Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution Saturday declaring the upcoming referendum in Crimea illegal and invalid, and calling on all nations not to recognize its results nor any subsequent change in Crimea’s status.
The U.S.-drafted resolution, in anticipation of the near-certain passage of the referendum Sunday in the pro-Russian region of Ukraine, was designed to isolate Moscow and to warn it against moving to annex Crimea.
The outcome of the Security Council vote was a forgone conclusion, with 13 of the 15 members approving the resolution and China abstaining.
In comments after the vote, U.S. and European diplomats made clear their governments are prepared Monday to impose sanctions on Russia to protest the referendum, and many appeared to consider subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea a certainty.
“The international community will not recognize the result, nor any action taken on the basis of it,” Australian Ambassador Gary Quinlan said.
To emphasize international solidarity behind the resolution, representatives from dozens of countries that are not members of the Security Council sat in the gallery during the meeting, most prominently the Eastern European nations that were once part of the Soviet Union and now belong to Western institutions including NATO and the European Union.
“Today’s vote is a reflection of what Russia denies and the whole world knows,” U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told reporters after the council session. The Ukraine crisis, she said, “came with a label: Made in Moscow. . . . Russia cannot veto the truth.”
In quickly drafting the measure, Obama administration officials debated whether to table a resolution before the referendum, or wait until after Sunday to try to marshal votes that would directly condemn Russia. The latter path was seen as more difficult, with some of the Security Council’s nonpermanent members less willing to take a stand.
Some of those members voiced discomfort even as they voted for the resolution.
“We are not convinced that the timing of this resolution is productive. . . . It is not a win or a loss to any of us, and should also not be taken as shaming any of us,” Rwanda’s representative said.
The vote was a particularly difficult one for China, which has tended to follow Russia’s lead on the council. Calling for calm and restraint, China said that the “resolution at this juncture will only result in confrontation and further complicate the situation” in Ukraine.
The meeting was the seventh Security Council meeting held since the Ukraine crisis exploded last month, when the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country amid growing violence between opposition and government forces. The Ukrainian parliament subsequently voted him out of office, and Western governments moved to supply economic and political support for pro-Western interim leaders.
Russian troops then spread across the autonomous region of Crimea, where Russian President Vladimir Putin said ethnic Russians were under attack from Ukrainian nationalists, charges that the United States and other governments, along with journalists and other observers on the ground, have charged were fabricated as justification for a Russian takeover of the region.
Weeks of meetings and telephone calls between Putin and U.S. and Western leaders failed to resolve the situation. After a final meeting Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Secretary of State John F. Kerry conceded that Russia was going ahead with the referendum but warned against “backdoor annexation” of Crimea.
Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin was the only diplomat who spoke before the Security Council vote. Arguing against the resolution, he described Ukraine’s possession of Crimea as a brief historical anomaly for a region that had been part of Russia, and subsequently the Soviet Union, since the late 18th century and until 1954. Efforts by Crimea’s ethnic Russian majority to gain independence or return to Russia over the past several decades had been ignored, Churkin said.
Other diplomats ridiculed that argument. “So what?” French Ambassador Gérard Araud said after the vote. “Are we to take apart our history books? What date are we going to choose, and . . . for three centuries [Crimea] was under Turkish rule” during the Ottoman Empire.
“Force trumps law, the Russian veto says,” Araud said. “To accept annexation of Crimea would be to forgo everything we’re trying to build in this organization. . . . It would mean that the sword settles disputes.”
As in previous Security Council sessions on Ukraine, several diplomats compared Russia’s actions in Ukraine to Soviet repression in the 20th century.
“We have heard a lot . . . about the echoes and relevance of history,” Power told the council. “We have heard, for example, about the pleas of the brave democrats of Hungary in 1956 and about the dark chill that dashed the dreams of Czechs in 1968.”
“We still have the time and the collective power to ensure that the past doesn’t become prologue,” Power said. “But history has lessons for those of us who are willing to listen. Unfortunately, not everyone was willing to listen today.”