The U.N. General Assembly will convene Monday in a special session to discuss Russia’s recent attempt to annex four regions of Ukraine. The session could reveal whether Russia’s international isolation is growing as its war grinds on.
“The U.N. Charter is clear: Any annexation of a state’s territory by another state resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the principles of the U.N. Charter and international law,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said September 29, a day ahead of a theatrical Kremlin ceremony to incorporate the territories into Russia.
Guterres said any attempt to annex Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia would have “no legal value” and would be a “dangerous escalation.”
The following day, Russia exercised its veto in the U.N. Security Council to block a resolution condemning its actions.
That has spurred a move to the General Assembly, where no state has a veto.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia circulated a letter to member states October 4, calling the move to the General Assembly “clearly politicized and provocative.”
Taking a stand
In addition to the debate, countries will be asked to state their stance on the issue by voting on a European-drafted resolution condemning Russia’s move to annex Ukrainian territory.
“It is clinically focused on the legality or illegality of what Russia is doing,” European Union Ambassador Olof Skoog told reporters of the draft text.
The final draft, seen by VOA on Friday, reiterates the secretary-general’s pronouncement and reaffirms states’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders. It also clearly condemns Russia’s “illegal so-called referenda” and “attempted illegal annexation” and says they are invalid under international law.
“We’re going to continue to make the case that there are fundamental principles at stake here, and that’s something that every country has a stake in,” a senior U.S. administration official told reporters Thursday, discussing the negotiations.
The final text also includes language supporting the de-escalation of the conflict and adds new language promoting resolution through “political dialogue, negotiation, mediation and other peaceful means,” with respect to Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders and in accordance with the principles of the U.N. Charter.
Richard Gowan, the International Crisis Group’s U.N. director, said including this language is a smart move.
“I think the EU and Ukrainians made some smart moves in negotiations on this text – for example, taking on ideas from non-Western diplomats to include language, absent from early drafts, on the need for a negotiated solution to the war,” he told VOA. “I am not sure Ukraine actually believes that real dialogue is possible, but they need to show that they don’t reject diplomacy completely.”
Diplomats expect the debate to go beyond Monday, and a vote is not expected before Wednesday.
To pass the resolution, the sponsors will need a two-thirds majority of countries present and voting “yes.” Abstentions do not count toward the two-thirds requirement.
Typically, the General Assembly would hold a public vote and record it so the world can see where each nation stands. But Russia has taken the unusual step of requesting a secret ballot — a format that is usually reserved for assembly actions such as elections to U.N. bodies.
In his letter, Nebenzia urged states to vote against the proposed resolution. He said that because there is “huge pressure” on countries to pick a side, Russia is proposing a secret ballot to give them “flexibility and breathing space.”
“It doesn’t suggest a high degree of confidence in the outcome if Russia is seeking to obscure the vote count or the results,” the U.S. official said.
A procedural vote could be called in the assembly to decide whether to use a recorded ballot or secret ballot.
On March 2, the General Assembly voted 141-5 to condemn Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. Only four countries — Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria — voted with Russia against the resolution. Thirty-five countries abstained.
The upcoming vote could indicate whether there is Ukraine “fatigue” among U.N. members and whether the impact of the war, particularly on fuel, food and fertilizer prices, has shifted some countries’ positions.
“In March, even countries like Cuba and Iran abstained,” a senior Western diplomat noted. “It’s important to show that the support to Russia hasn’t increased, and, at the same time, to limit as much as possible the number of abstentions.”
Many of the 35 abstentions in March came from African nations.
“All eyes will be on the African group, which are generally seen as the most ambivalent bloc of U.N. members over the war,” Gowan said. “I suspect that most African members will abstain, but the U.S. will be encouraging its partners to back the resolution, arguing that it is a vote against colonialism.”
Gowan said the more Ukraine and its allies can frame the vote as a “simple up-or-down test” of loyalty to the U.N. Charter, the stronger their argument would be.
The Western diplomat put it more colorfully:
“You cannot be half pregnant. Either you are pregnant or you’re not. So, the same — either it is legal, or it isn’t illegal, so exactly the same.”
Diplomats and analysts will also be looking to see how traditional Russian allies such as China and India vote. On March 2, both abstained from the assembly vote. They have also withheld their support from Russia in the Security Council.
Brazil, which voted to condemn Moscow in March, abstained in the September 30 Security Council vote condemning the so-called referenda and attempted annexation.
Lobbying continues from both the Western and Russian sides. Moscow wants to dispel the Western narrative that it is diplomatically isolated, while Western nations are eager to show that the moral weight of the international community is on the side of Ukraine and international law.