U.N. Votes Reveal a Lot About Global Opinion on the War in Ukraine
U.N. Votes Reveal a Lot About Global Opinion on the War in Ukraine
Op-Ed / Multilateral Diplomacy 4 minutes

U.N. Votes Reveal a Lot About Global Opinion on the War in Ukraine

This Thursday, the United Nations General Assembly will vote on a resolution marking the first anniversary of Russia’s all-out assault on Ukraine and calling on Moscow to end the war. Western Diplomats expect at least two-thirds of the General Assembly’s 193 members to support the initiative. Last March, 141 states—including the majority of countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America—backed a resolution condemning Russia’s actions. In the fall, 143 voted to reject Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to annex Ukrainian territory. Absent a significant surprise, a similar majority should throw their weight behind this latest resolution.

While the resolution is very unlikely to affect Russia’s actions on the battlefield, it will allow Ukraine to demonstrate that it still enjoys broad international support for its struggle. As the war has ground on, and as Russia and Ukraine have competed for support in the non-Western world, these General Assembly votes have become a useful barometer of global views of the conflict.

From the first weeks of the war onward, the International Crisis Group’s U.N. team has parsed and mapped the U.N. voting data to understand these global perspectives. What have we learned?

There are limits to what this data can tell us about states’ attitudes toward the war. Voting in favor of Ukraine at the U.N. is a low-cost way to show sympathy with Kyiv, without severing relations with Moscow. Most non-European countries that voted to deplore Russia’s aggression last March did not follow up with sanctions. Doing the right thing at the U.N. can be an alibi for not doing much about the war in the real world. This is not unusual. Many states that maintain healthy ties with Israel still condemn its treatment of the Palestinians in the General Assembly.

Conversely, some U.N. members have used the General Assembly as a way to signal displeasure with Moscow without actually voting against it. Western officials highlight that China abstained on key General Assembly resolutions on Ukraine last year, which they interpret as a coded rebuke to Putin. While some diplomats grumble that China has not gone further—and worry that Beijing is preparing to offer Russia greater military support—they are nonetheless glad that the Chinese are not actively lobbying on Moscow’s behalf in New York.

Despite these caveats, a survey of past General Assembly votes on Ukraine offers at least three lessons. First, and contrary to many analyses, the war has not divided the world into clear-cut democratic and autocratic camps. It is true that democracies from all regions have sided with Ukraine against Russia at the United Nations. But quite a few autocracies have too. When it came to last October’s vote rejecting Russia’s purported annexations of Ukrainian territory, 21 of the 55 states that Freedom House classifies as “not free” backed Ukraine. Twenty-nine more “not free” states abstained or did not vote. Just five, including Russia itself, opposed the resolution. A large majority of those states Freedom House calls “partly free”—43 of 55—also backed Ukraine.

Although the bulk of U.N. members have demonstrated sympathy for Ukraine, many want to avoid imposing concrete penalties on Russia through the General Assembly.

While there is no “one size fits all” explanation for these votes, they suggest that states of all ideological stripes share a common interest in upholding the principles of state sovereignty and the right to territorial integrity, which Russia has violated in Ukraine. The U.S. and the European Union have smartly framed many U.N. debates over the war in terms of upholding these norms—enshrined in Article 2 of the U.N. Charter—rather than defending Ukraine as a democracy.

If the U.N. voting data does not support the idea of a clear-cut democracy versus autocracy schism over Ukraine, it also challenges another fashionable notion about the war: that it is inspiring a revival of the Non-Aligned Movement, or NAM, as a diplomatic force. During the Cold War, postcolonial states worked together through the NAM to gain autonomy from the Western and Soviet blocs. In the months following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many non-Western officials and commentators argued that the war made a revival of non-alignment urgently necessary. There was similar talk of the U.N.’s African group agreeing to collectively abstain in votes relating to Ukraine.

Yet to date, there is little evidence of either the 120-member NAM or other non-Western groupings carving out unified positions at the U.N. on the war. To the contrary, the African, Asian and Latin American groups continue to be split over how to vote over Ukraine. Last March, South Africa attempted to mobilize NAM support for a resolution it had drafted on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, but which omitted any criticism of Russia in an attempt to appear impartial; only 50 countries supported the effort. So, although there is much talk about the rise of the Global South at the U.N., non-Western nations appear more focused on economic issues, like pressing rich countries to finance climate adaptation in the developing world, than Ukraine.

A final lesson from the last year’s U.N. voting data is that, although the bulk of U.N. members have demonstrated sympathy for Ukraine, many want to avoid imposing concrete penalties on Russia through the General Assembly. When Ukraine and its allies have tabled resolutions involving such penalties, they have seen a drop-off in support. Only 93 U.N. members voted in favor of a resolution suspending Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council last April. In November, 94 backed a text endorsing the creation of a “damages register” to track Russian destruction in Ukraine as a basis for future reparations.

These experiences have left U.S. and European diplomats wary of asking too much of the General Assembly. Late last year, Ukrainian officials suggested that this month’s anniversary of Moscow’s assault could be an opportunity to table a resolution calling for a special tribunal to try Russian leaders, potentially including even Putin, for the crime of aggression. But their allies counseled caution, and the idea is on hold for now. Instead, this week’s resolution offers a broad statement of support for Ukraine that most U.N. members should be happy to back. It also calls for peace “as soon as possible,” and for Russia to pull it forces out of Ukraine to enable a cessation of hostilities.

While this falls short of what Kyiv initially wanted, it is a prudent approach. As our data-crunching has shown, Ukraine enjoys wide support across the U.N. membership, transcending regional and ideological blocs. It cannot expect the General Assembly to take assertive measures to end the war or penalize Russia. But it can use the U.N. as a platform to restate and reinforce its basic right to defend its sovereignty and territory against Russia’s aggression.


UN Director
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Tess Gibson
Special Assistant to the President
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Raquel Alberto De La Fuente
UN Advocacy Assistant

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