Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, described the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against President Vladimir Putin as “stupid.” Nebenzia said this while taking questions from journalists during his briefing as rotating president of the Security Council, detailing Russia’s signature events for April.
“On the decision of the International Criminal Court, besides it being stupid — let’s call things straight — it is also an illegitimate decision,” he said on April 3, adding that it means “zero and nothing” to Russia. The court issued the arrest warrant to Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, his children’s rights commissioner, on March 17, for the alleged abduction of Ukrainian children to Russia. Such action is a war crime and violates the Geneva Conventions.
Nebenzia said that his country would hold an Arria formula meeting on April 5, where it is expected to discuss the accusation that Russia has kidnapped Ukrainian children (see video below). He said that his country would use the meeting to dispel “misgivings” and “disinformation” regarding the alleged abductions. Lvova-Belova is apparently scheduled to brief at the informal Council session, albeit remotely. (She held a press briefing in Moscow on April 4, but an English translation of the event has yet to be released. Reuters reported that she called the accusations that Ukrainian children had been taken to camps for alleged re-education “a conspiracy theory.”)
Stephen Schlesinger, an American historian, UN expert and political commentator, spoke with PassBlue on this month’s episode of UN-Scripted. He said the action of The Hague-based court, or ICC, is important in declaring that the world does not condone Putin’s aggression on Ukraine.
“The decision by the ICC to charge Putin is more than symbolic because he can’t go to 123 or so countries without being arrested for his crimes,” Schlesinger said. “Those countries have ratified the ICC agreement. So we don’t expect Putin to be traveling in any of these countries in the future, and it is enough to solidify the notion that Putin is not only being condemned by the world itself through the UN auspices but by the most important criminal court that exists on the planet, the ICC.”
Neither Russia nor Ukraine is a member of the court, but the latter has given the court jurisdiction over war crimes committed on its soil amid the war, to help prosecute such atrocities.
During a Security Council meeting on Feb. 6, Ukraine’s permanent representative, Sergiy Kyslytsya, reported that more than 16,000 children have been forcibly deported by Russian authorities. Associated Press also claimed that the Russian government has been involved in an organized effort to adopt Ukrainian children from war-torn cities such as Mariupol and transport them to Russia or territories under Moscow-backed control, such as the Donbas region.
In an essay for PassBlue, Kateryna Rashevska, a legal expert for the Regional Center for Human Rights, in Kyiv, wrote in December: “During its eight years of aggression against Ukraine, Russia has systematically pursued a policy of eradicating Ukrainian identity among children in the occupied territories. Deportation, separation from parents, transfer to Russian families, imposition of citizenship, Russification and militarization are tools that are being used to forcibly transform children into enemies of their own nation. Children from the occupied Crimean peninsula and the so-called ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’ — Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic — became the first victims of Russian aggression, in 2014.”
Russia took up the presidency of the Council on April 1, based on its standard sequence of alphabetical order. (Mozambique was in February; Switzerland is in May, for example.) The last time Russia held the seat was in February 2022, when Putin began his full military assault on Ukraine. Russia’s assumption of the presidency has raised much criticism worldwide from experts and adept followers of the UN, especially in light of the ICC warrants, as it may be the first time a permanent member of the Council is president while its sitting head of state faces international arrest. Russia’s top diplomats told PassBlue that they would not agree to be interviewed for this column.
Thomas Grant, a professor at the Lauterpacht Center for International Law, at Cambridge University, and a member of Civic Hub, told ABC News that Russia must be stopped from winning its aggression against Ukraine. “If we let Russia’s aggression stand, if Russia gains what it is seeking to gain out of its aggression against Ukraine, really the entire framework that we set up in 1945 is at risk,” he said, referring to the UN itself.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called Russia’s Council presidency “a bad joke.” “Russian UN Security Council presidency on April 1 is a bad joke. Russia has usurped its seat; it’s waging a colonial war; its leader is a war criminal wanted by the ICC for kidnapping children. The world can’t be a safe place with Russia at UNSC,” he tweeted.
The United States, another permanent Council member, said that it cannot bar Russia from taking its turn as rotating president. “Unfortunately, Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, and no feasible international legal pathway exists to change that reality,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
In what is still being regarded as the most notable action that UN Secretary-General António Guterres has taken on the invasion, he immediately condemned Putin’s illegal assault and implored him from the UN on the night of the invasion, Feb. 24, 2022, “in the name of humanity, bring your troops back to Russia.”
But it has been 13 months since Guterres’s plea, and the war is still grinding on, with tens of thousands of civilian casualties recorded by the UN. The US permanent representative to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, conceded on April 3 to reporters that Russia in the Council hot seat is unavoidable (see video below), saying: “It’s like an April Fool’s joke. But the truth of the matter is it’s a rotating seat. We expect that they will behave professionally. But we also expect that they will use their seat to spread disinformation and to promote their own agenda as it relates to Ukraine, and we will stand ready to call them out at every single moment that they attempt to do that.”
A London-based civil-society group, Atlas Movement, called for Council members to boycott meetings in April, but Western allies, at least, hesitate to do so as it could give the other members a chance to criticize their fellow members for not showing up for their job. Yet the regular breakfast meeting for Council members on April 3, led by Russia, was not attended by several permanent representatives, Nebenzia told reporters, though he wouldn’t say who didn’t come.
At his media briefing on April 3, the UN spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, was asked about the “perception” of the UN entrusting the Council presidency with a country that is breaching the UN Charter. “As you know, and as I’ve said, repeatedly, the Secretary-General has no authority on the way the Security Council does its work,” he said. “You know that, but I think it’s important that others fully understand it outside of this room. It is also important for people to understand that there are different parts of the UN. There are its legislative bodies and there’s also the Secretary-General.”
On April 24, Russia will hold a debate on the “maintenance of international peace and security: effective multilateralism through the defense of the UN Charter.” This is scheduled to be chaired by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who plans to be in New York City that day and the next, Nebenzia said, at which Lavrov may preside over a Council debate on Palestine on the 25th. Thomas-Greenfield didn’t answer a reporter’s question on April 3 as to whether the US will grant Lavrov a visa. Guterres is expected to brief the Council at the April 24 session, Nebenzia added.
In a statement to PassBlue from the US mission to the UN on April 4, it said about a possible visa to Lavrov: “The United States takes seriously its obligations as host country of the UN under the UN Headquarters Agreement, including with respect to visa issuance. Consistent with these obligations, the Department of State issues hundreds of visas every year for Russian Federation delegates to UN events. All visa applications are adjudicated on a case-by-case basis. Visa records are confidential under U.S. law; therefore, we cannot discuss the details of individual visa cases.”
An April 10 “signature debate” will look at global weapons flows, though Nebenzia said it would not focus on a “specific country or context,” yet Russia has repeatedly criticized the West, notably the US, for supplying weapons to Ukraine to defend itself from Russian troops attacking Ukraine. Regular Council meetings will concentrate on Mali, Yemen, Libya, Western Sahara, Syria and Haiti. The UN has three official holidays, April 7, 14 and 21, and Nebenzia said the Council intends to take those Fridays off.
Russia planned to hold a discussion on the “formation of the new multipolar world order based on sovereignty, equal rights and self-determination . . . with respect to the full purpose and principle of the UN Charter.” But Britain’s mission to the UN said that Russia had no right to discuss the UN Charter.
“Russia is in no position to talk about international law or the values of the UN,” Deputy Permanent Representative James Kariuki said in a statement released immediately after Nebenzia’s briefing on Monday. “It is waging a war of aggression against Ukraine, violating the most basic principle of the UN Charter — you don’t redraw borders by force — and its President has been indicted by the ICC for the systematic abduction of Ukrainian children.”
He added: “The UK will keep using our seat on the Council to challenge their illegal war, expose their disinformation, and protect the Council’s vital work tackling other threats to international peace and security, including across Africa and the Middle East.”
Schlesinger opined that the UN Charter did not have strict guidelines on the behavior of the five permanent members of the Council, which also includes Britain, China and France.
“There are very few ways of punishing any of the five permanent members when they act against the UN Charter,” he said. “The best that can happen is these unilateral sanctions against Russia, but they can’t really act through the Security Council because Russia will block any action taken on the Council, using its veto. So in the case of the permanent members, when they violate the Charter, the only thing the UN can do is try to shame them, try to have the General Assembly pass resolutions denouncing them, putting them in a situation where they show some sort of contrition for what they’re doing.”
Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s No. 2 at the UN mission, tweeted on April 1, perhaps forgetting it was April Fool’s Day: “The goals of our special military operations are being steadily and consistently implemented. For the benefit of the whole world! #NoToNazism.”
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN diplomats as their countries assume the Council presidency. To hear more details about the goals of Russia in April, listen to PassBlue’s podcast series, UN-Scripted, produced by Damilola Banjo and Kelechukwu Ogu, on SoundCloud and Patreon. Also featuring Stephen Schlesinger, who calls the UN’s only tool to counter Russia’s Council presidency right now is to “shame them.”
Ambassador to the UN: Vassily Nebenzia, 61
Languages: Russian, English and Spanish
Education: B.A. in law, Moscow State Institute of International Relations
His story, briefly: Nebenzia is a Russian diplomat who was born on Feb. 18, 1962, in Moscow. He joined the Soviet foreign ministry the same year he graduated from Moscow State, in 1983. He has served in various positions in the ministry, including as a legal adviser and counselor. In 2006, he was appointed as the director of the Department for International Organizations in the ministry and held this post for eight years before being appointed as Russia’s deputy permanent representative to the UN in Geneva in 2014. In July 2017, he was named as the permanent representative, succeeding Vitaly Churkin, who died suddenly in February that year at age 64. In this role, Nebenzia represents Russia not only in the Security Council but also in other UN bodies at New York City headquarters, where he advocates for Russia’s foreign policy.
Nebenzia is married and has one child, according to his official biography and which the spokesperson confirmed. Nebenzia has access to the Russian-owned mansion, Killenworth, in Glen Cove on Long Island and reportedly enjoys riding his European motorcycle on weekends.
Head of State: Vladimir Putin (President)
Foreign Affairs Minister: Sergey Lavrov
Type of Government: Semipresidential
Year Russia (Soviet Union) Joined the UN: 1945
Years on the Security Council: Russia is a permanent member, along with Britain, China, France and the US
Population: 144.1 million
Per capita CO2 emission figures for 2019 (in tons): 12 (by comparison, the US figure is 16; China, 7.1)
Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.