Over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for the removal of the Russian Federation from its seat on the Security Council of the United Nations. According to Ukrainian diplomats, Russia was never formally recognized as a successor state to the Soviet Union, so it now should be deprived of its veto rights in the United Nations.

Members of the U.N. Security Council meet to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Monday. A better solution than ousting Russia from the Security Council is to use the full power of the United Nations to hold Russia to account. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images/TNS

Zelensky’s request is understandable. After all, Russia has not only invaded his country but also vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning its own actions.

In the meantime, others have joined the Ukrainian campaign in a small but loud chorus. Several commentators have called for Russia to lose its seat on the Security Council. Republicans have now introduced a joint resolution urging the same. Can the Russian Federation be removed, and more importantly, should it?

Certainly, there is a moral argument for such a step. Russia’s aggression toward its neighbor violates many of the principles on which the United Nations was founded, including a respect for state sovereignty, a prohibition on the resolution of disputes by force and the obligation to protect civilians during wartime.

However, there are strong reasons not to boot the Russians just yet. First, the legal ground for removing Russia is shaky. The U.N. Charter set the Soviet Union as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union in fact controlled three votes; one for the union itself, one for Ukraine and one for Belarus. After the collapse, Belarus and Ukraine received two, while the Russian Federation got the other vote.

Was this legal? Yes. At the end of 1991, shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent a letter to the U.N. announcing the Russian Federation’s intention to take the place of the Soviet Union as a so-called continuing state, with the support of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which included Ukraine. No country challenged this, meaning that even if there were reasons to doubt Russia’s assumption of this role, the doctrine of estoppel – or idea that the tacit acceptance of the decision carries legal weight – mitigates against any change.


It is worth noting that Russia inherited other obligations of Soviet Union. For instance, the Russian Federation remains bound by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prevents them from aiding other countries in the development of nuclear weapons programs. Were the Russian Federation kicked out of the United Nations based on the logic of succession, it would likely remove it from other treaties, too.

In addition to these legal considerations, there is a practical argument for retaining Russia’s participation in the United Nations. The United Nations Security Council is based on the premise that respecting the interests of key, powerful states is essential to ensuring a secure international order. The U.S. Senate works on a similar principle, distributing power based on statehood rather than population. Such an arrangement recognizes that power and influence must be accounted for in political institutions.

Russia remains an important power. The country plays a key role in conflicts around the world, even if it is a largely negative one from the American perspective. In addition to deployments throughout the former USSR, the Russian army is active in Syria, Libya, Venezuela and the Central African Republic. Through the Wagner Group and other private military companies, Russia is involved in dozens more areas. Excluding it from the U.N. would remove a key channel for communication regarding such important conflicts, and ultimately make war more likely.

In addition, the U.N. continues to serve as a forum for discussing important international issues. The U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to condemn Russia’s “aggression” in Ukraine. While the resolution is nonbinding, it sends an important message to the world.

Fortunately, most of the international community is doing what it can to stop the Russian onslaught. Unprecedented economic sanctions will do serious damage to the Russian economy. Bans on flights and other forms of travel are turning Russia into a virtual island. These, coupled with military aid to Ukrainian troops, are the most effective tools that the world has, short of war, for compelling Russia to change its policies in Ukraine.

While some may long for an international organization with both power and moral standing, we are for the moment stuck with the institutions that we have. A better solution is to use the full power of the United Nations to hold Russia to account. Russia isolated within the United Nations is better than Russia isolated from the United Nations.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: