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Expelling Russia From Multilateral Forums Is Tempting But Unwise

Stewart M. Patrick, World Politics Review, Monday, March 28, 2022

Western outrage over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal war of aggression in Ukraine has prompted calls to eject Russia from apex institutions of global cooperation, most notably the Group of 20 and the United Nations Security Council. While this impulse is tempting, efforts to exclude Russia from both institutions would be imprudent and likely futile, given the diverse membership of the former and U.N. Charter provisions regarding the latter. Rather than tilt at windmills, the United States and its allies should use both forums to shame Moscow for its criminal actions, while sharpening the already punishing sanctions they have deployed against Russia.

The urge to ostracize Russia is now widely shared across the U.S. political spectrum, notwithstanding initial efforts by former President Donald Trump, his nationalist acolytes in the Republican Party, and their media echo chamber to excuse Putin’s behavior. GOP legislators have been at the forefront in calling for Russia to be deprived of its permanent seat on the Security Council, where it has used its veto power to block any resolution condemning its invasion. “Russia must be exiled from the international community,” Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee insisted in late February. “Putin is attempting to rebuild the Soviet Union and his ambassador should not be allowed to veto the United Nations’ response to Russian aggression.”

More recently, U.S. President Joe Biden announced his support for ejecting Russia from the G-20 and is consulting with Washington’s allies about blocking its attendance at the group’s October summit in Bali, Indonesia. Last week, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan explained the Biden administration’s position on Russia’s participation in the Bali summit, saying that “we believe that it cannot be business as usual for Russia in international institutions and in the international community.”

There is a precedent here, of course. Following Moscow’s previous invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea in February 2014, the U.S., under the administration of then-President Barack Obama, engineered Russia’s suspension from the Group of Eight. That action had the dual impact of both punishing Moscow and restoring the Group of Seven to its pre-1998 position as a coherent bloc of like-minded advanced market democracies. Russia’s G-8 membership had never made much sense, given its lack of economic heft or ideological alignment with the West. It was a favor bestowed on then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who assumed that extending the invitation to Russia would help consolidate democracy there and cement Moscow’s Western orientation. Neither expectation panned out, and in the end, Russia’s presence only diluted the bloc’s unity of purpose. Its ejection thus made geopolitical sense.

By contrast, attempting to remove Russia from both the U.N. Security Council and the G-20 would be a costly distraction, with a high risk of alienating nations whose support the West needs to isolate Russia diplomatically.

Forcing Russia out of the G-20 could also bolster the Kremlin narrative that it is not the aggressor, but in fact the victim of Western efforts to undermine its legitimacy, legacy and security.

The urge to eject Russia from the Security Council—or even from the U.N. itself—is understandable, given Moscow’s blatant violations of the U.N. Charter and the recent U.S. determination that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine. From an ethical perspective, Russia’s ability to thwart Security Council action is unacceptable. Unfortunately, the veto is a structural fact of life that cannot be wished away. The ability of the five permanent members of the Council to block any U.N. enforcement action against themselves was the price the victor powers exacted in 1945 when they agreed to establish an international system of peace and security. The United States, no less than the Soviet Union, insisted on this prerogative.

Some proponents of expelling Russia from the Security Council, including Ukraine itself, have argued that Moscow is the illegitimate inheritor of the Soviet Union’s permanent seat. This legal claim is not persuasive, however. In 1991, the former states of the Soviet Union signed the Alma-Ata Protocols, dissolving their union and creating the Commonwealth of Independent States. That agreement codified that Russia would assume the Soviet Union’s permanent council seat. On Dec. 24, 1991, the day before then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, the Soviet ambassador to the U.N. transmitted a letter from Yeltsin to the U.N. secretary-general reaffirming that the Soviet republics had agreed to bequeath the USSR’s permanent seat to Russia. The secretary-general circulated the letter among U.N. members, none of which objected to the request. It was therefore granted. While Russia’s status was never put to a vote of the General Assembly, it has occupied that permanent council seat for three decades.

Russia’s veto power also complicates any aspiration to eject it from the U.N. itself. Under Article 6 of the Charter, the U.N. General Assembly may expel any member “who has persistently violated the Principles contained in the Charter.” However, it may only do so “upon the recommendation of the Security Council”—a provision allowing Russia to block any such step. Likewise, under Article 5, the General Assembly may suspend a state’s “rights and privileges of membership,” but only if the council has previously taken “preventive or enforcement action” against that state and recommends such suspension.

The U.S.-led campaign to expel Russia from the G-20 is also unlikely to bear fruit. To begin with, the G-20’s membership is far more encompassing and heterogeneous than the G-7 club of major market democracies. The body includes authoritarian states like China and Saudi Arabia, in addition to Russia itself, as well as influential but independent-minded democracies like India, South Africa and Brazil, which often resist Western alignment and have been circumspect in their criticism of Russia’s invasion. This very diversity constrains the G-20’s ability to find common ground on major geopolitical matters. There are no formal procedures, or even informal understandings, for expelling a G-20 nation.

Indonesia, which currently holds the rotating G-20 chair, has responded cautiously to Russia’s belligerency, refusing to impose economic sanctions or even mention Russia by name in a letter condemning the invasion. The nation’s president, Joko Widodo, has resisted pressure to adopt a harder line. China, whose ties with Indonesia are growing, has been adamant that “no member has the right to remove another country as a member,” in the words of foreign affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin. “The G-20 should implement real multilateralism, strengthen unity and cooperation.”

Beyond alienating some other G-20 members, forcing Russia out of that body could also bolster the Kremlin’s domestic narrative that it is not the aggressor, but in fact the victim of Western efforts to undermine its legitimacy, legacy and security. High schoolers in Russia today are being taught about “Washington-created” attempts to “whitewash Ukraine,” and state media services are filling Russian living rooms with fear and suspicion of the U.S. and its allies. Moves to cast Russia out of the G-20 or Security Council would only amplify the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.

Too much focus on ejecting Russia from the G-20 also risks distracting the West from more urgent priorities. “It is quite clear that we are busy with something else than coming together in such meetings,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz observed last week. “We urgently need a ceasefire.”

If Western and other nations wish to express their unhappiness with Russia’s G-20 membership, they have another option at their disposal: boycotting the October summit in Bali. Even that strategy carries dangers, since it risks accelerating the world’s fragmentation into competing “minilateral” blocs. In recent years, China in particular has spearheaded the creation of alternative non-Western institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and has participated in smaller meetings like the annual BRICS summit, along with Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa. By disavowing the G-20 in favor of Western-dominated institutions, the United States and its allies could give momentum to any Chinese or Russian efforts to consolidate their informal league of authoritarian states. A better strategy for Washington would be to use both the G-20 and the Security Council as platforms to shine the spotlight on Russian atrocities in Ukraine.

Stewart Patrick is the James H. Binger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World” (Brookings Press: 2018).

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