GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 677, 16 October 2022

UN deems Russia’s referendums illegal
Rishma Banerjee

What happened?
On 12 October, the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution to deem the recent referendums conducted by Russia as illegal. 143 member states voted in favour of the resolution, 5 voted against and 35 members abstained. The countries supporting Russia were North Korea, Nicaragua, Syria and Belarus. South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand, Cuba, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India and China were among the countries that abstained. This has been the biggest show of support by the UNGA to Ukraine so far. 

Ahead of the vote, Russian UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia told the General Assembly that the resolution was "politicized and openly provocative," and "could destroy any and all efforts in favor of a diplomatic solution to the crisis."

In a statement following the vote, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed his gratefulness to the countries that supported the “historic UNGA resolution” and said: “The world had its say – [Russia’s] attempt at annexation is worthless and will never be recognized by free nations.” The US President Joe Biden said: “The stakes of this conflict are clear to all, and the world has sent a clear message in response – Russia cannot erase a sovereign state from the map.” 

What is the background?
First, Russia’s referendum in Ukraine. From 23 to 27 September, Russia held referendums in four regions in Ukraine-Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Ukrainians from these regions reported that Russian soldiers were going door-to-door to collect votes. In some parts, mobile voting units in buses were set up. Russia said that these measures were for ‘security.’ Amidst concerns about the validity of the referendum, the Russian Central Election Commission released their report soon after, saying that 99.23 percent in DPR, 98.42 per cent in LPR, 87.05 per cent in Kherson and 93.11 per cent in Zaporizhzhia favoured joining Russia. On 30 September 2022 President Vladimir Putin officially announced the annexation of these regions to Russia, which Ukraine and the international community deemed as illegal.

Second, rejection of Russia’s plea for secret ballot. On 11 October, the UNGA responded to Albania’s call and voted against Russia’s proposal to hold secret ballots on the constitutionality of Russia’s annexation of four regions of Ukraine. With 107 votes in favor, the UNGA decided that the vote deciding on the "illegal so-called referenda" and the "attempted illegal annexation” of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, LPR, and DPR will be public. 13 countries voted for a secret ballot and 39 countries including Russia and China abstained from voting.

Third, Russia’s strong-arming in the UNSC. Following the referendums, the US and Albania had tabled a UN Security Council resolution condemning Moscow’s “illegal referenda”. 10 out of the 15-member council voted for the resolution, and China, Gabon, India, and Brazil abstained. However, the resolution failed to get adopted as Russia as a permanent member vetoed it. As a response to the Veto in the UNSC, US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield promised to pursue accountability for Russia at the UNGA. Thus, on 10 October a special emergency session of the UNGA was convened, culminating in the vote. 

Fourth, a similar strategy to that of Crimea. In February 2014, Russia invaded Crimea, captured strategic sites in the region, and eventually annexed it into Russia. A pro-Russian government was installed and Crimea’s independence was declared by the same government in March 2014. This annexation had also initiated a UNGA vote rejecting Russia’s referendum, which Russia disregards.  

What does it mean?
First increasing support for Ukraine. Several countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE which have been seen trying to maintain good relations with Russia on bilateral levels even amidst the war voted for the resolution, thus indicating their support for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. From the BRICS grouping, even though only Brazil voted for the resolution and the other three states abstained, both India and China criticized Russia’s recent escalation in Ukraine and Russia’s targeting of civilian infrastructure, marking a shift in their neutral stances. 

Second, the legitimacy of the referendum and resolution. The annexation of Crimea can serve as the perfect precedence for the 2022 annexations done by Russia. Like in the case of Crimea, the international community does not recognize Crimea as Russia’s part, but in the Russian consciousness, Crimea is an extension of their territory. Since a UNGA resolution is not legally binding, it remains to be seen whether Russia will accept the UNGA’s vote or continue to claim the four territories as rightful parts of Russia and continue.

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