Of course we all want the war in Ukraine, with its appalling destruction and human cost, to end as soon as possible. Or do
we? A disturbing and dangerous verbal escalation in recent days suggests a rather different perspective. There is now constant
talk of being in the war "for the long haul" (UK Foreign Secretary) and of seeking to "weaken Russia"
(US Defence Secretary), while "defence" strategists tell the BBC that this shift in mood reflects a new judgement
that Russia is "losing the war". Meanwhile Boris Johnson says airily that the war is likely to continue "to
the end of next year" (a prediction that no responsible forecaster could make).
Our deep concern over this trend should not be misused to exculpate the Russian invasion in any way. It has been judged
to be an act of aggression, in violation of the UN Charter, by 141 members, or 73 percent of the total membership. Abstention
means that the 35 who did abstain neither assented nor opposed the resolution passed on 2 March. And just five members voted
against, or 2.6 percent of the membership. For all who accept the authority of the UN (and that includes, in their public
statements, both Russia and China) this is an overwhelming verdict. It means that every action by every Russian tank, artillery
gun, plane or individual soldier is part of an aggressive war. While we rightly deplore the consequent violations of international
humanitarian law, to the point of war crimes, we should never lose sight of this fundamental starting-point.
We can understand that the Ukrainian government and a large portion of its people wish to fight on, encouraged by Russia’s
military failures so far to believe that they can carry on until victory. At least, it makes sense from the perspective of
maintaining morale for President Zelensky to say so, although not so long ago he was talking about a negotiated settlement
in which some concessions would be discussed.
But Ukraine's allies are obliged to take a cool view of the situation and offer, at least privately, the best possible
advice to Zelensky. For reasons of prudence if none other, they should avoid bombastic statements that will serve to provide
justification for the Russian narrative that this is a proxy war by NATO threatening Russian territory.
Beating the war drums from a safe distance is particularly disturbing, because it distracts attention from any further
effort within the UN to bring about a ceasefire. In the last week of April it has masked a failure to support properly the
mission of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to Moscow and Kiev. While he is unlikely to have achieved any tangible result,
it is a start, and an overdue one. It comes after Guterres received a letter from some two hundred former senior UN officials,
urging him to make more effort.
"We therefore implore you to intensify your personal efforts for the cessation of hostilities and conflict resolution
through peaceful means. This is the raison d'etre of the United Nations, which is being tested again in this case. We are
horrified at the alternative, the UN becoming increasingly irrelevant."
Under Article 24 of the Charter, Britain as a member of the Security Council shares the Council's "primary responsibility
for the maintenance of international peace and security". As a permanent member Britain has an even higher responsibility,
and Liz Truss in her role as UK Foreign Secretary should be voicing and emphasizing Britain's commitment to this primary task..
The UN has generally had a low profile in Britain, unlike the League of Nations which attracted mass support between
the wars. The United Nations Association (UNA-UK) has not been in the habit of taking strong positions, appearing at times
anxious to avoid giving offence. Fortunately, it now has a new Chief Executive Officer, Marissa Conway, who has a notable
activist background, and it has just reduced its annual membership fee to a token £10. To raise its voice as it should be
doing requires wider backing, and I urge anyone reading this who is not yet a member to sign up, and help press the government
to work for peace through the UN.