The General Assembly tries again

The emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly to deal with the war in Ukraine reconvened in New York last week, and again passed a resolution demanding that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw” its troops from Ukrainian territory

This is the third time that it has passed substantially the same resolution – by, not surprisingly, much the same margin each time. The vote was 141 to seven, with 32 abstentions and 13 countries not voting. Back in October it was 143 to five, and last March, immediately following the invasion, it was 141 to five.

Several countries that had changed their vote in October switched back this time, and there were a handful of other changes. Russia gained one new supporter, Mali; Dominica, Gabon, Grenada and Lebanon, which had previously supported the resolution, abstained or went missing, while South Sudan went the other way. But 173 of the UN’s 193 members have voted the same way on all three occasions.

So it remains true, as I said in October, that “Vladimir Putin has very little active support, but his passive support is far from insignificant.” Despite some optimism beforehand, a number of important powers, including most obviously China and India, remain officially on the fence. Although almost three-quarters of the world’s countries supported the resolution, they represent only a minority of world population: roughly three and a half billion, as against four and a quarter billion in those abstaining or not voting and another quarter of a billion for the dissenters.*

On the other hand, Russia’s opponents have a lot of economic power behind them. If we go by GDP, the supporters of the resolution amount to about 71 trillion $US per annum; the remainder are only about 30 trillion, more than half of which is in China alone. It’s easy to see why Russia depends on breaking Ukrainian morale – it cannot hope to win a war of attrition against western resources.

In that context it’s also interesting to look at the G20 countries, meeting at the weekend in India. At the UN, 15 of them supported the resolution, as against three absentions and Russia as the only dissenter (the twentieth member is the European Union). But at the G20 summit it’s reported that “all member countries except Russia and China” were willing to sign on to a statement criticising “in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine.”

In other words, India and South Africa show a somewhat different face at the G20 from their diplomacy at the UN. And even China’s attitude is equivocal, showing considerably less than full support for Russia; its recent “peace plan” was sufficiently restrained that Volodymyr Zelensky professed to see it as an encouraging sign and offered talks with Xi Jinping.

But international opinion is not enough to end wars, even when it comes with an impressive degree of unanimity. This is not the first time the General Assembly has tried to rein in a major power: 43 years ago it condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in similar terms and by a similar margin, 104 to 18 (with 30 abstaining or not voting). But the Soviet troops stayed there for another nine years.

The prospect of the war in Ukraine being ended by negotiation seems as low as ever. Putin is yet to indicate any willingness to back away from his fundamental war aim, the destruction of Ukrainian independence, and without that there is no real alternative to a decision on the battlefield.


* These numbers, and those in the next paragraph, are calculated from the latest available figures at Wikipedia. A number of places, whether independent or not, are not counted, but they would not alter the general picture; the main ones are Hong Kong, Kosovo, Palestine, Puerto Rico and Taiwan.


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