Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, shown here attending an international peace conference for Afghanistan in Moscow in 2021, has outlined the Kremlin's stance on the Ukraine dispute. Photo: AFP / Russian Foreign Ministry / Sputnik

While relations between the West and Russia have undeniably reached a dangerous crisis level, partially owing to the commonly held conviction in Washington that Moscow might use its 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine to invade the country, the US has recently decided to invite the Russians “to explain themselves,” as Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield argued on the American Broadcasting Company’s This Week program on Sunday.

The US ambassador to the United Nations made a significant effort to make that possible by securing the support of at least nine states of the 15-member UN Security Council (UNSC) to meet publicly on Monday to discuss Russia’s “threatening behavior” against Kiev and its ongoing military presence in Belarus – a country that has formed a Union State with Russia since 1999.

Although according to Thomas-Greenfield Moscow is “posing a clear threat to international peace and security and the UN Charter,” the authors of this article believe that the Security Council must consider whether it is not NATO’s threats against Russia, its expansion to the very borders of Russia and the massive deliveries of weapons to the Ukraine that constitute the principal source of the threat to peace for the purposes of Article 39 of the UN Charter.

The UNSC can indeed play a key role in de-escalating current tensions, but only if all parties concerned are willing to listen to one another, and thus Russia’s two proposals for the peaceful settlement of the disputes are open for discussion.

The need to see a bigger picture

Pax Optima Rerum – peace is the highest good – was the motto of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the murderous Thirty Years’ War and established the international principle of state sovereignty and the prohibition of interference in the internal affairs of other states. 

The United Nations Charter commits all member states to respect these principles as well as the right of peoples to self-determination, as stipulated in Article 1 common to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

These treaties bind the United States, Russia, Ukraine and all NATO member states.

Even though there are multiple issues associated with the current crisis, US President Joe Biden’s administration seems to be only focusing on Russian troops on Russian territory near the Ukrainian border and painting doomsday scenarios of a three-pronged invasion that could be conducted from southern Russia, Crimea and Belarus.

This is at best an ancillary issue, since there is no indication that Russia is planning an invasion. Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have repeatedly said so, and instead have invited the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to take seriously Russia’s legitimate security concerns.

In fact, the primary source of disagreement between the West and Russia is the very nature of the US-led military alliance that the former tends to portray as “defensive” and the latter sees as a “threat” and, therefore, rejects any possibility of admitting new members in Europe’s east into its ranks – especially when NATO openly endorsed Ukraine’s and Georgia’s aspirations to join the military bloc during the summit that took place in April 2008.

Playing on Russians’ worst fears, the US has been flooding Ukraine with lethal, aggressive weapons, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is placing troops and weapons close to the Donbas demarcation line.

Nevertheless, it is evident that if Ukraine were to flout the 2014 and 2015 Minsk Agreements and invade Donetsk and Lugansk, Russia would invoke the principle of “Responsibility to Protect” and prevent Ukrainian soldiers from massacring the Donbas Russians.

“The line of defense has already come close to us,” Lavrov asserted on Russia’s Channel One network on Sunday, adding: “It turns out each time that the line they are supposed to defend is moving further east. Now, it has already come close to Ukraine.”

Road to peace leads through Security Council

The UN Security Council has a duty to bring the parties together with a view to achieving a comprehensive and durable solution to the problems on the basis of the principles of sovereign equality and self-determination.

In the case of the current standoff, it is opportune for the UNSC to take advantage of Russia’s rotating presidency in February to de-escalate tensions and address outstanding differences pursuant to Articles 2(3) and 2(4) of the UN Charter, which oblige all states to settle disputes by peaceful means and to refrain from the threat of/or the use of force.

Among the possible scenarios would be a decision to organize and monitor a United Nations referendum in the Donbas and leave the decision in the hands of the people concerned.

Another important decision could be to persuade Ukraine to declare its neutrality, thereby defusing Russia’s fears that missiles would be stationed at its doorstep – an idea that has already been entertained by Dick Durbin, a member of the US Senate’s Ukraine Caucus.

Moreover, it will be equally necessary to revisit the 1989-91 scenario and the unrequited dismantlement of the Warsaw Pact in 1991. Indeed, after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, NATO should similarly have been dismantled, because it competes with the Security Council, which by virtue of the UN Charter possesses primary responsibility for peace and security in the world.

NATO’s record since 1991 has been one of bypassing the United Nations and interfering in the internal affairs of other states without Security Council approval, including the aggressions against Yugoslavia/Serbia in 1999, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and its involvement in the Libyan and Syrian civil wars.

Rational people can look at a problem from many angles, and it is time for the West at least to try to understand Russia’s concerns associated with NATO’s continuing eastern expansion and the all-too-obvious attempt to encircle Russia, in contravention to assurances given to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990.

With the Security Council already scheduled to discuss Ukraine on February 17 at a meeting on the Minsk Agreements that were endorsed by the body in 2015, the West and Russia would be well advised to discuss the long-term security of all Europeans, including Russians.

After all, nobody needs another arms race or the hypothetical stationing of Russian missiles in Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela or Chile.

Alfred de Zayas

Alfred de Zayas is professor of international law at the Geneva School of Diplomacy, former secretary of the UN Human Rights Committee, and the UN's independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order from 2012 to 2018. You can follow him on Twitter @Alfreddezayas.

Adriel Kasonta

Adriel Kasonta is a London-based political risk consultant and lawyer. He is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in Moscow and former chairman of the International Affairs Committee at the oldest conservative think tank in the UK, Bow Group. Kasonta is a graduate of London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). You can follow him on Twitter @Adriel_Kasonta.