The lack of United Nations (UN) involvement in mediating the Russian invasion of Ukraine is glaring, despite the plaintive speeches in the General Assembly. As in the era of 19th century diplomacy, “great power” leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, are trying to negotiate a solution – so far without success. But the UN can still play an important peacemaking role by offering to administer Crimea as “international” territory.
There is a precedent. In 1947, the UN proposed to administer Jerusalem as a neutral “international city” in its plan for the partition of Palestine. Had Jerusalem been granted this status, much of the conflict could have been avoided. Given that Russia will likely defend its illegal occupation of Ukraine to the last man, even threatening nuclear strikes, against Ukraine’s equally determined attempt to reclaim it, the proposal should be considered.
Ukrainian military advances against Russian forces in eastern and southern Ukraine have transformed the debate on peace negotiations. Although a ceasefire is not an immediate option as both sides seek territorial advantage, Ukraine’s success raises the question of where third parties, including the UN, can steer the conflict away from a further escalation with its inherent dangers.
Diplomats are faced with nasty choices. If the United States and most European countries continue to arm Ukraine, the war could continue indefinitely, with further dire consequences for civilians and soldiers, including the millions of people in Africa and elsewhere who depend on cereals, vegetable oil and fertilizers produced in Russia (the world’s largest wheat exporter) and Ukraine (the world’s fifth largest grain exporter). Russia’s missile attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure in response to the bombing of the Kerch Strait Bridge point to a further escalation of Russia’s mode of warfare.
Meanwhile, civilians under Russian occupation suffer massacres, deportations, filtrations and forced assimilation. Helping Ukraine free itself and resist Russian imperial expansion is necessary and legitimate. Any future international court could indict Russian leaders and military personnel for crimes of aggression, crimes against humanity and war crimes; some commentators also mention the genocide.
And now there is the Russian nuclear threat. Comments are divided on how seriously this saber-rattling should be taken. Some observers point out that nuclear powers have neither threatened nor deployed such weapons when they have lost wars in the past: the Americans in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan, for example. But these wars were far from their main territory, and Putin has repeatedly stated that Ukraine’s status as part of Russia’s sphere of interest, and even as part of Russia itself, is a question of existential security: that an “ant-Russia” on his doorstep is an intolerable threat.
That’s why he talks about nuclear weapons, especially now that he’s losing ground. President Biden seemed to understand this difference when he invoked the danger of a nuclear ‘Armageddon’, even if he did not share Putin’s appreciation of the legitimate Russian sphere of influence. Neither do the Ukrainians. Whether legitimate or not, however, Russian forces can inflict incalculable damage by asserting Putin’s understanding of the national interest.
While Putin can salvage his rule by losing Ukrainian territory occupied and annexed since January, it is harder to predict his survival if Ukraine defeats Russian forces in Crimea, annexed in 2014, which most Russians consider their heritage.
In that case, is it an unacceptable risk to call your nuclear bluff? While I support the UN Charter ban on annexation and recognize the legitimacy of Ukraine’s campaign to regain all of its territory, this ban is flagrantly violated when it comes to Western allies – for example, in the the golan heights or Western Sahara. When annexation is considered existentially necessary for an ally, the West turns a blind eye.
Faced with the uneven application of the anti-annexation norm, it is time to rethink the categories of national sovereignty: to consider an alternative to the total victory/total defeat zero-sum diplomacy that currently structures peace options.
If Crimea is non-negotiable for both Russia and Ukraine, it is more urgent to negotiate a third option to resolve the security dilemma of control of this territory: UN governance of the region as an international territory on which neither party enjoys sovereignty.
The precedent of Jerusalem “under a special international regime…administered by the United Nations,” as UN General Assembly Resolution 181 put it in 1947, offers a model in some respects. Resolution 194 of December 1948 called for a United Nations Conciliation Commission to implement the special international regime. It would be constituted by demilitarization, free access, the right of return of refugees and maximum local autonomy for its “distinctive groups” with the cooperation of a UN representative. A distinct group in Crimea is the Tartar population who were abused under Ukrainian and Russian rule. Needless to say, the Sevastopol naval base should be redeveloped.
Although the Jerusalem plan failed because some Arab countries rejected partition (Arab Palestinians were not invited) and the new State of Israel repudiated UN involvement, the idea remains convincing. The unrecognized Israeli annexation of the entire city and adjacent lands after 1967 led to systematic inequalities (Palestinians in Jerusalem are increasingly unable to obtain Israeli citizenship, for example) that discredits the ideal of sovereignty nationally in such controversial circumstances.
Naturally, giving up an absolute right to territory considered historically, economically and strategically important would be painful for both parties. They would resist. But this is not just a regional war. It has massive implications for global food and nuclear security. And waging war is possible only because of the dense network of international military and economic relations of the belligerents. While the Ukrainian campaign is more dependent on outside support than the Russian campaign, it too could not last indefinitely if China and India told Putin to accept the internationalization of Crimea.
Only the UN and supporters of Ukraine and Russia can cut the Gordian knot of incompatible nationalist claims that threaten global security.
A. Dirk Moses is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at City College of New York. He is the author of “The Problems of Genocide” (2021) and editor of the Journal of Genocide Research.