What the UN General Assembly vote on Ukraine tells us
There really were no surprises among the five states that voted against the United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demanding that it withdraw its forces from that embattled country. Syria, Belarus, North Korea and Eritrea, all led by authoritarian dictators, supported their fellow autocrat in the Kremlin. Indeed, the Biden administration had sanctioned the Eritrean Defense Forces and the country’s ruling party as recently as September, stating, “Eritrea’s destabilizing presence in Ethiopia is prolonging the conflict … and threatening the integrity of the Ethiopian state.” In other words, it has been taking a leaf out of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook.
On the other hand, there were some surprises both among the 141 states that supported the resolution — of which 96 were its co-sponsors — as well as among the 35 states that chose to abstain. The list of co-sponsors included Israel, which previously had attempted to walk a fine line between Russia and Ukraine. This was in part because of Israel’s concern about endangering its arrangements with Moscow that have enabled it to attack Iranian targets in Syria and thwart Tehran’s efforts to establish a position on the Golan Heights.
Jerusalem also did not want to alienate those oligarchs in Putin’s circle who have supported Israel politically and financially. For those reasons, the Israelis blocked sales of their weapons to Ukraine, either directly or through third countries. Nevertheless, given the scale of Ukraine’s growing humanitarian crisis, as well as Putin’s clear determination to wipe the country off the map, and facing intense American pressure, the Israelis did an about-face. They began to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and then chose not only to vote for the resolution but to co-sponsor it.
Like Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had hesitated to criticize Russia. It not only remained silent during Russia’s pre-war military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, but also voted against the Security Council resolution that presaged the virtually identical resolution in the General Assembly. Although the UAE did not co-sponsor the General Assembly resolution, it did join the other 140 countries that voted in its favor. Saudi Arabia likewise supported the resolution, even though it has developed close ties with Moscow and had refrained from criticizing Russia’s actions. So, too, did the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, as well as non-GCC member Yemen.
There were other surprises among those states that supported the General Assembly resolution. Singapore, traditionally careful not to get caught in disagreements between the United States and China, was a supporter. So was Cambodia, which tends to take a low profile on controversial international political matters. Indeed, of the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), only Vietnam and Laos abstained.
It was no great surprise that China abstained from voting on the resolution. It had abstained in the Security Council vote and did not want to alienate either Moscow or the many Third World countries that host Chinese economic projects and supported the resolution. Nor was it surprising that Russia’s Central Asian neighbors abstained as well.
Apart from China, Pakistan and India were among the most notable abstainers. Several European Union states, as well as Britain, Canada, Australia and Japan, had lobbied Pakistan to support the resolution. But Islamabad in recent years has supplemented its close ties to China with a growing relationship with Russia. This past April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his counterpart on a visit to Islamabad, “I came with a message from my president that tell Pakistan we are open for any cooperation; whatever Pakistan needs, Russia is ready for it.” The Pakistanis interpreted the statement to mean that Moscow would give them a “blank check.” And Pakistani President Imran Khan was in Moscow striking a trade deal with Russia even as Russian forces penetrated deeper into Ukraine.
Pakistan’s arch-rival India has had a longstanding relationship with Russia. Sixty percent of India’s military equipment is Russian or Soviet-made. Given the ties between the two countries, it probably is not surprising that the world’s largest democracy in effect has aligned itself with the world’s second largest (after China) autocracy.
In so doing, however, India signaled the limits to its participation in the Quad with the U.S., Japan and Australia, all three of which co-sponsored the resolution on Ukraine. For years, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, Washington has sought closer ties with India, not least in the military sphere. There is no reason that the United States should not seek to expand those ties. But India still sees itself as non-aligned, however much business — including arms business — it does with the West. Unlike Israel and the Gulf States, India simply is not prepared to condemn any Russian aggression, even if it merely is asked to support what ultimately is a toothless, non-binding U.N. resolution.
Washington should harbor no illusions about India. The giant of the Asian subcontinent will resist binding ties with anyone and, as it has since gaining its independence from British colonial rule 75 years ago, will continue to go its own way.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.
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