Strange Days at the U.N. as Russia Takes the Helm of the Security Council

The world panel created three-quarters of a century ago to maintain international peace and security met in New York on Monday under its new leadership: the nation that has plunged Europe into its biggest land conflict since World War II.

For the first time since February 2022, when its military stormed across the borders of neighboring Ukraine and launched an unprovoked war, Russia has taken over the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council.

The oddity was lost on no one, save perhaps the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, who rejected the growing outcry that Russia has no business presiding over the Council.

“We do not abuse the prerogatives of the presidency,” the ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said on Monday at a news conference. “One thing is a national position. The second thing is the role of the presidency of the Security Council, which we cherish.”

And, indeed, the first day of the new Security Council presidency did begin ordinarily enough.

There was the customary breakfast hosted by the new leader and attended by representatives of all 15 member nations. It showed, Mr. Nebenzia said, that “they are all ready to go along.”

There was also an administrative session of the Council at which the subject of the war did not emerge, as well as an afternoon meeting with all U.N. member states at which Russia outlined its plans for the month. Those meetings reflected the largely ceremonial nature of Russia’s new duties — but the job does come with a pulpit, and that is what some Western officials are afraid of.

“We expect that they will behave professionally,” the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told reporters on Monday. “But we also expect that they will use their seat to spread disinformation and to promote their own agendas as it relates to Ukraine. And we will stand ready to call them out at every single moment that they attempt to do that.”

The State of the War

  • Counteroffensive Challenges: With powerful Western weapons and newly formed assault units, Ukraine is poised for a critical spring campaign. But overcoming casualties and keeping troops motivated will be stern tests.
  • A High-Profile Attack: An influential Russian military blogger was killed when a bomb exploded in a cafe in St. Petersburg on April 2. Russian authorities have detained a suspect in the killing.
  • Arrest of American Reporter: With the arrest of Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal correspondent, President Vladimir Putin signaled to the world that he was doubling down on Russia’s isolation from the West.

Still, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield noted that there was more to the work of the Council than Ukraine, and that members had to work with one another on a range of global topics.

Stéphane Dujarric, U.N. spokesman, said the message from Secretary General António Guterres for Russia was the same he gave every month to the presidency: “The more unified the Council is in its work, the better it is for the organization.”

Russia made it clear that war or no war, it would take full advantage of the U.N. role, with its foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, planning to travel to New York at the end of April to preside over two meetings of the Council.

However limited the powers of the presidency, for many, the symbolism was beyond measure. Only last month, the International Criminal Court had issued an arrest warrant for Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, accusing him of war crimes in Ukraine, where Russian forces regularly target civilian areas.

The Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, holding a news conference at the United Nations in New York on Monday.Credit…Bryan R. Smith/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, denounced the passing of the Security Council presidency to Russia, calling it “absurd and destructive.” U.S. officials, too, lamented it, but said there was nothing to be done. The monthlong presidency is rotated alphabetically among the Council’s 15 members, and it is simply Russia’s turn.

It is hardly the first time that the Security Council has met under the shadow of war.

In London on Jan. 17, 1946, amid the rubble of World War 11, the organization held its first meeting. “Gentlemen,” the interim chairman declared. “In accordance with the articles of the charter, I declare the Security Council duly constituted.”

Russia — then the Soviet Union — was one of the five veto-holding permanent members of the Council that day, and is still one today. That veto power has complicated the body’s work when it comes to the war in Ukraine.

The Council has the task of maintaining peace and security around the world, and the resolutions it passes are legally binding. But it has been unable to issue unanimous statements or pass resolutions about the war because of Russia’s power to block any action against itself.

The presiding country has no added influence on decisions or votes, generally planning and leading meetings and handling administrative work. But presiding members typically host a number of meetings on global topics they want to highlight, including the climate, women’s rights and peacekeeping in Africa.

Analysts say Russia’s presidency will require a difficult balancing act for U.S. and European members of the Council. On the one hand, they want to maintain their tough posture against Moscow, but on the other, they need to make sure the work of the Council is not disrupted.

“The U.S. and Europeans will grit their teeth and put up with Russia’s presidency,” said Richard Gowan, the U.N. director of the International Crisis Group, an organization that seeks to prevent deadly conflicts. “The Russians have signaled that they want to avoid a big mess over the presidency.”

Though there were no fireworks on Monday, things may change on Wednesday.

The war of narratives over Ukraine may crop up then as Russia convenes an informal Council meeting on the Ukrainian children it has forcibly taken across the border. Russia claims it has acted to protect the children. The International Court of Justice has declared it a war crime.

The goal of the meeting, Mr. Nebenzia said on Monday, is to “dispel some misgivings and propaganda over that issue.”

A second session will concern the export of weapons and military equipment. The focus, Mr. Nebenzia claimed, will not be on any one particular country — but the Kremlin has repeatedly condemned the outpouring of aid to Ukraine from Western allies since the war began.

Mr. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, also plans to preside over a meeting on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on April 25.

And Mr. Lavrov, an unflinching defender of Russia’s war in Ukraine, plans to lead another session another subject: maintaining peace and security through multilateralism and the U.N. charter, sovereignty and respect, Mr. Nebenzia said.

That drew a pointed retort from Britain’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, James Kariuki.

“Russia is in no position to talk about international law or the values of the U.N.,” he said.

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