Matthew Vella reporting from New York, United Nations
Foreign minister Ian Borg is in New York to preside over United Nations Security Council sessions that have Ukraine high on the agenda this week.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its first-year anniversary, the background to the events of the week have been marked by heightened threats from Russian president Vladimir Putin to suspend any compliance on nuclear stockpiling.
Borg on Wednesday was present for a high-level event along with most of the UN’s members, to discuss human rights violation against Ukraine – a marathon day-long session to discuss Russian violations of human rights against children, and prisons of war, as well as on how to prosecute Russian leadership for war crimes.
Redefining neutrality, in a changing political landscape
Punctuating that call was Ukrainian foreign minister Dmitry Kuleba, backed by Dutch foreign minister Wopke Hoekstra, whose country hosts the International Criminal Court, as well as ICC prosecutor Karim A.A. Khan, whose office is collecting evidence of war crimes in Ukraine.
Kuleba accused Russia of having violated “every bit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, listing a litany of war crimes and the forcible deportations of children from Ukrainian territory “with the aim of making Russians out of them.”
Kuleba said Russia had 32 camps for the political re-education of Ukrainian children, and called for a mobilisation of global indignation against such crimes. “Unpunished evil returns on a greater scale,” Kuleba said, warning against the dangerous slide of impunity . “We cannot let this go unpunished... this is a texbook case of aggression.”
The Netherlands has taken a lead role in ensuring full accountability for Russian war crimes in the Ukraine, by supporting both the ICC’s investigation and prosecution of war crimes, by sending Dutch investigation missions to Ukraine to collect evidence. “There can never be peace in a world where brute force prevails over justice,” Hoekstra told assembled ministers at the Trusteeship Council Chambers.
Renewed fears of arms race
The debate in the Security Council on Thursday and Friday will take place against the harrowing background of Putin’s threat to suspend Russia’s participation in the New START treaty — the last surviving arms control agreement between the two largest nuclear-armed powers.
The treaty with the United States expires in February 2026, and while Russia’s foreign ministry has declared the country has no intention to deploy “strategic” nuclear arms, Putin’s threat resumes the prospect of a new arms race between the two sides, which currently are limited to 1,550 nuclear weapons.
Treaty compliance between the USA and Russia depends on allowing each other’s inspectors to verify armaments: the United States, which also uses its satellites to keep track of Russian nuclear movements, announced last month that the Russians were out of compliance.
Nuclear inspections were last suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic, when inspectors on either side could not travel to either Russia or the USA. As restrictions were lifted, Russia denied any inspections, while American officials insisted they would only allow in Russian inspectors as long as American inspectors had reciprocal rights.
Additionally, the current treaty is under a five-year extension triggered back in 2021 between President Joe Biden and Putin. It was the only extension permitted under the initial Obama agreement. That means that an entirely new START treaty must be negotiated, something hard to achieve in a climate where trust between both countries is practically inexistent, with Biden lambasting Putin as a war criminal.
New START covers strategic nuclear weapons that can fly over continents, however it does not cover around 2,000 battlefield, tactical nuclear weapons that Russia could yet deploy against Ukraine.
And this revanchism on arms control takes place alongside China’s own ambitions to stockpile on nuclear armaments. Experts see Putin’s threat on stockpiling as a sign of his loss of power and influence in a war that he is not winning. “Putin is desperate for ways to change the dynamics of the war, both on the ground in Ukraine but in Europe. Leaders in strong positions don’t seek to change the nature of the competition or divert from a winning strategy,” said Jon Wolfsthal, senior adviser to Global Zero, an NGO advocating for the abolition of nuclear weapons, to the Bulletin of American Scientists.
But Putin’s threat also puts pressure on any American administration to expand its own nuclear arsenal and compete with both Russia and China, the latter estimated to be planning 1,500 weapons within the next decade.
While the United States reaffirmed its openness to negotiate a new treaty with Russia, President Biden vowed on Tuesday that the United States would “not tire” in its support of Ukraine, describing the American commitment to NATO and Ukraine as a battle for freedom against autocracy.
His speech was delivered just hours after Putin’s radically different account of the war, presaging a long war against the liberalism of the West, which he described as a “totalitarian” project to control the world.