Being the Bystander: Diplomacy as a hindrance By Lydia König Svalander
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At its core, diplomacy is meant to steer covering states away from violent conflict and toward peaceful conflict mitigation and resolution. It is meant to be a preventative measure taken to ensure that international crises like both the First and Second World War would not repeat itself. By using diplomats as representatives, states are able to deal with sensitive matters in tactful manners, before that sensitive matter turns into a matter of international security. Diplomacy is also a cornerstone among the pillars that uphold the values of the United Nations, which in of itself is a major diplomatic undertaking.
Since the end of February, the world has witnessed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s violent targeting of Ukrainian citizens, both military personnel and civilians. Images of killed Ukrainians have been broadcasted on social media channels such as Twitter and Tiktok, with tribute posts to those who fell in service of Ukraine. In official media channels, discussions have been had about the threat an Ukraine-Russia conflict can have on political stability in Europe, the threat of another world war, and how this can impact China’s rise to becoming a global hegemon. Surprising little attention has been given to the cracks this ongoing crisis has shown in the facade of UN diplomacy.
While people all over the world have risen up in major protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, meeting at public squares or outside their embassies, UN diplomacy efforts have, so far, fallen short in achieving any substantial change in the Ukraine government’s favor. In fact, it was the EU who initiated severe economic sanctions against Russia, with the rest of the western world following suit shortly after. Even NATO, who is staying out of the conflict in order to not initiate an official third world war, has seen a majority of its members send weapons and medical supplies to Ukraine. For its part, the UN held a vote to declare the Russian invasion unlawful. This vote would probably be more effective if the UN Security Council wasn’t headed by Russia themselves, who vetoed the vote which promptly caused it to fall in the chamber.
Other diplomatic ventures, such as ceasefires to ensure peace talks at the border and humanitarian aid corridors to evacuate civilians from war zones, have been repeatedly violated by the Russian government after they initially agreed to it. The use of shelling as a war tactic has been indiscriminate against both military bases and civilian areas and Russia has, by the time of the writing of this article, occupied major Ukrainian cities close to their border with Russia. Considering the failure of these major diplomatic measures, can we honestly expect further diplomatic efforts to be fruitful?
Diplomacy might be an invaluable asset during peacetime in order to extend that period for as long as possible. However, when one party to the conflict lacks any form of commitment to trying diplomatic methods before applying force at the cost of civilian life, at what point do we consider an alternative strategy? Any diplomatic intentions Russia has displayed has been undermined by their actions. French President Emmanuel Macron even said that he believes the worst is yet to come after meetings with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. While the actions of both the EU and NATO have succeeded in isolating Russia from global markets and setting Russia on the path to severe economic decline, it does little to save Ukrainian lives when President Vladimir Putin is a billionaire, with billionaire friends. Sure, actions might speak louder than words, but for the average Ukrainian, these actions could arguably be considered one step removed from uselessness.
As for why the UN diplomacy efforts have failed in such spectacular ways, perhaps the world has outgrown them. Perhaps we need to find new solutions, new guidelines for when one side of the conflict has no interest in ending it via diplomatic means. For now, the UN is letting Russia walk all over Ukraine and its sovereignty with their hands tied behind their backs due to unfair veto rights and a peaceful promise made in a different century. If the tides of diplomacy and its value are changing, the UN needs to change with them, rather than risking to be left behind as a forgotten promise. As it stands, the UN has unwillingly become bystanders, rather than actors, in the largest conflict fought on European soil for almost a century.