The United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn Russia's violation of Ukrainian territorial integrity this week in the first vote by the body since Moscow's annexation of the Crimean peninsula. The non-binding resolution passed with 100 countries in favor, 58 abstentions, and a smattering of delegations not present. Fewer than a dozen countries voted against it, including Russia. As the first test of global opinion since the Ukrainian crisis began, what can we discern from the tally about post-Crimea realignments in world power?
The vote gave Western countries a chance to demonstrate the unity they have sometimes lacked as the Crimean crisis has unfolded. Every European Union member state and most of its candidates for membership voted for the resolution, as did the entire memberships of NATO, the G-7, and the OECD, except for Israel.
Only 11 countries voted against the resolution: Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. A veritable rogues' gallery of U.S. foreign policy, the "No" bloc is scattered across the globe; only Belarus and North Korea share a border with Russia.*
Among the Nos, all but Armenia are longtime U.S. opponents and authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning states. Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe, unsurprisingly backed Russia, with which it shares deep economic and political ties. Cuba, Sudan, and Syria are listed as state sponsors of terrorism by the U.S. government. The Reagan administration fought a proxy war against members of the ruling Nicaraguan government in the 1980s, while Venezuela and Bolivia are staunchly leftist opponents of American neoliberalism and interventionism. North Korea, for its part, spent most of the Crimean crisis conducting missile tests in an ongoing campaign to demonstrate strength and deter the West.
Armenia's "no" vote is something of a surprise. The country recently backed out of signing an association agreement with the EU and opened negotiations to join the Russia-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States' customs union instead. Ukraine recently recalled its ambassador from Yerevan after Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan told Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call last week that the Crimean referendum was "another case of exercise of peoples’ right to self-determination via free expression of will." In response, the Armenian Foreign Ministry announced that the country would abstain from voting on the UN resolution one day before voting against it. What led to its change of heart is unclear.
The abstentions are also worth exploring. Four of the five BRICS countries—Brazil, India, China, and South Africa—chose to not take a side on the resolution, as did many African, South American, and Asian countries. Some observers argue that the abstentions show a wariness among developing nations to choose sides in a confrontation between Russia and the West. "India and China have deep reservations on sovereignty and territorial integrity and in the past have not hesitated to slam US for Libya, Syria etc.," wrote The Times of India after the vote. "With Russia doing exactly the same thing, the dilemma in the developing world is acute." Other countries avoided participating in the vote altogether, including Iran, one of Russia's closest allies, and Israel, one of America's.
While a 100-11 margin in favor of international condemnation might seem damning, Vitaly Churkin, Russia's UN ambassador, doesn't see it that way. "Many countries complained that they were subjected to enormous pressure from Western powers to ensure that they vote to support the resolution," the diplomat told reporters after the vote. "Probably, this pressure tactic, which our Western colleagues use, has produced a result, and some countries voted reluctantly."
But Russia also directed "political blackmail and economic threats" at countries within its sphere of influence in the lead-up to the vote, UN diplomats told Reuters, including Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and a number of African countries. Moldova ultimately voted 'yes,' while Kyrgyzstan abstained and Tajikistan did not appear at the vote.
"Nevertheless, I think the result is quite good for us," Churkin added. "We have won [a] certain moral and political victory."
* This post originally stated that of the countries voting 'no' on the UN resolution, only Belarus and Russia share a border. North Korea shares a border with Russia as well. We regret the error.