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US, Europe beat UN votes for historic rebuke of Russia

The Biden administration and its international allies are hunting votes at the United Nations this week in their bid to get as many countries as possible to support a landmark resolution rejecting Russia’s territorial claims in Ukraine.

According to seven Western officials and two analysts with knowledge of the discussions.

Csaba Kőrösi, president of the UN General Assembly, has convened an emergency special session of the body to begin the debate Monday, with a vote expected later next week.

A senior British diplomat described the campaign as a “massive lobbying and outreach effort”. It encompasses nearly every level of US diplomatic infrastructure, from ambassadors to assistant secretaries to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Members of Congress could even call.

If passed, the resolution would boost Western efforts to isolate Russian leader Vladimir Putin, undermine his argument that he is a liberator, and ideally convince him that an escalation of the war will only lead to more global backlash.

The European Union has invited almost the entire UN membership – 188 countries – to discuss the draft resolution. Belarus, Syria, North Korea and Eritrea have not received invitations because of their opposition to Ukraine’s territorial integrity in previous UN resolutions.

A draft of the resolution obtained by POLITICO demands that Moscow withdraw its troops from Ukraine, saying that “illegal so-called referendums” organized by the Kremlin to claim four territories as Russian “have no validity under international law and do not constitute the basis for any amendment.” of the status of these regions of Ukraine.”

In a letter dated Tuesday and obtained by POLITICO, Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, called the draft resolution a “sham.” He described the lobbying effort as a “clearly politicized and provocative development” and urged UN members to vote against the resolution.

Russia is also calling for a secret ballot on the proposal with the aim of curtailing Western efforts to shame UN members into voting for the resolution.

The measure of success, according to the diplomats who spoke to POLITICO, is to get as close as possible to the 141 votes obtained in March condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“141 votes is the gold standard – 100 votes is muddling through,” Rein Tammsaar, Estonia’s ambassador to the UN, said in an interview. “The aim is to grow the coalition rather than agree to a perfect text,” said another European ambassador.

US officials insist they don’t rely on quid pro quos, but rather engage in one-on-one relationships that can turn a country from an abstinence to a “yes.” Major targets are likely to be India and South Africa, along with many smaller countries that often struggle to get the attention of world powers.

As action shifted from the UN Security Council to the General Assembly, European officials have taken the lead in mobilizing countries that have so far abstained from passing resolutions between Russia and Ukraine in 2022, British and EU diplomats said.

While Western officials declined to be specific about which countries are being targeted and how, from the outset of the design process they have gone to great lengths to include South Africa, which has so far abstained from Ukrainian affairs.

The process follows attempts to get a similar resolution approved by the 15-member UN Security Council. Russia, a permanent councilor, used its veto last week to overturn that measure. Now the focus is on the larger body, the General Assembly, and the pressure is reminiscent of US congressional leaders’ efforts to win votes for a bill.

To arrange talks with unwilling country representatives, U.S. diplomats are turning to spreadsheets and grids that track which U.S. officials have held meetings or otherwise know relevant foreign counterparts, a State Department official familiar with the matter said. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is one of those who exhaust her Rolodex.

President Joe Biden is unlikely to become directly involved in the effort unless the topic comes up in already scheduled talks with other heads of state. Otherwise “it’s really a full court press,” said the State Department official, who like others was given anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

“It’s more of an art than a science,” added a US official familiar with the process.

The allies’ aim is to interpret the resolution as a vote stating that a state’s territorial integrity cannot be altered by force or mock referendums, and not as an attack on Russia. If the text strictly adheres to the importance of maintaining a country’s territorial integrity, more governments are likely to sign up. The more political, anti-Russian language that is added, the more some will hesitate.

There is some confusion about what the magic number of votes should be. A diplomat at the UN said a two-thirds majority vote could be required, depending on the wording of the resolution. Some US officials said they would favor a resolution that would require a simple majority. There are 193 UN member states. Some may not vote. And if the US and its allies think they won’t get the votes they need, they may not propose a resolution at all.

Either way, the countries that Washington and its partners will lobby will most likely come from Africa and Latin America, key regions in the so-called Global South. Many such countries have tried to remain neutral in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, although some have called for an end to the fighting. They note that the war has created food, fertilizer and energy shortages that have affected their populations.

Some have a history of “non-alignment” policies, meaning they avoid taking sides in competitions between the world’s superpowers. India, in particular, has frustrated Washington by continuing to buy Russian energy products, filling the Kremlin’s coffers, just as the West is trying to squeeze Moscow economically.

The vote has also become an ideal opportunity for countries that Washington often ignores to bring their problems to the superpower and its allies. After all, even the smallest countries get a vote at the United Nations.

“This vote particularly demonstrates the value of the UN as a global convening body,” said Peter Yeo, senior vice president of the United Nations Foundation. “The reality is that smaller countries are sitting at the table at the UN, and this is their time to not just trade horses, but make sure their views are heard.”

Some countries are also balancing their interests in dealing with China as they weigh up what to do with Russia. China has remained friends with Russia despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. But Beijing has sometimes abstained from related votes, such as at last week’s Security Council meeting.

Some Pacific island nations, where China has made its entry, could take over a signal from Beijing in the upcoming vote. But each of their votes counts as much as a larger country’s, a factor US officials consider when determining who, when and how to engage.

“You definitely want to reach India and do your best, but for every India you get, every Barbados counts, or every Fiji counts, every Palau counts,” the foreign ministry official said.

The Biden administration has emphasized that, unlike the Trump administration, it values ​​the role of multilateral organizations. Thomas-Greenfield, for example, has met as many of her UN counterparts as possible. Still, there are some foreign governments that feel marginalized by the United States — especially after former President Donald Trump’s regular dismissal of the concerns of many world leaders.

“Yes, in some cases you are catching up a little,” said the State Department official.

US officials argued that even a simple courtesy meeting, where a US envoy listens to the concerns of another country, can go a long way. There could be an opportunity for this during conversations Blinken has with his colleagues during his visit to Latin America this week.

Analysts and others watching the trial said it is unlikely Ukraine’s friends could cross the peak of March, when 141 countries condemned Russia’s large-scale invasion.

They pointed to Security Council members Gabon and Brazil, who voted in favor of the March resolution, but abstained from the measure vetoed by Russia last week, as evidence of the difficulty of getting 141 votes next week.

Instead, some diplomats put their grassroots hopes at 100 votes: the same number of countries that voted in favor of a 2014 General Assembly resolution criticizing Russia’s attempt to annex the Ukrainian region of Crimea through a mock referendum.

Attempts to get comments from about a dozen countries that have abstained in previous votes regarding Russia and Ukraine were unsuccessful on Tuesday. The Russian delegation to the United Nations also did not respond to a request to discuss its lobbying efforts.

The motion for a resolution obtained by POLITICO contained several paragraphs hammering out the idea that Russia was violating international law. The sheer number of such paragraphs can be a turn-off for some countries. “Most UN members want to think that this can be resolved peacefully in the foreseeable future,” said Richard Gowan, a UN analyst with the International Crisis Group. “Ukraine could lose sympathy if it seems too aggressive, however unfair.”

Putin’s recent annexation claims apply to four Ukrainian regions. So-called referendums held there often forced Ukrainians to vote at gunpoint, according to media reports.

One of the arguments the United States and its allies are making against countries as they gather votes for the forthcoming resolution is that Russia’s actions undermine the principles of the UN Charter. That was a point Biden made in his recent speech to the UN’s annual meeting of world leaders.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was more blunt, urging countries to give up their neutrality. “You definitely have to take sides,” he said last month. “You cannot waver between good and evil, light and dark.”

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