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Ukraine fumes as Russia assumes presidency of the United Nations Security Council

Inside former Russian trenches
CBS News visits trenches formerly occupied by Russia 01:56

United Nations — Ukraine and the U.S. have warned that handing Russia the gavel to chair the United Nations Security Council will provide President Vladimir Putin's regime a platform to spread disinformation at a pivotal moment in his grinding war against civilians in Ukraine. Russia was taking the lead of the 15-nation Security Council on Monday under the monthly procedural rotation, allowing Putin's mission to the U.N. to set the agenda of its most powerful body.

Under U.N. procedure, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia was to bang the gavel as his country assumed control of the council, which has primary responsibility under the U.N. Charter "for the maintenance of international peace and security."

United Nations Security Council
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, left, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confer in the United Nations Security Council, in a Jan. 18, 2018 file photo. Richard Drew/AP

"The Russian presidency in the UNSC [U.N. Security Council] is a stark reminder that something is wrong with the way international security architecture is functioning," Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said ahead of the Monday handover. "A state that systemically ruins international peace and security will be presiding over the body tasked with maintaining them."

"Yesterday, the Russian army killed another Ukrainian child  —a five-month-old boy named Danylo… One of the hundreds of artillery strikes that the terrorist state launches every day, and at the same time, Russia chairs the U.N. Security Council," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday, the day Russia's role formally began, calling it, "proof of the bankruptcy of procedures in world institutions."

Russia's role, while somewhat procedural, comes on the heels of Putin's announcement that he will deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, just over Ukraine's northern border, and also days after the arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. Moscow also assumes presidency of the council amid growing concern over the safety of Russian-occupied nuclear power plants in Ukraine.

Russia's U.N. Ambassador and its Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have set the council's agenda for the month ahead, including three main meetings: One on violations of agreements on the export of conventional arms and military equipment, and two to be chaired by Lavrov himself, on April 24 on the "sovereign equality of states," and the following day on the Middle East.

CBS News has confirmed that Russia also plans to hold an informal or "Arria" meeting in which Moscow will attempt to defend itself against allegations that it has orchestrated the seizure of children from occupied Ukrainian territory, as well as other acts that are now under criminal indictment as possible war crimes at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

International court issues arrest warrant for Putin, citing war crimes 02:17

The court issued an arrest warrant for Putin himself last month, saying there were "reasonable grounds to believe" the Russian leader personally bears responsibility for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population, referring to the relocation of children against their will.

"A country that flagrantly violates the U.N. Charter and invades its neighbor has no place on the U.N. Security Council," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last week. "We expect Russia to continue to use its seat on the Council to spread disinformation and to try to distract from the attempt to justify its actions in Ukraine and the war crimes members of its forces are committing."  

A spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the U.N. said Washington saw "no feasible international legal pathway," however, to change the fact that Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, and so qualified to hold the rotating presidency.

"It would be possible for the U.S. and its allies to demand a debate on Ukraine and demand that Russia recuses itself from presiding over the meeting because of its role in the war," Richard Gowan, an expert on the global body and U.N. Director for the International Crisis Group, told CBS News, referring to U.N. Charter provisions that state "a party to a dispute shall abstain from voting" on some types of resolutions.

But those rules, Gowan noted, leave it to the sitting president of the council — which right now is Russia itself — to decide whether any party in particular should abstain from a vote. 

Ukraine's U.N. Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya dismissed the argument that there was no way to block Russia from assuming the presidency of the council, insisting instead that there was "no political will to stop it."

Even if it could be booted from the Security Council, or the U.N. entirely, some experts doubt the wisdom of any efforts to completely sideline Russia.

Stephen Schlesinger, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who wrote a book on the U.N.'s creation, told CBS News it was "far better to keep Moscow inside the body than to throw it out."

"Inside the U.N., it is possible to name and shame Putin's lawless breaches of the Charter," he said, noting that former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, who played a direct role in establishing the world body, also believed it was better to keep both good and bad international actors within the same assembly as a means of leveraging for peace.

Schlesinger argued that media coverage of U.N. actions and debates would likely fade if Russia were not in the debate: "Then Russia would truly be a desperado state with no limits."

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