The Biden administration and its international allies are hunting for votes at the United Nations this week in their quest to get as many countries as possible to support a historic resolution slamming Russia’s territorial claims in Ukraine.
U.S., European and other allied officials are using spreadsheets, phone calls, WhatsApp messages, face-to-face chats and the occasional public comment to convince countries to vote against Russia in the U.N. General Assembly, according to seven Western officials and two analysts with knowledge of the discussions.
Csaba Kőrösi, president of the U.N. General Assembly, has convened an emergency special session of the body to begin debate Monday, with a vote expected later next week.
A senior British diplomat described the campaign as a “massive lobbying and outreach effort.” It involves nearly every level of the U.S. diplomatic infrastructure, from ambassadors to assistant secretaries to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Members of Congress might even make some calls.
If passed, the resolution would boost the Western effort to isolate Russian leader Vladimir Putin, undermine his argument that he is a liberator and, ideally, convince him that escalating the war will invite only more global backlash.
The European Union has invited nearly the entire U.N. membership — 188 countries — to discuss the draft resolution. Belarus, Syria, North Korea and Eritrea did not receive invitations, based on their opposition to Ukraine’s territorial integrity in previous U.N. resolutions.
A draft version of the resolution obtained by POLITICO demands that Moscow pull its troops out of Ukraine and says that “illegal so-called referenda” organized by the Kremlin to claim four territories as Russian “have no validity under international law and do not form the basis for any alteration of the status of these regions of Ukraine.”
In a letter dated Tuesday and obtained by POLITICO, Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., writing to his fellow ambassadors, called the draft resolution a “sham.” He described the lobbying effort as a “clearly politicized and provocative development” and urged U.N. members to vote against the resolution.
Russia is also calling for a secret ballot on the proposal with the goal of limiting Western efforts to shame U.N. members into voting for the resolution.
The benchmark for success, according to the diplomats who spoke to POLITICO, is getting as close as possible to the 141 votes achieved in March condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“141 votes is the gold standard — 100 votes is muddling through,” Rein Tammsaar, Estonia’s ambassador to U.N., said in an interview. “The goal is to grow the coalition rather than agreeing to a perfect text,” said another European ambassador.
U.S. officials insist they are not relying on quid pro quos, but rather established one-on-one relationships that can tip a country from an abstention to a “yes.” Key targets likely include India and South Africa, along with many smaller nations that often struggle to get attention from world powers.
As the action shifted from the U.N. Security Council to the General Assembly, European officials have taken the lead in mobilizing countries that have so far abstained in Russia-Ukraine resolutions in 2022, British and EU diplomats said.
While Western officials declined to get specific about which countries are being targeted, and how, they have been at pains to include South Africa — which has so far abstained on Ukraine matters — from the start of the drafting process.
The process follows efforts to get a similar resolution approved by the 15-member U.N. Security Council. Russia, a permanent council member, used its veto to kill that measure last week. Now, the focus is on the larger body, the General Assembly, and the push is reminiscent of U.S. congressional leaders’ efforts to whip votes for a bill.
To arrange talks with reluctant country representatives, U.S. diplomats are turning to spreadsheets and grids that track which American officials have held meetings or otherwise know relevant foreign counterparts, a State Department official familiar with the issue said. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is among the people exhausting her Rolodex.
President Joe Biden is unlikely to directly get involved in the effort, unless the topic comes up in already scheduled talks with other heads of state. Otherwise, “it really is a full court press,” said the State Department official, who, like others, was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
“It is an art more than a science,” a U.S. official familiar with the process added.
The allies’ goal is to frame the resolution as a vote establishing that a state’s territorial integrity cannot be changed by violence or sham referendums, and not as an attack against Russia. If the text sticks narrowly to the importance of maintaining a country’s territorial integrity, more governments will likely sign on. The more political, anti-Russia language that gets added, the more some will hesitate.
There is some confusion about what the magic number of votes must be. A diplomat at the U.N. said that, depending on the wording of the resolution, a two-thirds majority vote might be required. Some U.S. officials indicated they were going for a resolution that would require a simple majority. There are 193 U.N. member-states. Some may not vote. And if the U.S. and its allies feel they will not get the votes they need, they may not propose a resolution at all.
Either way, the countries Washington and its partners will lobby are most likely to hail from Africa and Latin America, major regions in the so-called Global South. Many such countries have tried to stay neutral in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, although some have pleaded for an end to the fighting. They note that the war has caused food, fertilizer and energy shortages that have hurt their populations.
Some have histories of “non-alignment” policies, meaning they avoid taking sides in competitions among the world’s great powers. 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 economically squeeze Moscow.
The vote has also become an ideal opportunity for countries Washington often ignores to press their issues to the superpower and its allies. Even the smallest countries, after all, get a vote at the United Nations.
“This vote in particular shows the value of the U.N. as a global convening body,” said Peter Yeo, senior vice president of the United Nations Foundation. “The reality is smaller countries have a seat at the table at the U.N., and this is their moment to not only horse trade but make sure their views are being heard.”
Some countries also are balancing their interest in dealing with China as they weigh what to do about Russia. China has stayed friendly with Russia despite the latter’s invasion of Ukraine in February. But Beijing has at times abstained on related votes, such as during last week’s Security Council session.
Some Pacific island states where China has made inroads may take a cue from Beijing in the upcoming vote. But each of their votes counts as much as that of a larger country, a factor U.S. officials consider as they game out whom to engage, when and how.
“You want to certainly reach out to India and make your best possible case, but for every India that you get, every Barbados counts as well, or every Fiji counts, every Palau counts,” the State Department official said.
The Biden administration has stressed that, unlike the Trump administration, it values the role of multilateral organizations. Thomas-Greenfield, for example, has met with as many of her U.N. 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 many world leaders’ concerns.
“Yes, for some cases, you are playing a little catch-up,” the State Department official said.
U.S. officials argued even a simple courtesy meeting where a U.S. envoy listens to the concerns of another nation can go a long way. There could be opportunity for that during conversations Blinken has with his counterparts as he visits Latin America this week.
Analysts and others watching the process said it was unlikely that Ukraine’s friends can exceed a March high point when 141 nations condemned Russia’s full-scale invasion.
They pointed to Security Council members Gabon and Brazil, which voted in favor of the March resolution but switched to abstentions on the measure vetoed by Russia last week, as evidence of the difficulty of hitting 141 votes next week.
Instead, some diplomats are setting their baseline hope at 100 votes: the same number of countries that voted for a 2014 General Assembly resolution criticizing Russia’s effort to subsume the Ukrainian region of Crimea via a sham referendum.
Attempts to get comments from roughly a dozen countries that have abstained in previous votes related to Russia and Ukraine were not successful Tuesday. The Russian delegation at the United Nations also did not reply to a request to discuss its lobbying effort.
The draft resolution obtained by POLITICO had several paragraphs hammering the idea that Russia was violating international law. The sheer number of such paragraphs may be a turn off for some countries. “Most U.N. members want to think this can be settled peacefully before too long,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. analyst with the International Crisis Group. “Ukraine could lose sympathy if it seems too hawkish, however unfairly.”
Putin’s recent claims of annexation apply to four Ukrainian regions. So-called referendums held there often involved Ukrainians being forced to vote at gunpoint, according to media reports.
Among the arguments that the United States and its allies are making to countries as they rally votes for the upcoming resolution is that Russia’s actions undermine the tenets of the U.N. Charter. That was one point Biden made in his recent speech to the U.N.’s annual gathering of world leaders.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been more blunt, urging countries to abandon neutrality. “You definitely have to choose sides,” he said last month. “You cannot vacillate between good and evil, light and dark.”