When all this is over, we will have to hold a grown-up and perhaps very difficult conversation about the United Nations. No institution is perfect, or has supernatural powers to stop war or despotism, and perhaps nothing could have dissuaded Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine. But the UN’s failure to prevent one fifth of its permanent security council from overrunning another member state should give us pause. There are the hard realities of realpolitik, of course, but there is also the question of endemic institutional failure. It may be that we will either have to change how we think about the UN or change the UN itself.
In a session of the Security Council held overnight, António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, made a direct plea to the Russian dictator in the way only a boomer could:
‘I have only one thing to say, from the bottom of my heart: President Putin, stop your troops from attacking Ukraine. Give peace a chance.’
Even without the nod to John and Yoko it was a pitiful sight, the head of the UN begging a man set on war to lay down his arms, as though ‘peace’ is even a calculation in Putin’s strategy, as though it enjoys the same conceptual purchase among a gang of thugs and kleptocrats as it does among the salaried idealists of the UN. The failure to understand Putin and the forces that drive him and drive Russian politics is damning, not only of Guterres but of the body he nominally runs. Power, control, survival, pride: all these matter to Putin, not ‘peace’.
When he was done prostrating himself before the tormentor of Ukraine, Guterres handed the floor back to the president of the session, Vasily Nebenzya, better known as the Russian ambassador to the UN.