Reaffirming Ukraine’s Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity at the UN
Reaffirming Ukraine’s Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity at the UN
A man waves the Ukrainian flag as protestors demonstrate outside the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, New York. February 28, 2022. REUTERS / Mike Segar
Commentary / Global 9 minutes

Reaffirming Ukraine’s Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity at the UN

The UN General Assembly will convene soon to discuss Russia’s planned annexation of four Ukrainian regions. With many non-Western states wary of taking sides, Ukraine’s friends would be wise to seek affirmation of sovereignty and territorial integrity principles rather than condemnation of the Kremlin.

The UN General Assembly will meet in the second week of October to debate Russia’s attempt to annex the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. Assembly members will also vote on a resolution, tabled by Ukraine and its allies, rejecting Russia’s move. The resolution is a chance for UN members to reaffirm Ukraine’s sovereignty within its internationally recognised borders – and also the UN Charter’s clause prohibiting “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”.

These basic principles of international law may sound simple enough, but the vote will also be a test of how non-Western states view the seven-month-old conflict. As the war has dragged on, Russia has tried to persuade African, Asian and Latin American states that Moscow is their natural ally. In a 30 September speech at the ceremony marking Russia’s purported annexations, President Vladimir Putin claimed to be engaged in an “anti-colonial” struggle with the West. Ukraine’s allies have made the same argument in reverse, painting Russia as an imperialist and colonialist power. The forthcoming UN vote will give some indication of which narrative has found greater traction. But only some: many non-Western countries do not want to take either side in this crisis – numerous speakers at the mid-September high-level session of the General Assembly called simply for an end to the war – making the diplomatic manoeuvring around the resolution that much more sensitive and difficult.

Ukraine and its friends at the UN should not frame this resolution as a test of non-Western powers’ loyalties, lest that tactic backfire, with nervous UN members opting to abstain. Instead, the resolution’s backers should make it clear that their text aims primarily to restate and reinforce the UN Charter’s core principles. That will be a rebuke for Russia, showing that its effort to recast its war of aggression as an anti-colonial project has fallen flat.

A New Sense of Caution

While Western powers have been solidly in Kyiv’s corner since Russia launched its assault on 24 February, many other states have hedged their positions over time. In the first week of March, 141 of the body’s 193 members – including majorities from all regional groups – backed a resolution condemning Russia’s aggression. From April onward, however, Western diplomats have worried that many of their non-Western counterparts were succumbing to “Ukraine fatigue”. Troubled by rising food and energy prices, anxious about irritating Russia and surprised by the war’s length and ferocity, many UN members signalled that they did not want to participate in more votes against Moscow.

This sense of caution was evident during the annual high-level session of the General Assembly in the third week of September, when presidents and prime ministers gathered in New York for the first full-scale in-person gathering at the UN since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Leaders from the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (EU) were united in condemning Russia, putting any differences over how to handle the war aside. By contrast, non-Western leaders adopted a wide range of positions on the war and how to end it, with some ignoring the issue altogether. Indeed, an analysis by Crisis Group shows that some 54 of the 156 speakers to address the General Assembly representing states that are members of neither the EU nor NATO chose not to mention the war at all. A further 38 referred to Ukraine but did not name Russia as an actor in the conflict, presumably to avoid friction with Moscow. Sixty-four called out Russia by name. Overall, leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean were the most likely of the non-European speakers to refer explicitly to Russia’s role. Only eighteen of the 53 African speakers did so.

[The] African, Asian and Latin American speakers who [addressed] the war generally favoured a rapid diplomatic solution.

Those African, Asian and Latin American speakers who did address the war generally favoured a rapid diplomatic solution. Of these, 38 either called for a ceasefire, a negotiated settlement (or related options such as “dialogue”) or both. Very few made straightforward calls for Russian withdrawal. Many made vaguer proposals, for example calling on one or both sides to show restraint. The member state with the most detailed set of proposals in New York was Mexico, which tabled a plan for Russia and Ukraine to commit to a five-year truce, and called upon the UN Secretary-General, the Pope and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India to lead mediation efforts. This notion appeared to gain little purchase at UN headquarters: Secretary-General António Guterres had warned prior to the high-level week that it would be “naïve” to expect a peace deal in the near term.

Mexico aside, few of the leaders who floated ideas for resolving Russia’s war in Ukraine appear to have thought in detail about what a ceasefire or negotiations would entail. In a video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did his best to disabuse his counterparts of any illusions about the chances of successful diplomacy, explaining that a ceasefire at this stage would merely give Russia time to prepare for new hostilities and that Moscow is not serious about talks of any type. Western delegations gave the video a standing ovation, but many of their non-Western counterparts remained seated. (Ukraine had already scored a modest victory when 101 UN members voted to waive UN rules requiring in-person speeches so Zelenskyy could appear on screen, which most diplomats saw as a common-sense exception under the circumstances.) In their own speeches, the leaders of many poorer countries focused less on the war itself than on the impact of related food and economic shocks on their own nations. Some, such as Senegalese President Macky Sall – the current chair of the African Union and the first African speaker in the high-level week – made it clear that they did not feel bound to make an explicit choice between Russia and the West.

The Annexation Effect

It was not clear whether the speeches at the General Assembly fully took into account Moscow’s late September manoeuvres. Leaders had prepared their speeches in advance of arriving in New York. Few rewrote them to respond to the news on 20 September (the first day of the high-level debate) that Russia would be staging sham referenda in Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia the following weekend on uniting with Russia. But if UN leaders were able to get by in New York with general references to the need for diplomacy and peace in Ukraine, they will now have to take clearer stances on Russia’s move to take formal ownership of these territories.

Western diplomats at the UN have been anticipating a Russian push to annex Ukrainian territory for months – and preparing their response. Since detecting “Ukraine fatigue” in the General Assembly in the second quarter of the year, U.S. and European officials have refrained from tabling new substantive resolutions concerning the war, fearing diminishing returns and preferring to keep their diplomatic powder dry. At times, this tack has frustrated the Ukrainian delegation in New York. Nonetheless, as Crisis Group noted in previewing the General Assembly, Ukraine’s partners have always said a Russian attempt at annexation would demand a UN response – assuring Kyiv that it could reasonably expect a high level of support.

U.S. and European diplomats hope that when it comes to a vote, a significant majority of UN members will stand up for basic principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. These are central to the UN Charter, and non-Western countries have long been dedicated to defending them, sometimes invoking them in the face of Western pressure on human rights, governance and other issues. Kenya’s ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani, won widespread praise in the run-up to Russia’s all-out invasion in February with a speech to the Security Council noting that African countries had “settled for the borders we inherited” from European colonial powers, in part because the alternative would have been “new forms of domination and oppression”. Western leaders raised similar themes in their UN speeches – with U.S. President Joe Biden emphasising “the sovereign rights of smaller nations” – in a concerted effort to appeal to the Global South.

Ukraine and its backers now hope that non-Western UN members’ interest in shoring up these principles will lead them to vote in favour of a General Assembly resolution affirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity and rejecting Russia’s “annexations”. The U.S. set the process leading up to this vote in train on 30 September by tabling a Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s actions in tandem with Albania (the current Eastern European member of the Council). Russia predictably vetoed it. Brazil, China, Gabon and India abstained, while the remaining ten members of the body backed the measure. While the number of abstentions was a disappointment – not least because Brazil and Gabon had voted to deplore Russia’s aggression in the Council in February – U.S. officials were relieved that China did not oppose the resolution, and indeed made positive references to Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

The EU delegation to the UN has since been working with Ukrainian diplomats, the U.S. and other friends on a draft General Assembly resolution on the issue. There is little doubt that it will pass, but the exact level of support, which remains to be seen, will also be important. In 2014, Ukraine tabled a resolution affirming its sovereignty over Crimea, which passed with 100 votes. In the ensuing years, the Assembly passed further resolutions renewing its position on Crimea, but the number of supporters dwindled. In December 2021, the latest version of this resolution passed with just 62 UN members backing it, 22 taking Russia’s side and the vast majority either abstaining or declining to vote.

Western diplomats hope that … they can secure a much bigger majority for their forthcoming text.

Western diplomats hope that, given the urgency of the situation in Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia, they can secure a much bigger majority for their forthcoming text. A sensible target would be to get a majority of at least 130 votes, or two thirds of the UN membership, which would be close to the 141 states that backed the March Assembly resolution on Russian aggression. Some of the biggest countries by population, including China and India, are unlikely to vote with the Western powers, affording Moscow an argument that the world is not as lopsidedly with the West as such a vote count might suggest. But that logic only goes so far at the General Assembly, where sovereigns have equal status, and vote counts do matter.

Securing Support

To secure maximum support, Ukraine and its backers should calibrate their messaging to the rest of the UN membership carefully. As Crisis Group’s analysis of leaders’ speeches at the high-level week suggests, many states are now wary of taking strong stances on Ukraine and would simply like to a see an early resolution to the war. They do not want to line up behind fierce denunciations of Russia. Yet if Ukraine, the U.S. and European countries can emphasise that this vote is narrowly focused on protecting the UN Charter principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, many UN members will feel it serves their interests to sign on. Some will contrast the U.S. opposition to Russia’s annexations with the Trump administration’s recognition of Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights and Morocco’s absorption of Western Sahara, which the Biden administration has not renounced. But at the end of the day, most UN members should be reluctant to go on the record as disregarding Ukraine’s – or any country’s – right to maintain its borders.

This resolution will also inevitably play into the broader “battle of narratives” between Russia and the West over what is at stake in Ukraine. As noted above, both sides have lobbed accusations of colonialism and imperialism in the course of the war. There is no doubt that references to the history of colonialism still resonate strongly at the UN. In recent years, states from the Global South have drawn linkages between the abuses of their former colonisers and complaints about inequity in the West’s approach to issues such as the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021. It is little wonder that President Putin is trying to harp on this theme. Yet much as Russia’s narrative may resonate in some quarters, the protection of territorial integrity has the potential to strike a yet deeper chord. The resolution’s sponsors will be wise to focus their attention on safeguarding this fundamental pillar of the UN Charter, which every member of the General Assembly has committed to respect.

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