As UN Prepares to Vote on Russian Aggression, Blinken Warns Against Abstentions, Claims of Neutrality

Patrick Goodenough | October 11, 2022 | 4:25am EDT
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Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vassily Nebenzia speaks during Monday’s General Assembly emergency meeting. (Photo by Andrea Renault / AFP via Getty Images)
Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vassily Nebenzia speaks during Monday’s General Assembly emergency meeting. (Photo by Andrea Renault / AFP via Getty Images)

( – As the U.N. General Assembly debates Russia’s most recent annexation of Ukrainian territory, the ability of the U.S. and its allies to haul developing countries from the “abstain” to the “yes” column will test the effectiveness of their argument that the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine is a clear violation of the U.N. Charter.

A debate that began on Monday will resume on Wednesday, when the 193-member General Assembly (UNGA) will take a vote on a resolution condemning President Vladimir Putin’s bid to seize four regions that together account for about 15 percent of Ukraine’s territory.

The emergency session is being held because Russia less than two weeks ago vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the annexation hours earlier of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia following widely-condemned referendums. No Security Council member supported Russia, but China, India, Brazil, and Gabon abstained.

"Now is the time to speak out in support for Ukraine; it is not the time for abstentions, placating words, or equivocations under claims of neutrality,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. “The core principles of the U.N. Charter are at stake.”

The resolution before the UNGA is similar to the defeated Security Council one, condemning the “attempted illegal annexations” of the territory after “so-called referendums,” declaring that the Kremlin’s actions have “no validity under international law.”

Monday’s debate came against the backdrop of a barrage of Russian missile and drone strikes against Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, the heaviest such assault since the invasion began in February.

As the debate was set to begin, Russia, which has sought to make the issue one of the West against the rest, called for the draft resolution to be voted on by secret ballot, which would go against precedent and require the suspension of a rule of procedure.

But a vote on Russia’s secret ballot gambit failed, by 107 votes to 13, with 39 abstentions (and 34 countries not voting).

Countries backing Russia’s request for a secret ballot vote were Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Nicaragua, North Korea, South Sudan, Tajikistan, Zimbabwe, and the Assad regime in Syria.

In order to pass on Wednesday, the draft resolution condemning the annexations will require the support of two-thirds of voting members.

Although abstentions will not count in that calculation, the smaller the number of countries that abstain, the more powerful the global statement of condemnation of Putin’s actions will be.

When he annexed Crimea in 2014, only ten countries joined Russia in opposing an UNGA resolution condemning the move. But 58 developing countries abstained, and another 24 countries absented themselves.

“I personally do not consider abstain a great result,” a senior U.S. administration official said during a background briefing on this week’s initiative. “I would love to see countries vote for a resolution like this because, from our perspective, it underscores the fundamental principles that we’ve all signed up for, all committed to, and that are critical to keeping peace and security around the world.”

During Monday’s debate, several speakers alluded to the question of sitting on the fence rather than taking a clear stance on Russia’s actions.

Not only were Russia’s annexations of Ukrainian territory illegal, said Costa Rican Ambassador Maritza Chan Valverde, but “aiding and abetting such violations are themselves international crimes.”

“We cannot allow ourselves to be indifferent, and abstain[ing] cannot be a choice,” said Albanian Ambassador Albana Dautllari.

Implicitly appealing for backing from the developing world, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia tried to draw a comparison between Russia’s historical support for anti-colonial positions in Asia, Africa and Latin America and what he called its support for “our brothers and sisters in the south and east of Ukraine.”

Accusing Western nations of “twisting the arms of those who dare to have an own divergent opinion,” he said those countries that withstand the pressure prove their independent policies and “uphold the crucial principle of sovereign equality of member states.”

The senior administration official briefing on background earlier said Russia would likely try to encourage as many countries as possible to abstain or simply stay away, rather than have to take a stand.

“It’s possible that Russia will bully or strong-arm countries into abstaining or not showing up to vote,” the official said. “We know a number of countries may want to avoid a debate like this, which is a very tough debate for them.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has spoken out strongly against Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory, but his spokesman said Monday it was not for the secretariat to tell member-states how to vote in the General Assembly.

 “Countries will vote in the way they feel they need to vote,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric said during a press briefing. “It’s not for us to tell them how to vote. The only appeal that we have is for countries to uphold the charter of this organization.”

The ten countries that backed Russia when the General Assembly in 2014 condemned Putin’s annexation of Crimea were Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

The 58 member states that abstained were:  Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bangladesh, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, China, Comoros, Djibouti, Dominica, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Fiji, Gabon, Gambia, Guyana, India, Iraq, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Lesotho, Mali, Mauritania, Mongolia, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Nauru, Pakistan, Paraguay, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Zambia.

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