On Thursday the United Nations General Assembly weighed in on Russia’s seizure of Crimea, inspiring headlines to the effect that Russia is becoming a pariah at the UN. For instance, the New York Times reported: “Vote by U.N. General Assembly Isolates Russia.”
If only it were that straightforward. But if you look at the actual resolution, and the vote, it’s more like the UN General Assembly has sort-of-maybe-somewhat semi-isolated Russia. The point being that, unfortunately, the UN is no place to go for any solution to Russia’s territorial grabs.
The UN body that should really be objecting to Russia’s seizure of Ukraine is the UN Security Council. But with Russia holding one of the Permanent Five veto-wielding seats, the Security Council is even more impotent than usual. So Ukraine had to take its case to the General Assembly, where the resolutions can carry a certain heft as a reflection of general opinion, but have no binding force.
So it was that the General Assembly took up a resolution on the “Territorial integrity of Ukraine.” Clearly the spirit behind this resolution is outraged protest over Russia’s heavily armed grab of Crimea from Ukraine. The actual language, however, is so demure that Russia is mentioned exactly once, and then only by way of a reference to Russia’s 1997 Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation with Ukraine. There is no mention of Russian troops, or that the March 16 secessionist referendum in Crimea — leading to Russian annexation — was held at Russian gunpoint. The resolution calls on “all States” to “desist and refrain” from any attempt to carve off pieces of Ukraine. (It seems safe to assume that Canada, Belgium and the Marshall Islands will take heed). The resolution further calls on “all States, international organizations and specialized agencies” to reject the March 16 referendum in Crimea.
The vote on this resolution was 100 in favor, 11 against. That is certainly a sweeping majority of yeas versus nays. And if the UN had no more than 111 member states, it would be an emphatic majority opposed to Russia carving up Ukraine. Russia would indeed be isolated in this crowd.
But the UN has 193 members. On this resolution, there were 58 that abstained, and apparently there were 24 no-shows. In other words, while 100 states voted in favor of preserving the territorial integrity of Ukraine, there were 93 states that did not vote in favor. Those actively voting against the resolution included many of the usual bottom-of-the-barrel suspects: Belarus, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, Zimbabwe and North Korea, along with Armenia and Russia itself. Among those abstaining were such major countries as China and India.
To put this in perspective, this is a crowd in which an enormous number of states are less concerned with the collective preservation of civilized norms than with their own immediate interests, alliances and agendas. When it comes to important, recorded votes in the UN General Assembly, the U.S. is often more isolated than was Russia this week. One of the more appalling instances of that was a General Assembly vote in 2007, in which the member states voted themselves a fat new budget, the biggest share of that to come from U.S. taxpayers, and the vote was 142 to 1 — the lone nay vote being that of the U.S. For more on the perversity of UN voting records, here’s a link to my article on “The Twisted Conundrum of Funding the United Nations.”
In sum, it’s better than nothing that out of 193 UN member states, 100 voted in favor of a toothless resolution calling for nameless states to desist and refrain from violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine. But to count on that as a measure isolating Russia, or to look to the UN for a moral or political compass in these matters, would be folly. Leadership must come from someplace else.