In Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, one of his weapons is Russia’s status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which entails the power to block any resolution. It’s a legacy of World War II and the decision to reserve this status to the five victors, including the Soviet Union.
But the Soviet Union no longer exists. Russia’s membership is owing to another, far more obscure event, a meeting on Dec. 21, 1991. The U.S.S.R. was about to be officially dissolved. Leaders from 11 of the 15 newly independent states—all but Georgia and the Baltics—gathered in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan (now Almaty).
The result, after a few hours of debate: a letter from Russian President Boris Yeltsin to the U.N. secretary-general informing him of the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the agreement that Russia would succeed the Soviet Union at the Security Council.
The recipient might have observed that nothing in the U.N. Charter allows a group of states to dispose of the seat of a permanent member. He might have objected to the notion of a “successor state,” which appears in no law or official text. He might have noted that nine of the 11 states that made this decision weren’t U.N. members at the time. (Ukraine and what is now known as Belarus were founding members, giving the Soviets three seats for the price of one.) Given the novelty of the situation and the importance of the Security Council, the secretary-general should at least have demanded a formal debate in the General Assembly. Instead, Yeltsin’s notification was ratified without discussion. Many U.N. member countries heard about it on the news.
Russia’s permanent membership and the veto power it confers have no legal basis. The Russian Federation has terrorized the world for decades under a false pretense. Which brings me to an idea: Ask the U.N. to reopen the dossier and to re-examine the original power grab that laid the foundation for our current disorder. Consider how, from Bucha to Mariupol and through to the deportation of thousands of children out of Donbas, Russia has flouted the foundational principles of the U.N. And revoke the authority that Yeltsin and Mr. Putin snatched.
What then would become of the 1945 pact and the heritage of the “Great Patriotic War”?
The Red Army’s First Ukrainian Front did more than its share in World War II—among other things, liberating the Auschwitz death camp. And if there’s a former Soviet country that stands for anti-Nazism today, it’s Volodymyr Zelensky’s Ukraine.
Ukraine can and should inherit the rights of a fallen Russia. Remove the Russian Federation from its seat as a permanent member and transfer it to Ukraine. Memory permits it, morality wishes it, and an open debate among united and sovereign nations could decide it.
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