Argument

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Putin’s War Is an Existential Crisis for the United Nations

It needs to be replaced by an organization where one nation cannot escape accountability because it is in a special class.

By , a colonel in the U.S. Army JAG Corps who served as deputy legal advisor on the White House National Security Council from 2018 to 2020.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 69th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City on Sept. 24, 2014.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 69th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City on Sept. 24, 2014.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 69th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City on Sept. 24, 2014. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

On June 30, 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia appeared before an international body charged with maintaining world peace and providing a forum for resolving international disputes. In Geneva, Haile Selassie pleaded for his people before the world’s mightiest nations—collectively, the League of Nations—to prevent further destruction by a power bent on a war of conquest, Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy. Haile Selassie’s beleaguered forces continued to fight against a better armed, more powerful foe. The assembled nations listened and sympathized but ultimately took no action in collective security to stop the war. Some nations sympathetic to Italy, the aggressor, because of ideological alignment and opposition to the then-existing world order, balked at unified action to stop the war. Three years after Haile Selassie’s address, with the League of Nations proven incapable of preventing state aggression, the world was at war. The same sides that aligned in favor of and against Italy became pitted against each other. The cost in lives grew from tens of thousands in 1936 to tens of millions by 1945.

Nearly 86 years later, history is rhyming. The world, through 21st-century information technology, now views a war of conquest in Europe in near real time. Russia’s war in Ukraine has upended a world order established in the wake of a worldwide conflict and designed to prevent wars of conquest and to prevent one dictator from attempting to shift the boundaries of nations at his own whim. Again, factions are forming—either in support of the aggressor state, led by a despot who stands in opposition to basic human rights, or in favor of the established order that obligates nations to refrain from wars of conquest.

The world is on the precipice of a return to wars of aggression by tyrants only interested in power. But now the potential consequences, given the advent of nuclear weapons, are even graver. Vladimir Putin, the despot, appears to be stymied as his forces wither at the gates of Kyiv. Mussolini, a frustrated dictator, resorted to the barbarism of chemical weapons in 1936 to achieve what he could not gain by other means. As history rhymes, we can anticipate Putin also escalating his aggression through continued attacks on civilians, perhaps resorting to the use of chemical or even tactical nuclear weapons.

On June 30, 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia appeared before an international body charged with maintaining world peace and providing a forum for resolving international disputes. In Geneva, Haile Selassie pleaded for his people before the world’s mightiest nations—collectively, the League of Nations—to prevent further destruction by a power bent on a war of conquest, Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy. Haile Selassie’s beleaguered forces continued to fight against a better armed, more powerful foe. The assembled nations listened and sympathized but ultimately took no action in collective security to stop the war. Some nations sympathetic to Italy, the aggressor, because of ideological alignment and opposition to the then-existing world order, balked at unified action to stop the war. Three years after Haile Selassie’s address, with the League of Nations proven incapable of preventing state aggression, the world was at war. The same sides that aligned in favor of and against Italy became pitted against each other. The cost in lives grew from tens of thousands in 1936 to tens of millions by 1945.

Nearly 86 years later, history is rhyming. The world, through 21st-century information technology, now views a war of conquest in Europe in near real time. Russia’s war in Ukraine has upended a world order established in the wake of a worldwide conflict and designed to prevent wars of conquest and to prevent one dictator from attempting to shift the boundaries of nations at his own whim. Again, factions are forming—either in support of the aggressor state, led by a despot who stands in opposition to basic human rights, or in favor of the established order that obligates nations to refrain from wars of conquest.

The world is on the precipice of a return to wars of aggression by tyrants only interested in power. But now the potential consequences, given the advent of nuclear weapons, are even graver. Vladimir Putin, the despot, appears to be stymied as his forces wither at the gates of Kyiv. Mussolini, a frustrated dictator, resorted to the barbarism of chemical weapons in 1936 to achieve what he could not gain by other means. As history rhymes, we can anticipate Putin also escalating his aggression through continued attacks on civilians, perhaps resorting to the use of chemical or even tactical nuclear weapons.

Putin will do this and anything else in order to survive. No matter the cost, he must save face and claim victory—or face his own people not as a strongman but a featherweight. Even as his maximalist goals of gorging on all of Ukraine are now shattered, he will seek to bring Ukraine to terms and seize territory to claim victory. The Ukrainians, after their sacrifice, will come to terms only if the cost becomes unbearable. The consequence of ceding even one additional inch of Ukraine in a war of aggression like this is dire. Granting Putin anything short of defeat reinforces the notion for tyrants that they can change borders by force if they are willing to pay a price in the lives of their own subjugated masses. Tyrants will make this choice every time for their own interests.

There are a number of feasible off-ramps to this conflict. One idea is a negotiated armistice. An armistice would seek to suspend open hostilities, arrange for the release and repatriation of prisoners of war, and establish a separation of forces. The benefit of an armistice is that it freezes a conflict, pending future peace negotiations, without politically recognizing new boundaries. The boundaries would need to be negotiated. Additionally, an armistice may include a demilitarized zone (DMZ) to provide a buffer between forces. An armistice allows the parties to stop the bloodshed and save face without resolving the ultimate political issues. Outside powers can act as guarantors to effectively formalize a cease-fire and create a DMZ. Such an agreement allows one party to claim victory by stating the goals of a punitive expedition were achieved while the other can stop the bloodshed without recognizing any political demarcations.

Any real Putin victory that recognizes his gains means the demise of the post-World War II rules-based order and corrupts the value of the United Nations system. The United Nations’ purposes include maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations, and achieving international cooperation. The U.N. was meant to be a successor to the League, correcting its flaws. It hasn’t been perfect, but it has never been tested as it is now. How can the U.N. survive when one permanent member of the Security Council, charged with maintaining peace and security among countries, is the initiator of a war of aggression? The short answer is that it can’t in its current form.

A successor to the U.N. or a modified U.N. must follow this war. It must be an organization where one nation cannot escape accountability because it is in a special class. Tyrants and despots are watching this war and will learn what they can get away with. Other nations will draw lessons about giving up nuclear weapons. The stakes in the outcome of the present conflict cannot be overstated. Undoubtedly, the interest in ending the conflict and providing off-ramps is high. Policymakers will have to balance providing a face-saving exit for a nuclear-armed autocrat against saving the international rules-based system. They will need to be creative about ending the war and considerate of the lessons learned when shaping a successor organization or modified U.N. system. Whatever the new organization, a total veto by one special status state will be antithetical to the purpose of that body. There are many ideas on how to address this problem.

For instance, a mechanism to prevent a single member of a distinct class from thwarting the system is a veto override. This could be a supermajority override or nonunitary action requirement. Such a complex system would be designed to carefully balance the status of distinctively situated states against the need to prevent one outlier from wrecking the system. Within this construct, upon a veto, the other permanent or nonpermanent members of the council would call for a second to support the veto; if there is no second, then the veto is overridden. The veto override construct sets a high bar for overriding a member for the council but would moderate any extreme or fringe action when the outlier knows its power is not absolute. The principal purpose of such a system is to restrain the most extreme impulses of veto-holding members to prevent the most dangerous actions in violation of the basic principles of the U.N. Charter. This or any paradigm that prevents a unitary member from standing against the whole would be a vast improvement over the current system.

My service on the White House National Security Council, which focused, in part, on international organizations, helped me appreciate the value of international organizations. Ultimately, any body that seeks to uphold international norms must have the ability to hold all its members accountable should they violate international law. Putin’s actions, like Mussolini’s, have uncovered the failings of the U.N. If this body fails in crisis and cannot preserve order, it should fade into oblivion like the League of Nations.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of the U.S. government.

Yevgeny Vindman is a colonel in the U.S. Army JAG Corps who served as deputy legal advisor on the White House National Security Council from 2018 to 2020.

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