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Opinion Give Russia’s U.N. Security Council seat to Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses a meeting of the U.N. Security Council in New York City on April 5. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
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In a fiery speech Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called out the U.N. Security Council for its utter fecklessness in responding to Russia’s horrific war crimes in his country. The United Nations is incapable of holding Russia to account, Zelensky said, because Moscow “turns the right of veto in the U.N. Security Council into a right to kill.” Member states should “remove Russia” from the Security Council, he said, or “dissolve yourself altogether.”

Zelensky is absolutely right. But we should take his bold proposal a step further. Not only should Russia be kicked off the Security Council, its seat should be given to Ukraine. Indeed, there is precedent for doing just that.

It is not written into the U.N. Charter that the “Russian Federation” is entitled to a permanent seat on the Security Council. The U.N. Charter states that “The Republic of China, France, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America shall be permanent members of the Security Council.” Two of those named countries no longer occupy seats on the Security Council.

On Oct. 25, 1971, the U.N. expelled the “Republic of China” (Taiwan) and admitted the “People’s Republic of China” (mainland China), which then became one of the five permanent members of the Security Council (or the P5). Despite its Security Council veto, Taiwan was powerless to stop its own expulsion by a vote of the U.N. General Assembly. A U.S.-led proposal to make China’s representation an “important question” requiring a two-thirds supermajority vote, failed by a vote of 59 to 55 (with 15 abstentions). The General Assembly then passed Resolution 2758 removing Taiwan by a simple majority vote of 76 to 35 (with 17 abstentions). In so doing, it set the precedent that a sitting member of the P5 could be removed and replaced by another entity with a plausible claim to the seat.

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Just as Communist China now occupies the seat designated for the “Republic of China,” Russia now occupies the seat designated for the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” But the “Russian Federation” and the “U.S.S.R.” are not the same country. Indeed, Putin’s justification for his invasion of Ukraine is to reclaim territory lost during the Soviet Union’s dissolution.

Just as the UNGA voted to expel Taiwan and declare that henceforth the People’s Republic of China would be deemed the legitimate occupant of the “Republic of China’s” seat, it could vote to expel Russia and declare that henceforth Ukraine will be deemed the legitimate successor state to the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” — giving it the old Soviet seat. One need look no further than Putin’s own 6,885-word manifesto for war — laying out a case stretching back more than 1,000 years that Ukrainians and Russians are one people descended from “Ancient Rus” — to justify declaring Ukraine to be the legitimate successor of the U.S.S.R.

The China precedent from 1971 establishes that Russia and China would be powerless to veto such a move in the Security Council. And unlike Taiwan, which did nothing to merit its U.N. ejection, Russia has earned its removal in spades.

The U.N. Charter explicitly states that a member state can be expelled if it “has persistently violated the Principles contained in the present Charter.” This past month, the General Assembly twice voted to overwhelmingly declare that Moscow is doing just that in Ukraine. On March 2, the General Assembly voted 141 to 5 (with 35 abstentions) to condemn the “aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine in violation of Article 2 (4) of the Charter.” And on March 24, it again condemned Russia for violating the Charter and creating a humanitarian crisis by a vote of 140 to 5 (with 35 abstentions).

In both cases, almost three-quarters of member states voted to condemn Russia. That is more than enough votes to replace Russia on the Security Council. Indeed, it would exceed the two-thirds supermajority required if the question of Russia’s replacement were deemed an “important matter.” On Thursday, the General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council. It can use the exact same procedure to replace Russia on the Security Council.

So, it can be done. Whether it will be done is a different matter — a question not of procedure, but of political will. It’s one thing to vote for a strongly-worded statement; quite another to impose actual consequences.

But the United States should force a vote and make every nation go on record — because Russia’s presence on the Security Council is a disgrace. The Putin regime is raping, murdering and massacring innocent men, women and children in Ukraine. If the United Nations can’t impose consequences on Putin and his henchmen for those crimes, then Zelensky is right — “the U.N. can simply be dissolved.”