Press play to listen to this article
Putin’s war in Ukraine
has brutally exposed
the flaws in Western
Illustration by Pete Reynolds for POLITICO
Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly by video link because of the coronavirus pandemic, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned leaders that the U.N. — created after World War II to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” — was on the verge of systemic failure.
“Mankind has conquered space and can even hold U.N. meetings remotely, using modern technology,” Zelenskyy said in September 2020. “Speaking the language of the same technology, the U.N. has become ‘software’ that saved the world from critical error. At the same time, we must recognize that the system is increasingly failing. It is attacked by new ‘bugs’ and ‘viruses.’ And countering them is not always effective.”
Then, turning to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s role in financing and directing a separatist war in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Zelenskyy said: “It is unacceptable when the sovereignty of an independent state is violated by one of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. This finally proves that the mechanisms of the 1945 model are not fully operational today.”
World leaders, if they were listening, paid little attention. And they did even less.
As U.S. President Joe Biden and other leaders converge on Brussels on Thursday for NATO, G7 and EU summits, they will confront not just some of their own failures at diplomacy and deterrence but those of an entire international system intended to guarantee peace but that now seems to lie in tatters.
Within 18 months of Zelenskyy’s address, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion and bombardment of Ukraine, bringing full-scale war to the European Continent for the first time in the 21st century, and demonstrating the failure of the U.N. and, more broadly, of the entire post-World War II security architecture that was largely designed by the United States and its European allies.
“The United Nations Security Council has proven once again to be useless,” Francis Fukuyama, the Stanford University-based political scientist wrote in American Purpose magazine this month, laying out some initial conclusions about Putin’s war in Ukraine.
The U.N. General Assembly earlier this month overwhelmingly approved a resolution to call on Russia to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw” from Ukraine, with 141 countries in favor, just five against — Russia, Belarus, Syria, North Korea and Eritrea — and 35 abstentions. But the U.N. is powerless to take any further action because of Russia’s veto power in the Security Council. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has been left pleading with Russia to just “end this absurd war.” Russia has also ignored an order to halt the war from the International Court of Justice, and there is similarly no enforcement mechanism.
But it is hardly just the U.N.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Council of Europe, two other pillars of the post-war security infrastructure, were created in 1949 with peace at the heart of their founding documents, and have similarly proven unable to stop Putin’s aggression against Ukraine.
In the Washington Treaty, NATO allies proclaimed “their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments.” In the Statute on Europe, the 11 founding nations of the Council of Europe declared, “the pursuit of peace based upon justice and international co-operation is vital for the preservation of human society and civilization.”
Officials, diplomats, academics and other experts say the core of the problem lies in the persistent refusal by leaders to modernize international institutions in line with a vastly redrawn geopolitical landscape. Decades of demands for overhauling the U.N. Security Council have been stymied by the five permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. — which could see their power diminished under new rules.
Some like Fukuyama also ascribe wider culpability to Western society as a whole. “What has happened in the 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall is that people living in democracies have gotten complacent,” he told Christiane Amanpour on CNN. “They assumed that the peace and prosperity they were enjoying would always be there and they didn’t have to work very hard for it.”
Ukrainians, however, were not so complacent in those same 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Twice, in 2004-2005 for the Orange Revolution, and again in 2013-2014 during the Maidan Revolution, they held mass protests to demand democracy.
For them, the failure of the global security architecture is not something to be studied in one of Fukuyama’s international relations seminars but a tragedy resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, and the wanton destruction of their cities.
To many Ukrainians, the rush by Washington to make clear to Moscow that no American troops would be sent to fight in Ukraine, the refusal of the U.S. and EU to impose preemptive sanctions on Russia, and the unwillingness of NATO countries to establish a no-fly zone and halt Russia’s bombardments, was a bewildering series of developments prompting them to question if the West actually wanted Putin to invade and now wants Ukraine to surrender.
Why won’t they help us more? Why won’t they stop Putin? What are they waiting for?
As a correspondent who has reported on Ukraine from inside and outside the country for more than decade, I’ve heard all of these questions constantly from Ukrainian citizens, officials, friends and other contacts who I’ve spoken with in the weeks since the war began.
Like Zelenskyy, who pivoted away from Ukraine’s NATO aspirations by wondering aloud why his country would want to be part of an alliance that is afraid of confrontation with Russia, many Ukrainians are wondering what was the point of creating all of these international organizations and structures only to end up on the brink of World War III anyway.
“They are speaking about this Article 5 not as the obligation but a limitation — which is not the case,” my friend, the Ukrainian journalist, Nataliya Gumenyuk, texted me recently, referring to NATO’s collective defense clause. Some allies have cited Article 5 as a reason why no NATO ally can enter the war in support of Ukraine, because it would drag the others into conflict as well.
Gumenyuk had just returned home to Kyiv after reporting from some of the cities and towns in eastern Ukraine, including Kharkiv and Okhtyrka, that have been reduced largely to smoldering rubble by Russian bombs. “The help is needed, but …” Nataliya wrote of Western assistance. “But why are all those institutions needed if they can’t influence the critical situation?”
Andrei Kurkov, an acclaimed Ukrainian novelist said: “You see yourself that actually the United Nations can do nothing, as well as the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] and the Council of Europe. All these nice organizations, auditoriums and places to speak, they are very pleasant places and pleasant people to listen to in peaceful times. But then once one of their members, a member of the Security Council, starts a war, he still remains a member of the Security Council.”
Oleksandra Matviichuk, a human rights lawyer based in Kyiv who has been documenting war crimes by Russia since the invasion of Crimea in 2014, had a blunter assessment of the West.
“They wait for us to stop the Russians,” Matviichuk said, “and to die while we’re stopping the Russians.”
But while the international structures may have failed for Ukrainians, they haven’t necessarily failed for everyone, according to Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“It prevented war in Europe for 80 years,” Daalder said of NATO, the Council of Europe and the EU. “That’s not nothing.”
Daalder said the war could have been avoided, had NATO sent troops to Ukraine before the invasion, but that there was a clear decision not to do so. “If we had put NATO troops in large numbers in Ukraine, we would have stopped the war,” he said. “But it was a policy decision not to do that. It’s not an institutional decision.” He also said there was a “failure to assess the situation” regarding Putin, and his unwillingness to adhere to international norms.
Daalder acknowledged there had been other conflicts in Europe since World War II — such as the Balkan wars of the 1990s, as well as Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 — but he said the overall record showed the alliance preserving peace.
“It’s a little much to say there hasn’t been any war, but for 80 years we have prevented a major continent-wide war,” he said. “And it continues to prevent the continent-wide war. Right up to this day. There is fighting in Ukraine, that’s at a level we haven’t seen since 1945 … but it’s only in Ukraine. It hasn’t spread. And it’s unlikely to spread because those very institutions exist.”
From Zelenskyy on down, Ukrainian officials say that view is dangerously naïve.
‘No one paid attention’
Ihor Zhovkva the deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential office, noted that Zelenskyy had urged preemptive action but the West had failed to step up. “No one paid attention or they were trying to say the sanctions will only make Russia annoyed or irritated and they will start a war — so there were no preventive sanctions, and the war has started,” Zhovkva said. “The same about closing the sky [with a no-fly zone] — the same logic.”
“If we do not stop Russia in Ukraine,” he said, “it will spread its aggression. It will start with the Baltic countries, and then over to Poland and go further. Then it will come to Germany and France and further on.”
Others say the inability to stop Putin is only the latest in a long chain of Western foreign policy failures that have undermined the international system. These include the failed intelligence that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the 20-year failed war in Afghanistan, led by the U.S. with NATO’s support, and an array of other missteps from the Balkans to Libya and Syria, that slowly eroded trust and faith in the international community’s ability to act.
“In my view, the West failed, made a big mistake, especially in 2003,” said a Spanish diplomat who requested anonymity to comment on other nations’ policies. “Because we lost the basic legitimacy when deciding whether we could just resort to a war in order to implement our liberal and democratic views.”
Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N., has likened Russia to a poisonous mold, spreading rot through the structures of the international body.
Kyslytsya said that body had failed to stop the rot on multiple occasions. He noted that the Russian Federation took over the Soviet Union’s seat on the U.N. Security Councilwithout the proper legal steps and changes to the U.N. charter. He also noted that Russia held the presidency of the Security Council when Putin began his invasion of Ukraine last month — a coincidence that he said shows Moscow’s contempt for international law.
But Kyslytsya said the West also needed to accept responsibility and push quickly for changes. “The things that we are now seeing is the result of the failure of the collective West,” he said in a telephone interview from New York.
“The issue right now is not to how to blame Washington, Paris or Berlin. The issue right now is whether the leadership in those capitals will have the guts to undergo catharsis,” he said, adding that the key question was “whether we will see this year the genuine desire of the collective West” to rethink its own “architecture and … modus operandi.”