China Holds Balance in Crimea Stand-Off

Vitaly Churkin
Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin addresses the United Nations Security Council. Mike Segar/Reuters

Update 12:48 pm ET: China abstained Saturday morning in a Security Council vote on an American-proposed resolution that stressed Ukraine's territorial integrity and voided sunday's referendum, which is expected to lead to the annexation of Crimea by Russia. 13 of the 15 members supported the proposal, but Moscow, which has a veto right at the council, voted against, sinking the resolution.

Russia is "isolated," "alone" and "wrong," the American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said after the vote. In the past the US found itself at times alone in the Security Council as well, though, vetoing widely-supported resolutions related to Israel.


Russia is widely expected to veto on Saturday a Western-backed Security Council resolution endorsing Ukraine's "territorial integrity." But the talk of the United Nations is mostly about a country that has no dog in the fight over Central Europe -- China.

The proposed resolution, pushed by America, France and Britain, is deliberately slated for a vote on the eve of a planned referendum in Crimea on Sunday , which will likely separate that province from Ukraine and associate it with Russia instead.

Kiev is attempting to marshall world opinion to its side in a last-minute campaign to preserve Ukraine’s borders as they existed in the days when Nikita Khrushchev ruled the Soviet Union. Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk Mike Segar/Reuters

"We have no reason to be like this," the acting Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, told Moscow's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, during a special council session on Thursday. Yatsenyuk addressed the council mostly in English, but he changed to Russian for the dramatic and passionate plea to the Russian ambassador.

Yatsenyuk promised to negotiate with Russia and address its concerns. But his main aim was to avert the referendum, which American Ambassador Samantha Power called "illegal" and “unjustified”.

"Russia does not want war," Churkin retorted later, turning to Yatsenyuk. But he blamed Kiev for escalating the confrontation, and held Europe and "strangely, Washington" responsible for what he called the "terrorism" on display at Maidan, Kiev's Independence Square, and for their "blatant interference" in Ukraine's affairs.

The choice in the Crimea referendum is "between yes and yes," said the French ambassador, Gerard Araud. Russia may win one chess move with its Crimean maneuver, he added, but will go on to lose the game.

Churkin has made clear to his Council colleagues in the last few days that he would vote against any proposed UN resolution on Ukraine. But, according to western diplomats, the aim of the proposal's sponsors is not so much to pass the resolution but to make clear to President Vladimir Putin that he is internationally isolated. "I want to thank all the members of the council, except for one, for their support," Yatsenyuk said after the Thursday session.

But the main object, said several diplomats involved with the negotiations, is to get China to abstain in the vote on Saturday. Pressured by both the West and Moscow, Beijing has yet to tip its hand.

China often allies with Russia in Council votes, creating a bloc that in recent years has double-vetoed several resolutions favored by the other three permanent council members -- the US, Britain and France.

But on Thursday, the Chinese UN ambassador, Liu Jieyi, called on Russia to respect Ukraine's territorial integrity, even as he called on Kiev to negotiate with Russia. In earlier closed-door consultations he also stressed Ukraine's sovereignty while, at the same time, hinting of "special circumstances" that may justify Russia's actions, according to diplomats in attendance.

The language in the proposed resolution was "tailored" to China's principled belief in the right of countries to maintain recognized borders, said a diplomat familiar with the drafting, adding, however, that so far it isn't clear whether China would eventually break with its old Council ally.

Cornering Russia may also carry a price beyond Ukraine. While UN diplomats like to say that each issue on the council's agenda is dealt with separately, the Ukrainian fight may seep into other diplomatic battles, including Syria.

Earlier on Thursday the Secretary General's special envoy on Syrian diplomacy, Lakhdar Brahimi,  just stopped short of blaming President Bashar Assad’s regime for the collapse of the most recent round of Geneva talks to end the civil war in Syria.

Brahimi told reporters after the closed-door session that representatives of the moderate opposition in Syria had agreed to talk about the two main issues on the table simultaneously but Assad’s the government did not. Aleppo Children push a cart with water containers along a damaged street in old Aleppo March 11, 2014. Mahmoud Hebbo/Reuters

Assad's envoy to the talks, Syrian UN ambassador Bashar al Jaafari, told reporters that "terrorism" was the most pressing issue on the mind of Syrians. Therefore, he said, his government insisted that violence would be dealt with first. The opposition, though, mostly wanted to talk about creating the "transitional government" that had been agreed by both sides before the talks began.

"I tried to convince them to address violence and terrorism at the same time that we also talk about transitional government," Brahimi said. But the government refused to talk about anything that may undermine Assad's legitimacy. Instead, it has begun preparations for a presidential election that would assure his continued hold on power.

In the closed-door session, France wanted to unite the council behind a statement that would endorse Brahimi's continued attempts at diplomacy, but Russia, which has long supported Assad, refused to even talk about it.

Brahimi acknowledged that he is "disappointed by the modest results" of his efforts. But when I asked him directly which side was at fault for his diplomatic failures, the veteran diplomat smiled broadly and said, "It was probably mine."

Follow Benny Avni on Twitter: @bennyavni