Negotiating power politics to protect Ukrainians and international peace and security

11 March 2022

The United Nations and international community are facing one of the greatest threats to international peace and security since the cold war. The UN Charter has been violated by a permanent member of the UN Security Council under the widely discredited pretext of preventing genocide and ‘de-nazifying’ Ukraine. The same UNSC member who has repeatedly claimed the primacy of sovereignty in blocking collective action to protect Syrians from chemical warfare and mass atrocity crimes.

Russia’s own citizens are risking detention and violence from their security forces to express their opposition to President Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Syrians are expressing their solidarity with the people of Ukraine after a decade of unaccountable Russian-backed brutality in their country. 400 Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group with close ties to Putin, who terrorised Syrians and are wanted for war crimes, are currently in Kyiv with alleged orders to murder the President and other top government officials.

The international community has been swift to condemn Putin and enact sanctions against him, his inner circle and others they hope can exert influence. The immediate effect of these sanctions appear to have had some impact with the rapid depreciation of the ruble and several Russian oligarchs’ publicly denouncing the invasion. Without further targeting of the energy sector, and in the absence of independent elections, the longer-term effect on the Russian economy and President’s behaviour remains to be seen. What is clear from daily media reports is that Ukrainians are in need of more immediate measures to deter Russia’s armed aggression now.

As of the 6 March the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented 364 civilian deaths and 759 injured acknowledging it is likely an underestimation due to the challenge of verifying in active conflict. Early indications showed some level of restraint from Russian forces as they faced an unexpected level of resistance. This has shifted with Russia’s increased reliance on air power, use of explosive weapons in urban areas and siege tactics that will dramatically increase civilian casualties and sow the seeds for an insurgency in the event of Russian occupation.

In just over a week, 2 million Ukrainians have been displaced with over 1 million having fled to neighbouring countries at a rate the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has stated unprecedented in his experience. The European Union and neighbouring countries are to be praised for their swift response in offering temporary protection for civilians fleeing Ukraine. At 44 million, the population of Ukraine is over twice that of Syria and hosting refugees in neighbouring European countries will be costly. The current refugee response plan is US550 million for just over 2 million Ukrainians for 6 months. On average refugee populations are displaced for 20 years. In weighing up decisions to act and the implications of insufficient measures can the international community afford to fund the fallout from Russia’s aggression? As history has repeatedly shown there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems, only political ones.

In what appears to be a recognition of the dilemma of neutrality in the face of armed aggression and threat to international peace and security, member states such as Sweden have overturned previous policies against providing lethal military support. Australia has also recently agreed to provide lethal military assistance through NATO. With Putin’s recent comments likening sanctions as “akin to a declaration of war” and the imposition of a no-fly zone as a declaration of war, provision of assistance to Ukraine requires careful calibration of the consequences – of both Russia’s response and the protection risks for Ukrainian civilians.

While dialogue and mediation efforts must be the priority and communication channels kept open, it will not be appeals to humanity that will bring Putin to the table. There are no promising signs yet that Putin is interested in concessions and his reckless signalling and behaviour regarding nuclear weapons is deeply troubling. If any agreement were to be negotiated it is not clear what options are compatible with maintaining Ukraine’s sovereignty and Putin’s objective of returning to former Soviet borders. In the face of these challenges, what is needed is unanimous international opposition to strongman tactics and show of collective strength that demonstrates to him pursuing this war will be too costly.

The question for the international community, then, is will the response to Ukraine signal an end of strong man politics or the enabling of a new world order? Without greater strategic collective action for Ukraine, they are likely to be worn down by Russia’s larger military and greater air power. Ukrainians have shown their fierce opposition and certainly won the battle of ideas, but without greater sustained external support this is unlikely to deter Russia in the long term. If the plight of the Ukrainians is not enough to mobilise more strategic collective action to bring this conflict to an end, then a clear understanding that the implications and costs of this crisis resonate far beyond Ukraine should.

Amra Lee is a current PhD Candidate at ANU and former Rotary Peace Fellow at Uppsala University (2018-19). She holds over 15 years of experience as a humanitarian practitioner and researcher working for the United Nations, international NGOs and the Australian government across a range of crisis contexts, with extended field experience in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific. Her expertise includes strategic analysis, advocacy and response related to protection, principled access, refugee and child protection, conflict sensitivity, accountability to affected populations and preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence.

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