A man holds a Crimean flag in front of the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol in a March 17, 2014 file photo.
Ukraine and its backers won support from little more than half the members of the United Nations General Assembly to declare invalid Crimea’s referendum to secede, as Russia wielded diplomatic and economic pressure for members to abstain or cast no ballot.
The 193-member General Assembly voted 100-11 today to pass a nonbinding resolution describing the Crimean referendum as “having no validity” and calling on all states and agencies to not recognize “any alteration of the status” of Crimea. Fifty-eight members abstained, and 24 were absent.
While the resolution makes no mention of Russia for its invasion or annexation of the peninsula, the 46 sponsors sought to win a clear majority as a symbol of the country’s isolation from the international community. Instead, many members averted a commitment after aggressive lobbying by Russia.
“A lot of UN members avoid voting on sensitive disputes that don’t concern them in the General Assembly,” said Richard Gowan, associate director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, in an e-mail. “African countries typically avoid casting votes for or against resolutions on human rights in Iran and North Korea, for example.”
Countries aren’t obliged to abide by General Assembly resolutions, in contrast to Security Council resolutions that are legally binding. Russia used its veto power to block a council resolution on Ukraine earlier this month. No country has veto power in the General Assembly.
The resolution’s adoption could be cited as proof against Russian claims for international recognition of Crimea as Russian territory.
The ability of the U.S. and allies to muster 100 votes in favor is “at least an improvement” from 2008, when only 14 countries supported a resolution raising concerns about the Georgian war, Gowan said.
“Then again, only 11 countries including Russia voted against it,” he said. “The vast majority of UN members don’t want to get caught up in East-West fights.”
Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin framed the crisis in Ukraine as provocation by the U.S. and EU in seeking to break enduring ties between Crimea and Russia.
“The crisis was to a large extent provoked by the adventurist actions of the current political forces, which sought to break the century-old ties, tying Russia and Ukraine, putting before a false choice: either the European Union and the West or Russia,” Churkin said ahead of the vote. “This policy was carried out with unprecedented bluntness.”
The Russian envoy called today’s results “a moral victory” for his nation’s diplomacy. ‘The fact that almost half of the members of the United Nations refused to support this resolution, I think, is very encouraging,’’ he said.
Churkin spent the past week moving throughout the UN to secure as many absences and abstentions as he could in today’s vote on Ukraine, said a UN diplomat. He called in favors with African and Central Asian nations, recalling past cases where Russia expressed support, the diplomat said.
Some countries that are sympathetic to Ukraine’s cause abstained so as to not get involved in the conflict, the diplomat said, and others were afraid to jeopardize their economic ties with Russia.
Ambassadors of the 28 European Union countries and the U.S. waged a diplomatic campaign to counter the Russian bid, manning phones and holding last-minute meetings with regional groups, said a second UN diplomat. Both diplomats asked not to be named speaking about sensitive negotiations.
Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe joined Russia in objecting to the text, while Serbia, Iran, Bosnia and Yemen didn’t cast ballots. The abstentions included China, Egypt, India, Iraq, Mongolia, Myanmar and other African nations.
Cuba and North Korea said the U.S. and its allies intervened to delegitimize the democratically elected government of President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted after an uprising last month.
China said its abstention stemmed from its longstanding foreign policy of not getting involved in internal affairs of other nations and respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.
Ukraine turned to the General Assembly to send “an essential message that the international community will not allow what has happened in Crimea to set a precedent for further challenges to our rules-based international framework,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia told the General Assembly before the vote. “I am convinced that a strong vote today will help deter further aggressive moves.”
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power commended Ukraine for turning to the General Assembly.
“Ukraine is justified in seeking our votes in reaffirming and in protecting its borders,” Power said. “It is justified in asking us not to recognize the new status quo that the Russian Federation has tried to create with its military.”
EU Ambassador to the UN Thomas Mayr-Harting reiterated the bloc’s support for Ukraine with a pledge to “provide strong financial support to its economic and financial stabilization.” He encouraged “other member states and international organizations including financial institutions to assist in restoring the stability of Ukraine and support its structural reforms.”
Japan, which is in a territorial dispute with China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, expressed strong support for the resolution, saying the crisis in Ukraine has ramifications beyond Europe.
“This is not a problem for Ukraine or Europe alone,” said Japanese Ambassador to the UN Motohide Yoshikawa. “Any attempt to change the status quo with force in the background is a serious challenge to the whole international community.”