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At the UN's founding in 1945, the Soviet Union became one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

When in December 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russia was arguably recognized as the legal successor state of the Soviet Union and maintained the USSR's position on the UNSC.

Here's how the events are usually described (highlights are mine):

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, 11 Soviet republics […] signed the Alma-Ata Protocol on 21 December 1991 […]. The Protocol provided that the Russian Federation would assume Soviet Union's UN membership, including its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. […]

On 24 December 1991, the Soviet Permanent Representative to the UN Yuli Vorontsov delivered to the Secretary-General of the UN a letter from the Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The letter stated that […] Russia would continue the Soviet Union's membership in the UN and maintain the full responsibility for all the rights and obligations of the Soviet Union under the UN Charter.

The letter was circulated among the UN membership without any objection, and Russia formally took over the Soviet Union's seat in the UN General Assembly, in the Security Council and in other organs of the United Nations.

Here's the original text of Alma-Ata Protocol:

Unsurprisingly, Alma-Ata Protocol says nothing about UN or UNSC membership. Just noting. Not even stating membership in "international organizations" or something like that.

I also could not find any UNSC resolutions on this matter, but the quotation from Wikipedia suggests that the only valuable document there was Yeltsin's "letter" that "circulated without any objection".

Adopting a UNSC Permanent member seems to be a critical change. Even "less critical" actions, like admitting new UN members, went through adoption of a certain Resolution. For example, three Baltic states were admitted as UN members in the same year of 1991 via UNSC Resolutions 709, 710, and 711. Then, in 1992, more liberated states were also admitted via adopting corresponding UNSC Resolutions 735-739.

Question:

  1. Have the liberated states formally delegated Russia to continue the USSR's membership in the UNSC?
  2. Is there a UNSC Resolution confirming Russia's seat as a UNSC P5 Member in place of USSR? If so, based on what document(s)?
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    I think the change should not be considered a "critical one" from the UN point of view. From a legal view, it meant no internal change for the UN. From a political POV, Russia inherited most of the territory, population and the military power from the SU, so the change there was minimal too. As long as there was an agreement between all of the states that could claim succession rights, the UN only had to acknowledge the change. In a similar way, if my father has a mortgaged property and he dies, the bank only can acknowledge who has inherited the rights (and duties), it can not agree/disagree.
    – SJuan76
    Jan 10, 2016 at 16:50
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    @SJuan76, I understand this point, and that's why my question arose. (1) I could not find any evidence confirming that "As long as there was an agreement between all of the states that…"; (2) "UN only had to acknowledge the change" — this is very correct, that's why I'm asking for a legal document confirming such acknowledgment. Jan 10, 2016 at 17:03
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    I think this is a possible duplicate of What would happen if Russia declared itself the successor of the Russian empire?
    – nelruk
    Mar 1, 2016 at 19:32
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    @nelruk, unfortunately, not. The Russian Empire, nor any other flavors of Muscovian Kingdom, has no relation to Permanent Membership in UNSC. Mar 1, 2016 at 19:39
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5 Answers 5

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It is just an excerpt. See NYT and for the entire protocol see 31 I.L.M 1992, page 147-155.

  1. Member states of the commonwealth support Russia in taking over the U.S.S.R. membership in the U.N., including permanent membership in the Security Council and other international organizations.
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1. Have the liberated states formally delegated Russia to continue the USSR's membership in the UNSC?

In fact, the Alma-Ata protocol does explicitly state that the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States agree that Russia should continue the USSR's permanent membership of the UNSC. The agreement is not contained in the main protocol agreement, however, but in an annex to the agreement, which is why you're having trouble finding it.

The relevant article states:

  1. The States of the Commonwealth support Russia's continuance of the membership of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the United Nations, including permanent membership of the Security Council, and other international organizations.

The agreement, plus annexes, can be viewed in full here. The relevant annex is on page 15 of the pdf.

2. Is there a UNSC Resolution confirming Russia's seat as a UNSC P5 Member in place of USSR? If so, based on what document(s)?

No, there was no UNSC Resolution confirming this - there was a meeting of the UNSC on December 23rd 1991, chaired by the USSR, and then at the next meeting of the UNSC on December 31st, the meeting was chaired by Russia. The chairperson was the same person, however.

Between these two meetings, the representative from Belarus transmitted the Alma-Ata protocol, including the annex above - amongst other documents - to the Secretary-General. This letter is available on the UN website here.

Although there was no official resolution or decision by the UNSC or the UNGA (which was not in session anyway), nor much fanfare - although the representative from Palestine mentioned it in the first UNSC in 1992, saying "this is the first time that the Security Council is meeting with the participation of the Russian Federation in place of the Soviet Union" - the Alma-Ata agreement seems to have been accepted uncontroversially.

The first time the General Assembly met after the change was on February 4th, in a session chaired by the representative from Ukraine. During this session, the change in membership was not mentioned either.

While there was no official acceptance or resolution confirming the change, I think it's fair to say that the membership change was implicitly accepted by the UNSC and the UNGA and stood uncontroversially for at least two decades.

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  • From this description, it sounds like the Alma-Ata protocol endorsed RF's taking of the USSR seat. Because the signatories had no formal authority to make the designation. But the fact that there was no objection makes RF an acting occupant rather than the de jure occupant, does it not?
    – wrod
    Oct 14, 2022 at 19:08
  • @wrod for sure - the CIS members were not empowered to change the UN Charter in any way. There was no explicit UNGA resolution as in the case of the PRC either. De facto, however, Russia is seen as the successor state of the USSR and it is under these circumstances that it took over its seat on the SC without objection.
    – CDJB
    Oct 14, 2022 at 19:14
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    all 15 republics are successor states. Successor states are the ones inheriting the land of the predecessor state. RF is seen as a de facto continuator of the USSR. But I think its presence on the UNSC was initially one of the reasons for such belief. So this makes it a circular argument, which is often the case in politics when the facts become settled over a long period of time. Causes and effects get often intermingled in politics.
    – wrod
    Oct 14, 2022 at 19:23
  • Don't forget that in addition to all the benefits of assuming the role of the USSR's successor, Russia also took on all of the USSR's debts($40B a huge amount of money at the time). This is why all successor republics raised no objections, they became independent with no debt.
    – Eugene
    May 18, 2023 at 22:36
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Selecting the successor of a UNSC member government is a matter for the GA: the PRC effectively bought their seat when their economic power became sufficient that they could demand a one-China policy in their favour instead of the RoC. (Whether that fits the intent of the Big Three or makes sense morally is a different debate.)

In the USSR's case, the Kazakhs could have tried to claim it as they were the last members of the USSR, but their economy was a disaster, the other republics wouldn't support it and no one was going to help them get the GA votes (especially not with all that "end of history" sentiment around and the hope that Russia would become another western country - the last thing they'd want is the Russian people deciding that Gorbachev's plan was a better idea). The only semi-plausible alternative was Ukraine, then still as nuclear nation and the only other one with a reasonably complete economy, but that would have been a stretch too.

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    There was no "last member." The 1991 Christmas Day declaration by the governing committee of the USSR declared that the USSR ceased to exist as a legal entity. After that there could be no more members. Oct 13, 2022 at 21:39
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    Ukraine (unlike Russia and Kazakhstan) had its own membership of the UN from 1945, so it would have been kind of awkward for Ukraine to inherit the USSR's membership too. Oct 13, 2022 at 22:47
  • If "Gorbachev's plan" means the New Union Treaty, its final iteration (and possibly all its iterations) allowed the several union republics to choose whether to have socialist or capitalist economies, so if western countries opposed Gorbachev's plan (I'm not at all sure western countries did oppose it), it was not for the reason suggested here. Oct 13, 2022 at 22:57
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+50

There is also a fair bit of "common sense" involved here. Comparing the territory, population and economic concentration of the USSR proper (pre-1939) to present day Russia, Russia is the closest match for a continuator/succession state.

Russia is also where a lot of the fighting took place that beat Germany, which was certainly a practical part of what originally "earned" UN Security Council veto rights: being a WW2 victor.

The other USSR constituent states were all much smaller in all those respects and were more or less supportive of Russia's position.

And that's before one gets into who had practical control over most of the nukes to be given up by the 3 Budapest Memorandums as well as the overall USSR military.

Also, from the USA/NATO point of view they had disarmament treaties they had signed with the USSR and they needed a continuation state to take on their responsibilities.

People in 1991 mostly didn't expect Russia to devolve into what it's become today. Many Western Europeans were overjoyed to see their cousins "come in from the cold", ditch Communism and become a normal state. Not so much those who had had direct experience of Soviet rule, maybe.

Why should they have antagonized Russia by withholding this transfer? Doesn't seem unreasonable on its own and already asked here before. What's unreasonable is what Russia changed into under Putin.

What about the "legal background" in the question's title? How does this answer it? Well, international law and international relations are fuzzy, they're not like national laws where there are enforcement mechanisms and fines. Outside of formally codified subjects like those found in international treaties, in many cases, the "law" is what the international community agrees to, what the nations' relative power ratios support and what all the horse trading ends up delivering as "law".

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    "already asked here before". You mean "later", because that Q is from 2018 and this one from 2016, the 2-4 much later (2020-2022) answers, yours included, notwithstanding. May 15, 2023 at 14:32
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Funy thing but the legal justification was proposed by US lawyers as can be read in a quote from this article:

"There was talk that the USSR's place in the Security Council should go to some other country. Some have directly hinted that it should go to Japan or Germany, and Russia is not a permanent member. And here I had to work, of course, with everyone. Our cooperation with leading Western countries and, first of all, with the United States turned out well. American lawyers have suggested to us a very good legal option, according to which disputes about what belongs to the Russian Federation and what does not, have become pointless. They suggested that in our statement about changing the name of the country, as we said at the time, it would mean that the Russian Federation is the successor of the Soviet Union," Vorontsov recalled.

The successor country automatically received all the rights and obligations of the predecessor, because it was legally the same object of international law as the predecessor. The recognition of Russia as the successor of the USSR turned the procedure at the UN from a big geopolitical problem into a simple change of the plate. But Yeltsin's one word for this recognition was, of course, not enough.

Russia inherited not only the rights of the USSR, but also obligations, including debts. This is also the reason why not one of the other countries of the USSR did not challenge this decision.

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    Does anyone else, besides rambler.ru, make this claim, too? The UN adopts resolutions on much smaller topics, so I guess that there should be something wrt a P5 UNSC Membership, more than "there was talk" and anonymous "American lawyers". Oct 14, 2022 at 14:28
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    It's not what this Q is asking. It might be a suitable answer to the broader "why?" Q you think is a duplicate. May 15, 2023 at 14:37
  • @Fizz But for the other question it didn´t feat even more.
    – convert
    May 16, 2023 at 11:06

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