crisis Group. “The U.S. and its allies will convene a lot of council meetings, make a lot of strong statements and probably slap down at least one sanction that Russia will veto.”

“Nobody actually thinks that the Council will have a significant substantive role in negotiating a conclusion to a new war in Ukraine,” Gowan added. “But it is a good platform for public diplomacy. The point will be to make the maximum amount of noise about Russia’s behavior.”

Russia, meanwhile, has already begun to get ahead of the Americans and shape the debate on Ukraine. Last month, Russia invited a number of speakers to brief members of the 15-nation council on the mistreatment of minorities in Ukraine and the Baltics. “I think both sides will be using the U.N. as a place to fight for control of the global political narrative,” Gowan added. “And both sides will be flooding social media with videos and quotes from U.N. meetings, to influence the wider media battle.”

The U.N. Security Council can be a very powerful institution if the key powers are aligned, as they were when then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush rallied the world behind an American-led military coalition that drove Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait. But friction between the United States, China, and Russia have largely paralyzed the council, undermining any efforts to address the pandemic or quash conflicts from Syria to Yemen.

Washington and its NATO allies have been engaged in intensive talks with Russian officials aimed at dissuading Moscow from launching a military strike against Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has amassed a force of more than 100,000 troops along the border of Ukraine, raising concerns that Russia intends to invade the former Soviet Republic.

In a phone conversation with Biden last month, Putin insisted he be given legally binding security assurances that NATO would not expand to Russia’s borders, while a top advisor threatened “grave consequences” if the United States and its allies impose new sanctions on Russia.

In high-level follow-on talks with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in Geneva this week, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said it is “absolutely mandatory” that Ukraine—which is seeking to join the military alliance—“never, never, ever” become a NATO member.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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