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U.N. heats up over Russian 'steal' in Ukraine

Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution to condemn and invalidate its "full-scale unlawful invasion of Ukraine" and illegal move to annex four regions.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the U.N. Security Council
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the U.N. Security Council (AN/U.N. Web TV)

Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned and invalidated its "full-scale unlawful invasion of Ukraine" and illegal attempts to annex four regions through heavily stage-managed referendums.

The move showed Russia's isolation on the world stage: Ten of the 15-nation council's members voted on Friday for the resolution, sponsored by the United States and Albania, that would have demanded an immediate halt to the war and unconditional withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukraine. Even China did not side with Russia, instead choosing to abstain along with Brazil, Gabon and India.

The vote sets up a new exercise in public accountability next week when Russia will be expected to explain its use of the veto. A resolution adopted in April by the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly requires it to hold a debate on any situation that has led to a Security Council veto. The debate must be held within 10 days of the veto being used.

Before the vote and Russia's anticipated use of its veto power, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the debate would show that the world remains "on the side of sovereignty and protecting territorial integrity.”

Ahead of the debate, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized that Russia’s attempts to seize the four territories in Ukraine violate international law. "The U.N. Charter is clear," he said. "Any annexation of a state’s territory by another state resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the principles of the U.N. Charter and international law."

Earlier on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin held a Kremlin ceremony to sign treaties on the annexation of Russian-occupied Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Putin said the territories now belong to and would be defended by Russia.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the regions' inhabitants "do not want to return to Ukraine. They have made a an informed and free choice in favor of our country."

China's Ambassador Zhang Jun said the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be safeguarded" but his nation was abstaining from the vote to try to reduce "conflicts" and more "confrontation." Brazil’s Ambassador Ronaldo Costa Filho called Russia's annexation illegitimate but said his nation abstained to reduce tensions.

'There is nothing to talk about'

At the White House, U.S. President Joe Biden said his administration "condemns Russia’s fraudulent attempt today to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory. Russia is violating international law, trampling on the United Nations Charter, and showing its contempt for peaceful nations everywhere."

"Make no mistake: these actions have no legitimacy. The United States will always honor Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders," he said while announcing a new round of economic sanctions against Russia. "We will continue to support Ukraine’s efforts to regain control of its territory by strengthening its hand militarily and diplomatically, including through the US$1.1 billion in additional security assistance the United States announced this week."Earlier in the week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that Russia's attempts to annex four regions of Ukraine through "sham referenda" rule out any talks between Kyiv and Moscow.

Speaking by videoconference on Tuesday, Zelenskky said the world cannot tolerate Putin's "nuclear blackmail" or brazen attempts to expand its borders through stage-managed votes in four regions that blatantly violate international law.

"There is nothing to talk about with this president of Russia," Zelenskky said. "Any annexation in the modern world is a crime, a crime against all states that consider the inviolability of border to be vital for themselves.”

The council gathered for an emergency meeting at Ukraine's request to protest Russia's annexation moves. Zelenskyy told the 15-nation council, where Russia can veto any action as one of its five veto-wielding permanent members, that "in front of the eyes of the whole world, Russia is conducting this so-called sham referenda on the occupied territory of Ukraine. People are forced to fill out some papers while being threatened by submachine guns."

"The annexation of the captured territories — this is the most brutal violation of the U.N. Charter," he said. "This is an attempt to steal the territory of another state. This is an attempt to erase the norms of international law."

The world must respond, said Zelenskyy, by forcing Russia into "complete isolation" and kick it off the Security Council while providing Ukraine with financial support, weapons, and "clear and legally binding guarantees of collective security, since the independence of our country is of such a fundamental importance for many elements of global security."

Rosemary DiCarlo, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, said Russia's four "so-called" referendums in the Russian-occupied Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions and the Russian-controlled Luhansk and Kherson regions are illegitimate and unacceptable, since they were held during an active armed conflict in areas under Russian control and outside Ukraine’s legal and constitutional framework.

"They cannot be called a genuine expression of the popular will," DiCarlo told the council.

"Unilateral actions aimed to provide a veneer of legitimacy to the attempted acquisition by force by one state of another state’s territory, while claiming to represent the will of the people, cannot be regarded as legal under international law," she said. "The United Nations remains fully committed to the sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine, within its internationally recognized borders."

'Sham referenda'

Earlier in the week, Thomas-Greenfield said Russia's war in Ukraine since late February makes clear that Russia does not respect the U.N. Charter's principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, peace and security.

"Putin intends to commit an act which the U.N. Charter was expressly designed to prevent: an attempt by one U.N. member state to take the territory of another by force," said Thomas-Greenfield. "The rush for Russia to institute and complete these attempted annexations destroy even the façade of legitimacy."

Though the Security Council has met to discuss Ukraine on more than 20 occasions this year, Russia's veto power has left the world body's most powerful arm unable to take any meaningful action.

Britain, China, France and the U.S. also hold permanent seats with veto power; the council's 10 non-permanent members are elected to two-year rotating seats. Many of the council's diplomats have said their nations would not recognize the results of the referendums.

Russia's Nebenzya also told the council that Zelenskky should only be allowed to address the council in person. "The forum must not turn into a political show," Nebenzya said, calling the council debates about Russia's actions in Ukraine "primitive PR stunts" that "devalue" the council itself.

Ukraine's U.N. Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya told reporters before Tuesday's council meeting that the world must find a way to put an end to the Kremlin's "unprecedented" nuclear threats.

"These sham referenda are both illegal and illegitimate," Ireland's U.N. Ambassador Fergal Mythen told the council. "These referenda will never deter us from supporting the people of Ukraine. Might does not make right."

This story has been updated with additional details.