Diplomatic tug of war over Ukraine escalates at United Nations

South Africa's deputy UN Ambassador Xolisa Mfundiso Mabhongo said the draft General Assembly resolution was "a purely South African initiative. It is not inspired by Russia." [Twitter account of the Mission of South Africa to the UN]

Russia is seeking to blunt Western-led efforts at the United Nations to further isolate Moscow for invading Ukraine, with the Security Council and General Assembly gearing up to vote this week on competing measures on Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis.

A diplomatic tug of war has been escalating at the world body since Russia launched what it calls a “special military operation” on 24 February to destroy Ukraine’s military infrastructure.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday (22 March) blasted Russia’s “absurd war,” warning that “continuing the war in Ukraine is morally unacceptable, politically indefensible and militarily nonsensical.”

The 193-member UN General Assembly is faced with rival draft resolutions – both demanding aid access and the protection of civilians, medical personnel, and aid workers in Ukraine. But only one text, written by Ukraine and its allies and due to be voted on this week, criticizes Russia’s role in creating the crisis.

The second draft from South Africa makes no mention of Russia and it was not immediately clear when it could face a vote. In remarks accompanying its proposal, seen by Reuters, South Africa argued: “It remains crucial to find consensus on humanitarian matters. Diverting the focus on other matters will lead to divisions and a failure to get agreement on outcomes.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said last week he would resist calls to condemn Russia, blaming NATO for stirring the conflict.

Tuesday that discussions were underway with South Africa on how “we can come to a text that would command widespread support across the General Assembly without having to have two votes.”

Ukraine and its allies are looking to improve on the 141 yes votes cast to adopt a 2 March General Assembly resolution that deplored Russia’s “aggression” against Ukraine and demanded it withdraw. Russia, Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria voted no, while 35 states – including China and South Africa- abstained.

Russia’s friends in the UN counted on the fingers

Only four countries – Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, Syria – of the 193 United Nations members supported Russia in a UN vote asking it to “immediately” withdraw from Ukraine, an illustration of the isolation of this country under Vladimir Putin.

“We’re still hoping to get the same numbers that isolated Russia the last time around,” US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told reporters on Tuesday.


Amid the competing draft resolutions, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric stressed on Tuesday that what would be most useful would be unity: “This organization is at its strongest when it speaks with one voice.”

General Assembly resolutions are nonbinding, but they carry political weight. The 2 March vote illustrated Russia’s international isolation over its invasion of Ukraine. While Russia is a veto power in the 15-member Security Council, no one country can block a General Assembly resolution.

South Africa’s move at the General Assembly is similar to a text proposed by Russia in the Security Council last week. South Africa’s deputy UN Ambassador Xolisa Mfundiso Mabhongo said the draft General Assembly resolution was “a purely South African initiative. It is not inspired by Russia.”

Russia has asked the Security Council to vote on its draft proposal on Wednesday, but diplomats say it is set to fail, with most of the body likely to abstain because it makes no reference to Russia’s role.

Russia’s Deputy UN Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy on Tuesday described Moscow’s draft as aiming to help humanitarian aid groups “without any politicization.”

“It is absolutely unconscionable for Russia to think that they can put forward a humanitarian resolution,” said Thomas-Greenfield, describing it as “like the arsonist calling for the neighbors to help him put out the fire that he started.”

Moscow scrapped a planned Security Council vote last Friday after accusing Western countries of an “unprecedented pressure” campaign against the measure. The United States rejected Russia’s allegation.

(Edited by Georgi Gotev)

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