As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its ninth day, Vladimir Putin’s isolation within the international community continues. While his admirers seem to envision him at the head of some grand global anti-liberal or anti-imperialist alliance, the reality that has been exposed is quite the opposite.
The best indication came on Wednesday when the United Nations general assembly, meeting in an emergency special session, voted to “deplore” the invasion and to demand “that the Russian Federation immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.” The vote was 141 to five, with 47 countries abstaining or not voting.*
It’s interesting to compare that with the last vote on the subject, in 2014, when the general assembly, in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea, affirmed its “commitment to the sovereignty, political independence, unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.” Then the vote was 100 to 11, with 82 abstaining or not voting. (Note, in passing, how remarkable it is that the UN has admitted no new members in eight years, which is quite unprecedented.)
The difference is more striking in view of the difference between the two resolutions. That on Crimea did not directly condemn Russian aggression or demand the withdrawal of troops, confining itself to denying the legality of annexation. And it was passed at a regular session, not by the procedure of a special session that, at least in theory, opens a pathway to circumventing Russia’s veto in the security council and authorising the use of force.
Yet even so, 47 countries that had abstained or not voted in 2014 voted “yes” on Wednesday’s resolution. Many are small and seldom noticed, but some are major players: they include Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Ghana and Kenya; also Israel, which is generally very cool on self-determination but was brought on board this time; Serbia, normally a firm ally of Russia; and the United Arab Emirates, which abstained in the security council but supported the resolution in the general assembly.
Another seven countries voted against the Crimea resolution but abstained or failed to vote this time: in addition to Venezuela they include such usually pro-Russian governments as Armenia, Cuba and Nicaragua. Only a handful of countries shifted the other way; Eritrea abstained in 2014 but this time voted no, and five other African countries plus Azerbaijan moved from a “yes” vote to an abstention or absence.
A large proportion of the countries who abstained or failed to vote are on or close to Russia’s borders, including China, Mongolia, Pakistan and the five ex-Soviet central Asian countries. Others are old allies (Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam) or have their own reasons for not wanting to go on the record condemning aggression (most obviously Morocco, but perhaps also Ethiopia and Iran).
Perhaps only India and South Africa, which both abstained, look like genuine representatives of the old “non-aligned” movement, with its doctrinaire refusal to see any moral difference between the aggressor and the victim. And it may be that public opinion in time will bring them around as well.
This is all before Russia has unleashed the full power of its military capacity; if Ukraine’s cities are reduced to rubble, world opinion is not going to become any more Russia-friendly. China in particular seems increasingly unhappy at the turn of events. Its foreign policy is premised on not having to choose between Russia and the west, but if a choice is forced upon it then there are good reasons – as Mao Zedong realised as far back as the 1960s – to come to some understanding with the west.
Being alone is not always fatal; the United States has sometimes found itself in as small a minority as Russia is now. But if Putin has overstretched his resources, he will not find many friends to help him back on his feet.
* There is no practical difference between registering an abstention (35 countries) and simply not voting (12 countries), except that the latter preserves some deniability as it can be claimed to be accidental (“our train was late”, or the like). The one country whose non-voting was clearly involuntary was Venezuela, a Russian ally, whose voting rights have been suspended for non-payment of fees.