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The U.N. Is No Longer a Center of Gravity in Ukraine’s Diplomatic War

The United Nations General Assembly and Security Council will convene Friday to mark the second anniversary of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine. Roughly a dozen European foreign ministers are scheduled to be in New York for the occasion. They will reiterate their support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and demand that Russia withdraw its forces from the country.

Yet if this should be a satisfactory set of U.N. events for the Ukrainians, they may also feel that it is a little low-key. At a gathering of the General Assembly on the one-year anniversary of Russia’s aggression in February 2023, 141 of the U.N.’s 193 members supported a resolution calling for a “just, comprehensive and lasting peace” in Ukraine, including a demand for a Russian withdrawal. This year, Kyiv and its allies are not calling for a vote on a similar text.

That is partly because they do not need to. Last year’s resolution still stands. But Western diplomats are frank that they are not sure that they could get a similar level of support now.

There are two factors behind this. One is that many U.N. members, having declared support for Ukraine in 2022 and early 2023, want to focus on other issues. The second is that the West’s failure to take a united position in favor of a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war has alienated a lot of non-Western representatives in New York. Ambassadors who voted in solidarity with Kyiv in the past now ask why the U.S. and Ukraine have not reciprocated over Gaza.

While events in the Middle East have certainly upended U.N. politics, there was growing talk of “Ukraine fatigue” in New York before last October. This was already an issue in the first months of 2023. Ukrainian diplomats suggested marking the first anniversary of full-scale war by tabling one or more resolutions calling not merely for peace, but for the creation of an ad hoc international tribunal that could prosecute Russian leaders for the crime of aggression. The U.S. and major European powers pushed back against this idea, arguing that many non-Western members would not accept it. Since then, Western diplomats at the U.N. have dedicated more time to issues—such as international development and climate change—that are of concern to countries with developing economies, which they worry are leaning toward China and Russia.

Ukrainian diplomats have also devoted less attention to the U.N. as the war dragged on. In the early months of the war, Kyiv was keen to secure big votes condemning Russia in New York. But there are rumors that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has grown increasingly skeptical of what such resolutions deliver. It is also evident that Russia does not worry too much about incurring reputational damage in New York. Instead, Moscow has tried to turn the tables on the West, organizing multiple Security Council meetings to criticize Ukraine and its allies.

Rather than focus on the U.N., Ukraine has worked with its allies to convene a series of meetings of national security advisers from both Western and non-Western countries in locations including Copenhagen, Riyadh and Davos to discuss the war. While Russia is excluded, officials from powers like India and Brazil have attended. The format has advantages for all sides. The participants do not speak in public or vote on up-or-down condemnations of Moscow as they do at the U.N., but Kyiv can count their presence as a win.

Although Zelenskyy spoke in person at the high-level session of the U.N. General Assembly last September, Ukraine did not dominate the meeting of leaders. By our count, a little over half of the participants from Africa, Asia and Latin America mentioned Ukraine at least once in their U.N. speeches. Although this was lower than in 2022, no other conflict received a similar degree attention. Nonetheless, two-fifths of those non-Western speakers who did name-check Ukraine either did not call out Russia as an aggressor or did not mention its role in the war at all. Many others avoided hard statements about the war. For his part Zelenskyy is said to have spent his bilateral meetings asking counterparts for air defense systems rather than focusing on U.N. diplomacy.

If U.N. discussions of Ukraine were adrift in September, the fallout from Hamas’ attack on Israel in October reset the rules of diplomatic engagement completely.

If U.N. discussions of Ukraine were adrift in September, the fallout from Hamas’ attack on Israel in October reset the rules of diplomatic engagement completely. European diplomats say that, absent a major shock on the battlefield, they cannot envisage risking public votes on Ukraine for the foreseeable future, given anger over events in Gaza. Russia has made a point of highlighting Washington’s “double standards” in its attitude to Ukrainian and Palestinian suffering. We will likely hear more of that this week, after the U.S. vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.

It is hard to see these dynamics receding until Israel concludes its campaign against Hamas. Diplomats favorable to Ukraine are uncertain about what could rebalance the mood at the U.N. in favor of Kyiv even them. Many argue that the best way for Ukraine to whip up support in the General Assembly is to retake the advantage on the battlefield—more states might be willing to criticize Russia if it is on the back foot. A gloomy counterargument is that Ukraine would elicit more sympathy if, as in the early months of the full-scale war in 2022, it was more clearly back on the defensive. As long as the front line in Ukraine remains fairly static, many U.N. members are likely to want to avoid signing on to any new initiatives regarding the war.

Jitters in the Western coalition that supports Ukraine could also affect diplomacy in New York. The U.S. and European Union coordinated extremely effectively in the first phase of the war to whip up votes in favor of Kyiv at the United Nations. But with politicians in Washington at loggerheads over funding for Ukraine, and former President Donald Trump signaling that he will withdraw U.S. support if he returns to the White House, it may get harder for U.S. and European diplomats to collect votes in the General Assembly.

But Ukraine and its friends need not succumb to fatalism in New York. Assuming that the war does indeed now enter an extended stalemate, Western diplomats would be well-advised to take a cautious but persistent approach to making Ukraine’s case to their non-Western counterparts. This means keeping up briefings to the wider U.N. membership about the suffering of regular Ukrainians, highlighting how Russia has breached basic tenets of the U.N. Charter and making it clear that Ukraine’s allies can attend to European security issues and global problems like climate change in parallel. Their goal should be to hold together a solid coalition of international support for Ukraine in what could prove to be a protracted war.