UN, Europe and the war in the Ukraine

It is imperative that the UN make itself heard and felt, if the drift toward a third world war is to be stopped.

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The difficult challenges facing today’s world – the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, the escalating Cold War, the risk of a nuclear conflict, the increase in human rights violations and the exponential rise in the number of refugees and hungry people – more than ever demand active intervention on the part of the UN, whose mandate includes maintaining collective peace and security, as well as defending and fostering human rights. Among the many policy areas in which the UN can reclaim its centrality is the important area of peace and security, specifically in connection with the current escalation of the Cold War. This war, which was set in motion by Donald Trump and then enthusiastically continued by Joe Biden, seems to have two targets, China and Russia, and two fronts, Taiwan and Ukraine. It would seem unwise for a declining power such as the United States to engage in a confrontation on two different fronts at the same time. The previous Cold War was waged against the Soviet Union only, and China has vast economic power and is a leading creditor of the US. It is about to outperform the US as the world’s largest economy, and in 2018, according to the US National Science Foundation, its scientific production surpassed that of the US for the first time. Furthermore, logic would suggest that the US keep Russia as an ally, not an enemy, so as to separate it from China and to make sure that the energy and geostrategic needs of Europe – its historically – continue to be met. The same logic would suggest that the EU bear in mind Central Europe’s historical and economic relations with Russia (up until Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik).


It is especially troubling to see the neocons (the ultra-conservative politicians and strategists who have dominated US foreign policy since the 2001 attack on the Twin Towers) antagonizing Russia while urging the US to prepare for a war against China – a hot war of a new kind, with artificial intelligence playing an important role – by the end of the decade. The international media power flaunted by the neocons is nothing if not impressive. As was the case in 2003 with the preparations for the invasion of Iraq, we are now witnessing an uncanny unanimity among foreign policy commentators in the so-called Western world. Long described as an important and reliable trading partner, China has suddenly become a dictatorship where human rights are massively violated, a malevolent power that aims to control the world and whose efforts must, therefore, be neutralized at all costs. As for Russia – a strategic partner until recently (for instance, in the case of the nuclear agreement with Iran) –, it has turned into a country ruled by an authoritarian and aggressive president who is bent on invading democratic Ukraine. In order to defend Ukraine, the US will provide it with military assistance, and for that to happen, Ukraine will have to join NATO. Although it is false, this narrative has been reproduced, unchallenged, in the Washington Post and New York Times, then amplified by Reuters and the Associated Press and echoed in briefings staged in US embassies. All that Western commentators do is parrot it uncritically. In view of all this, it is imperative that the UN make itself heard and felt, if the drift toward a third world war is to be stopped.


The UN has all the information that is needed to counter this narrative and actively neutralize its destructive potential. Ukraine is divided along ethnic and linguistic lines, between a predominantly Ukrainian western part and a predominantly Russian eastern part. During the 2000s, election results and opinion polls foregrounded the contrast between the pro-EU, pro-NATO western side and the pro-Russian eastern side. With respect to energy resources, Ukraine is 72 percent dependent on Russia for natural gas. That is also the case with other European countries (Germany is 39 percent dependent), which gives an idea of Russia’s negotiating power in this regard. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has tried to pull Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and bring it into that of the Western world, while at the same time turning it into a pro-American bastion on the Russian border. According to this two-pronged strategy aimed at military and economic integration, Ukraine is to join NATO (along with Georgia – which also shares a border with Russia – as was approved at the 2008 Bucharest summit) and the European Union. The orange revolution, or rather the coup of 22 February, 2014, which was strongly supported by the US, was used by the West as a pretext to speed up this strategy. Its immediate cause was President Yanukovych’s refusal to conclude an economic integration agreement with the EU that sidelined Russia. There followed protests, social unrest and brutal repression by the government, as a consequence of which more than 60 people died. We know now that there were heavily armed fascist groups among the demonstrators. On 22 February the president was forced to leave the country. The US-driven “promotion of democracy” had succeeded, and the “orange revolution” set its anti-Russian policies in motion. Russia warned that it considered the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO and joining the EU to the exclusion of Russia to be a “direct threat”. Over the next months, Russia occupied Crimea, where it already had an important military base.


The years 2014 and 2015 saw the signing of the Minsk agreements, brokered by Russia, France and Germany. The agreements recognized the ethnolinguistic specificity of the predominantly Russian-speaking Don River region (Donbas) and provided for the establishment by Ukraine, and in accordance with Ukrainian law, of a system of self-government for that region (which spans the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts). Ukraine failed to comply with the agreements. Now tensions have risen again, as Russia is accused of wanting to invade Ukraine. And it may well do it (certainly refraining from going any farther than ethnically-Russian eastern Ukraine) if NATO, the US and the EU persist in their hostility. Given these developments, one wonders whether it is Russia or the US that has been creating unrest in this part of the world. Everyone remembers the 1962 missile crisis and how the Soviet Union decided to deploy missiles in Cuba. The American response was unyielding; this was a direct threat to US sovereignty and the country would never accept those weapons on its border. The world was on the brink of nuclear war. Was the US reaction at the time that different from Russia’s current position in view of Ukraine’s intention to join NATO?  The report of the meeting between US Secretary of State James Baker and Mikhail Gorbachev, held on 9 February, 1990, was made public in 2017. It states that during the meeting it was agreed that, if Russia helped work toward German reunification, “not an inch of NATO (…) will spread in an eastern direction” (http://nsarchive.gwu.edu). Despite this fact and the dissolution of the Warsaw pact, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO nine years later. Furthermore, no pundit seems to remember that when Vladimir Putin rose to power, in 2000, he publicly expressed his desire that his country join NATO and the EU, so that Russia “does not become isolated in Europe”. Both his requests have been denied.


The truth is that the UN knows that Russia is not the aggressor here, and that all Ukraine needs to do for hostilities to cease is to comply with the Minsk agreements. Why cannot Ukraine remain a neutral country, as is the case with Finland, Austria or Sweden? If a war breaks out in the region, it will be fought on European, not American, soil. This is the same Europe that just over 70 years ago recovered from two hellish world wars that caused nearly 100 million deaths. If the UN wishes to be the voice of peace and security, as provided for by its mandate, it must take a much more active and independent stand than that of the countries involved. It has to go and see for itself in situ what the actual situation is in the territories where the great powers are clashing and preparing themselves for hegemony wars (known as proxy wars) the consequences of which are likely to be especially dire for their minor allies – in the present case, Taiwan or Ukraine, where many lives may be lost, in spite of the fact that Russia and China are the ultimate targets of this aggressive “regime change” politics and the outcome may be similar to what we saw in Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan. The world needs authoritative voices that refuse to stick to the script imposed by whatever rival parties happen to be at loggerheads. The most authoritative voice of all is the UN’s.


- Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Portuguese professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), distinguished legal scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and global legal scholar at the University of Warwick. Co-founder and one of the main leaders of the World Social Forum. 




Article provided to Other News by the author, on 01.17.2022


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