Lessons from Russia-Ukraine war: The UN of 1945 must be reformed

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine has disrupted global geopolitics and geoeconomics. By supporting Ukraine, the US-led NATO is trying to clip the powerful military wings of its strategic rival, Russia. Furthermore, US President Joe Biden’s massive sanctions on Russia have produced cascading adverse consequences for many economies. Amid greater uncertainty, might the G20 under UN auspices be a good avenue of negotiating the new global order?
A pro-Ukraine demonstrator holds a sign with Putin depicted as Hitler during a protest against Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 9 April 2022. (Carla Carniel/Reuters)
A pro-Ukraine demonstrator holds a sign with Putin depicted as Hitler during a protest against Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 9 April 2022. (Carla Carniel/Reuters)

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has become a worldwide challenge, globalised China, like the US, must be part of the solution — a new world order. India too matters as it seeks to partner both Moscow and Washington while negotiating a secure modus vivendi with Beijing. 

Unfortunately, however, the unsettled — “arguably unfriendly“ —Sino-Indian equation has reduced the effectiveness of the Russia-India-China (RIC) forum. Two decades ago, it was launched by Russia as a potential balancer against America’s unipolar global hegemony. For now, a multipolar world order is the aspirational choice of all three RIC members.

The unwanted 21st century war

What is the solution Moscow might prefer in this complex situation? Launching Russia’s military operation on 24 February 2022, Putin sought to “demilitarise…Ukraine”. His aim was to punish Kyiv for aspiring to join NATO, a move that could complicate Russian security. 

Soon, however, Russia felt constrained to begin talks with the NATO-backed Ukraine amid the sparks and fumes of a conventional war. The talks followed proposals by the RIC members, India and China, that Russia negotiates a settlement.

Russia wants Ukraine to stay diplomatically neutral, without acquiring an indigenous nuclear arsenal or America’s “nuclear umbrella” as a “prospective” NATO member.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, 7 April 2022. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via Reuters)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sounded pessimistic, though, on 7 April 2022 in his comments on a new draft agreement presented by the Ukrainian side. He said Ukraine has been “deviating” from its earlier willingness during the talks for a “non-nuclear and neutral status outside any blocs”.

Russia wants Ukraine to stay diplomatically neutral, without acquiring an indigenous nuclear arsenal or America’s “nuclear umbrella” as a “prospective” NATO member. However, such a long-term outcome may depend on the characteristics of a potential new world order.

Cross-currents of concerns

Despite competing worldviews, Beijing and Delhi actually have a similar policy towards the Russia-Ukraine crisis. China advocates the need to “accommodate the legitimate security concerns of the parties involved”.  

Chinese President Xi Jinping has, therefore, told Biden that “the US and NATO should also have dialogue with Russia to address the crux of the Ukraine crisis”. But polemics, not parleys, mark the US-Russia face-off over Ukraine, at this writing.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar have spoken to their respective Russian counterparts. Talking to Lavrov, during his visit to Delhi on 1 April, Jaishankar advocated the “cessation of violence and ending [of] hostilities”.

Lavrov, on his part, thought that India, guided by its “legitimate national interests”, would not decide its Russia policy under Western pressure. However, a key US ally, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, had met Modi in Delhi on 19 March, calling for international unity to resolutely respond to Russia’s invasion. Kishida’s line reflected subtle pressure on Delhi to make common cause with Washington.

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US President Joe Biden holds a virtual meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss Russia's war with Ukraine from the White House in Washington US, 11 April 2022. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In Biden’s call with Modi on 11 April 2022, the two leaders actually “committed to strengthening … military cooperation” and “discussed the destabilising impacts of Russia’s war against Ukraine”. This raises speculation whether India is tilting towards the US in the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

Earlier, not mincing words while imposing sanctions on Russia soon after it invaded Ukraine, Biden had sought to “impair their [Russian] ability to compete in a high-tech 21st century economy”. The rest is an unfolding saga of challenges for the current China-centred global economy.

Regardless of China’s claim, the interdependence of geopolitics and geoeconomics is clear from the way Biden has now targeted Russia. As Beijing is the Kremlin’s “coordinating” partner, the US has zeroed in on China too.

The basis of economic globalisation

In China’s current worldview, “economic globalisation is the trend of the times, not to be stopped by geopolitical competition”. However, the rational basis of geoeconomics is peace and security which constitute the crux of geopolitics. The Chinese Defence Ministry has, therefore, asserted that “the growth of China’s military strength is a growth of the force for peace in the world”.

Regardless of China’s claim, the interdependence of geopolitics and geoeconomics is clear from the way Biden has now targeted Russia. As Beijing is the Kremlin’s “coordinating” partner, the US has zeroed in on China too.

china air force
A military personnel stands under a People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft at the 13th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai in southern China's Guangdong province on 28 September 2021. (Noel Celis/AFP)

The Biden administration’s 2022 National Defence Strategy (NDS) identifies China as America’s “most consequential strategic competitor and the pacing challenger”. Even while noting that “Russia poses acute threats”, the NDS focuses on the “growing multi-domain threat” to the US from China.

The Chinese Defence Ministry responded by saying that “the US is the biggest... backstage manipulator in undermining world peace and stability”. This comment reflects Beijing’s view of the current Ukraine crisis that prompted America’s whole-of-government measures against Russia.

Future relevance of the UNSC    

Biden’s answer to Putin’s action shows that the US is increasingly relying on its issue-based “coalition of partners”. Washington can thus circumvent the obstacles to achieving its agendas in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Russia’s veto in the UNSC on 25 February was meant to prevent America from imposing its will vis-à-vis the Ukraine crisis.

The five official “winners” in the Second World War became permanent members (P5) in the UNSC at its inception in 1945, each with the vetoing right. The now-risen China, armed with vetoing rights since 1971, favours the current UN-centred international system.

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A United Nations (UN) Security Council meeting on 5 April 2022 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

In contrast, India demands “radical changes” in this system. Back in 1945, a still-colonised India was not considered for permanent membership. “Defending the outcome of the Second World War does not mean freezing the world order at 1945 forever”, Jaishankar had said, referring to China, at a RIC meeting in 2021.

For nearly two decades in this century, India has been joined by Japan, Germany and Brazil in seeking permanent membership. If, therefore, as China says now, the world is becoming a multipolar planet in political terms, the UN of 1945 must be reformed. 

Each state in the existing Group of Twenty (G20) is qualified to become a permanent member of the UNSC if it is reformed.

New role for G20

Each state in the existing Group of Twenty (G20) is qualified to become a permanent member of the UNSC if it is reformed. In this potential scenario, I think, the G20 can replace the existing P5, making the UN more democratic.  

Besides India, all P5 countries, including China and Russia, are members of the G20 which reflects the worldwide distribution of national economic strengths. Some are now questioning Russia’s right to be in the G20. But Russia complains that “everything is being done to recreate a [US-led] unipolar world”.    

In this contentious ambience, any potential global order, including the challenges of nuclear proliferation and climate change etc., can be negotiated by the G20 under UN auspices. As a geoeconomics forum currently, the G20 is no stranger to geopolitics.

Related: Lessons from Ukraine: Russia might fall into decline by going against global sentiment | How the Ukraine war will reshape the EU’s approach to China and Indo-Pacific | On the wrong side of geography: Why is India tolerating Putin’s Ukraine gambit? | Fifty years after Nixon's visit, is China tilting back towards Russia? | China's tricky position on the Russia-Ukraine war