This article has been updated to reflect new developments at the U.N. Security Council on Saturday, March 15.
Russia on Saturday vetoed a U.S.-drafted Security Council resolution declaring Crimea’s upcoming secession referendum invalid, deepening a crisis that threatens to plunge U.S.-Russian relations into their worst state since the Cold War and inflict lasting damage on Moscow’s relations with Europe.
Today’s vote on a resolution supported by 13 of the council’s 15 members left Russia politically isolated at the United Nations. Even Moscow’s closest ally, China, abstained — though it criticized the U.S. push for a resolution as needlessly provocative. It also set the stage for Crimea’s pro-Russian leaders to press ahead with a vote on Sunday, March 16, on whether Crimea will leave Ukraine and become absorbed into Russia.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow intends to respect the outcome of the vote, but he said that President Vladimir Putin will not make a decision on next steps, including on whether to annex Crimea, until after Sunday’s referendum.
Moments before the vote, Russia’s U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin defended his government’s action, saying that Moscow was upholding the Crimeans’ "right to self determination" as enshrined in the U.N. Charter. He said the Crimean people had been forced to take the "extraordinary measure" of pursuing secession as a "result of [an] unconstitutional, violent coup d’etat carried out in Kiev by radical nationalists, as well as direct threats by the latter to impose their order on the whole territory of Ukraine."
Churkin also asserted that Russia can lay a historical claim to Crimea. It is "useful to recall here that until 1954 Crimea was part of the Russian Federation," he told the council. "It was given to Ukraine in violation of the norms of that time under Soviet law and without taking into account the views of Crimea."
But U.S. and European diplomats mocked Churkin’s legal reasoning. The "violation of international law [in Crimea] is so obvious that we almost feel pity at witnessing the Russian diplomats being so formalist, so persnickety" in search of a legal case for the deployment of troops in Crimea, said Gerard Araud, France’s U.N. ambassador.
Russia’s "pathetic effort" to justify its action lacks even the "embryo of legal reasoning," Araud added. "Russia has vetoed the U.N. Charter."
"Russia has used its veto as an accomplice to unlawful military incursion," said Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "But in doing so Russia cannot change the fact that moving forward in blatant defiance of the international rules of the road will have consequences. Nor can it change Crimea’s status."
The United States and European governments are planning on Monday to announce a series of targeted sanctions — including the freezing of assets and travel bans — against Russia’s political and economic elites. They claim that the referendum is in violation of Ukraine’s constitution. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in London on Friday that the United States and European governments would not recognize the results of the referendum, and urged other states not to recognize Crimea’s change of status.
China’s abstention exposed a rare ray of diplomatic daylight between Russia and its closest Security Council ally. But China’s U.N. enovy Liu Jieyi made clear his government’s break with Russia should not be construed as a show of support for the U.S. initiative in the council, which he said "would only result in confrontation" and "further complicate" efforts to resolve the Ukrainian crisis peacefully.
Liu presented a highly hedged, and opaque, statement that underscored China’s long-standing commitment to the principle of non-interference in the affairs of countries while expressing sympathy with Moscow’s claims about the threat posed by Ukrainian extremism in Kiev.
The situation in Ukraine, Liu said, has played out against a "complex" historical reality and came about as a result of "accidental and inevitable" forces. In an apparent slap at the United States and Europe, Liu blamed "foreign interference" for triggering a wave of violence that led to the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. But he added that all parties needed to carefully consider their next steps, and not take any hasty action that could inflame passions on either side.
Liu outlined three proposals for easing the political standoff, including a call for all parties to refrain from any action that could escalate tensions. He proposed the establishment of an "international coordinating mechanims consisting of all parties concerned to explore the means for a political settlement." He also urged international financial institutions to explore ways to stablize Ukraine’s fragile economy. So far, Russia has been unwilling to engage in talks with political leaders in Kiev, whom it views as illegitimate.
With Lavrov saying his government will respect the results of the referendum, backers of the U.N. resolution said they have essentially given up hope that Crimea’s pro-Russian leaders can be persuaded to back down from Sunday’s vote. They are now channeling their efforts into convincing Russia that the political and economic costs of absorbing Crimea into the Russian Federation are too high.
"We need to show a unified signal from most of the council about the unacceptable nature of the referendum. Obviously, the referendum is going to go ahead and we can’t stop that," said one council diplomat. "We are now looking at the Russian reaction to the referendum. Will it press ahead in the Duma [to approve the annexation of Crimea] or will they think twice? If you don’t have a resolution they may feel they can get away with the next step."
The U.S.-drafted resolution would have effectively ignored the results of the coming referendum and instead reaffirmed the "sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders."
The Russian veto, however underscored the limits of U.N. diplomacy in a place where a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council can act at any time to preserve what it considers to be its vital national interests. In the face of Russian opposition, the Security Council has no direct leverage — either through an appeal to dialogue or the threat of economic sanctions — to influence the outcome. The most it can do is highlight Moscow’s political isolation.
One senior U.N.-based diplomat dismissed the notion that a flurry of meetings, diplomatic initiatives, or the threat of resolutions could embarrass Russian President Vladimir Putin enough that he would change his mind about Crimea.
U.N. diplomacy on Ukraine, the official explained, is beginning to resemble a Kabuki dance, filled with expressive gestures of outrage and indignation but utterly incapable of moving Putin to halt his gradual annexation of Crimea.
The veto of the new resolution caps weeks of often-impotent U.N. diplomacy aimed at heading off a split of Ukraine.
The U.N. Security Council has already convened a total of six emergency sessions on Ukraine, providing a stage for Washington, Kiev, and other foreign capitals to joust with Churkin over the nature of events unfolding in Crimea.
On Thursday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk directly appealed to Russia in the Security Council to reverse course and engage in political talks with Kiev over the future of Ukraine, saying Russia was committing an act of military aggression in Crimea. "We extended our hand to Russia but instead we got a barrel," Yatsenyuk told the council.
But Churkin insisted that "Russia does not want war and neither do the Russians." He said that Russia is trying to balance two competing principles of territorial integrity and the right to self-determination.
Russia has refused to negotiate a resolution to the crisis with Yatsenyuk or other Ukrainian leaders, saying they still recognize Ukraine’s ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, as the country’s lawful leader.
Russia has also been cool to U.N. offers to mediate the crisis.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has sent multiple senior envoys to Ukraine, hoping to initiate talks between Kiev and Crimean separatists. But Crimea’s pro-Russian authorities have refused to deal with them. On Thursday, a top U.N. human rights official, Ivan Simonovic, was refused entry into Crimea. Ban’s special envoy, Robert Serry, was previously chased out of Crimea by a pro-Russian mob.
The diplomatic logjam at the U.N. has shifted the diplomatic center of gravity to Berlin, one of Russia’s main trading partners, and Washington.
The European Union is reportedly planning to meet on Monday to consider a list of up to 130 Russian officials and businessmen who could be targeted by asset freezes or travel bans. On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, frustrated that her diplomatic outreach to Putin has failed to restrain Russian behavior, warned that a failure to change direction could "massively damage Russia economically and politically."
In a six-hour meeting with Lavrov in London on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry raised concerns about the "large deployments of Russian forces in Crimea and along the eastern border." Kerry said he made it clear that the United States viewed Crimea’s referendum as a violation of the Ukrainian constitution and that the international community would refuse to recognize its results. He also informed Lavrov that the Ukrainian prime minister had assured President Barack Obama that he would be prepared to "provide additional autonomy" to Crimea and address Russia’s concern about the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea.
Lavrov told Kerry that Putin would not make any final decision on the status of Crimea until after the vote, but said Russia "does not have any plan to invade east or southern Ukraine." Ukrainian officials, by contrast, point to the tens of thousands of troops massing on their borders as evidence of a coming Russian push to conquer the region.
The United States, meanwhile, is now working to impose its own additional sanctions on Russia. "We believe that a decision to ratify that vote officially within the Duma would in fact be a backdoor annexation of Crimea, and that it would be against the law," Kerry said. "There will be costs."