What Can the U.N. Do About The Ukrainian Crisis?

The confrontation between Russia and the Ukraine in the Sea of Azov that erupted on Sunday when Russia attacked and seized three Ukrainian vessels off the coast of the Crimean peninsula has aroused world opinion.

NATO and the European Union have called for “restraint and de-escalation.” Germany is “greatly concerned” and says it is “in contact with both sides” to try to avert any further escalation. U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said that an emergency meeting of the Security Council was scheduled for Monday morning.

That is not to say, however, that the peacemakers are neutral. The international community has little patience for moral equivalency here.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in a phone conversation on Monday that he has western alliance’s “full support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

The EU demanded that Russia “restore freedom of passage at the Kerch Strait” where the incident occurred, and its construction of the Kerch Bridge was in the first place a “violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Meanwhile, Russia has refused to give up the captured boats — two small armored artillery vessels and a tug boat — and the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) said it had opened a criminal inquiry into what it called the ships’ illegal entry into Russian territorial waters.

We already have a preview of the he-said/he-said charges and countercharges that will be heard at the Security Council. Both sides claim the other is the aggressor and that international law and all morality is on their side.

A video of the ramming of one of the Ukrainian vessels has been played on news outlets around the world, and there is no question about who did what to whom. Even the Russians admit they did it to the Ukrainians. The question is who started it.

“It’s obvious that this painstakingly thought-through and planned provocation was aimed at igniting another source of tension in the region in order to create a pretext to ramp up sanctions against Russia,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

According to the Russian news site Sputnik, the FSB said Sunday it has “irrefutable evidence that Ukrainian Naval Forces prepared and staged a provocation in the Black Sea.” No doubt Russia will bring its evidence to the Security Council meeting, where it will be refuted.

It is highly unlikely that the Russian presentation will change any minds. Nobody in the West believes the Russians. It is characteristic of Russian President Vladimir Putin to use force to get his way and then blame the victims for starting it.

Such was the case in the Russia-Georgia War of 2008, and the appearance of “Little Green Men” (Russian special forces) in Crimea in 2014, ahead of Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula.

What will the U.N. do? Whatever the diplomats in the emergency session say, there is very little they can do to change Russia’s behavior. As a permanent member of the council, Russia wields a veto on any resolution that body might produce, no matter how mildly critical of Russia; any sanctions against it are certainly out of the question.

It cannot force or influence Russia to surrender the Ukrainian vessels and crew members before it decides to do so in its own good time, presumably when its inquiry into the “illegal” actions of the Ukrainians has run its course, or has exhausted its propaganda value.

The United Nations will once again demonstrate its fecklessness in the face of international bullying. It will prove the correctness of Truman’s secretary of state Dean Acheson, who took a skeptical view of the U.N. from its inception:

The hope that such a forum could preserve peace among the great powers, he argued, “was impractical.” Only the powers themselves acting in concert could impose their will in the international arena. That is why it was understood that a strong military alliance such as NATO was necessary to contain an expansionist Soviet Russia.

The world has changed profoundly since Acheson’s days, but in this respect it hasn’t. Russia will continue to push its neighbors around and threaten those farther away who try to defend them, as long as it thinks it worth the price.

Thus far, the sanctions on Russia over its takeover of the Crimea have been an acceptable price to pay in the eyes of the Kremlin, which it sees as a more theatrical form of Western hand-wringing — nothing to take seriously. Additional calls for respect for Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty will certainly not move Vladimir Putin.

Perhaps stronger sanctions will. But that is something that will have to be decided outside the halls of the United Nations Security Council.