Permanent Representative of Russian Federation to the United Nations (UN) Vassily Nebenzia speaks during the Security Council meeting at United Nations Headquarters in New York City, United States on February 28, 2022.

Permanent Representative of Russian Federation to the United Nations (UN) Vassily Nebenzia speaks during the Security Council meeting at United Nations Headquarters in New York City, United States on February 28, 2022. Anadolu Agency via Getty Images / Tayfun Coskun

It’s ‘Effectively Impossible’ To Kick Russia Out Of The UN, But There Are Other Options

Diplomats could remove Russia from the human rights council or refuse to recognize a Russian-backed government in Ukraine, experts say.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Moscow’s use of its veto to scuttle an initial response by the United Nations, some U.S. lawmakers have called for revoking the country’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council. 

Experts said they understand the anger and frustration, but that it’s not possible to expel Russia—nor would it be wise to shut down a communications channel at a time of high tension.

“The UN is a political body. It is not a church. Ultimately, the UN is there as a place where states…can talk to each other in the last resort,” said Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group. Gowen said expelling Russia would be “effectively impossible,” and added that it might even be counterproductive. 

“I worry that if you shove Russia out, if you could find a way to shove Russia out, you just have Russia on the outside trying to undercut even these minimal forms of cooperation,” he said. 

But there are steps the United Nations can take to censure Russia, including kicking it out of the UN’s Human Rights Council or refusing to recognize a Russian-installed government in Ukraine.

Nine Republican senators on Tuesday launched an effort to expel Russia from the Security Council over its invasion of Ukraine. The lawmakers are drafting a resolution that they hope will put the entire Congress on the record as saying so. 

“Putin has demonstrated in plain view his ruthlessness and complete disregard for humanity and our international norms, and the idea that he and his cronies should have a vote on the U.N.’s Security Council is an absolute disgrace,” said Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, who is working on the resolution with GOP colleagues Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.; Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.; Steve Daines, R-Mont.; Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss.; Rick Scott, R-Fla.; Thom Tillis, R-N.C.; and Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

Even if it passes, the resolution would have no effect on the UN’s membership, said Brett Schaefer, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. The process of removing a country from the Security Council begins with a recommendation to do so from the council itself, which must then be approved by two-thirds of the General Assembly.

Every country on the Security Council would have the power to veto the recommendation. Russia would be expected to vote against its expulsion, but even if it didn’t, China would likely prevent Moscow from being kicked out, Schaefer said. No country has been expelled from the United Nations since its founding in 1945. 

On Wednesday, the General Assembly passed a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Schaefer urged the UN to do more than issue strong words.. 

“The UN General Assembly is not a very powerful body” but it “does have authority over its own procedures and over the bodies that it creates,” Schaefer said. “The fact that no one seems to be very eager to suspend or lead an effort to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council considering the human rights abuses in the current conflict is vastly disappointing.”

Removing Russia from the Human Rights Council is one way of censuring Moscow for its actions; Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested it on Tuesday. The council could vote to remove Russia over its human rights abuses and targeting of civilian areas in Ukraine, similar to how it voted in 2011 to remove Libya from the panel. This step, which would require a two-thirds majority vote, is  “the most promising formal slap available,” the ICG’s Gowan said.

“It’s pretty morally obvious it should be done,” he said. “It would also send a sort of clear political signal that would be good.”

Diplomats could also vote to suspend Russian officials from participating in the General Assembly, a step that does not require the Security Council, Schaefer said. This move, which would strip Russia of its right to speak or vote at the UN but allow it to retain membership, previously happened in 1974, when diplomats voted to suspend South Africa for its apartheid system.

If Russia eventually takes control of Ukraine and installs a puppet government, the United Nations could refuse to recognize the illegitimate government, as it did last year when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. 

“It’s another question if they would actually do it, but it’s certainly within their authority,” Schafer said. “I expect a lot of member states would be extremely opposed to recognizing a puppet government.” 

Ukrainian officials have also floated the argument that officials did not follow the proper process or paperwork to allow Russia to take over the Soviet Union’s seat on the Security Council, so its role on the Council is not legitimate. But Russia has been a member of the council since the 1990s, recognized by Ukraine and every other country, Gowan said.

“I think the Ukrainians have a point that there’s nothing on paper, but after three decades of recognizing the Russians as holding this seat, I think it is pretty hard to claim that that wasn’t a conscious decision,” he said.  

Still, Daniel Baer, the acting director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argued that highlighting Russia’s bad behavior is worth it, even if it doesn’t end with Moscow being expelled. 

“It’s a way of making a statement about their current behavior being completely unbecoming a member of the security council,” Baer said. “We should find every opportunity to shine a spotlight on the fact they are acting in a way that’s completely inconsistent with their obligation as a great power and against the UN charter.”