Abstaining on Ukraine at the UN is Indefensible

Senior Russian officials continued denying their intent to invade Ukraine until the moment the invasion began. The Russians misled and miscalculated, and Europe is now in the midst of its largest military conflict and refugee crisis since World War II.

Neither NATO, a defensive alliance whose purpose is to protect its member states, nor Ukraine posed an existential threat to Russia prior to the invasion. As the International Court of Justice recently noted, there is also no credible evidence to support Russian claims that Ukraine was committing genocide against Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. The Russian claim that their “Special Military Operation” is “de-nazifying” Ukraine is likewise laughable. The country has a democratically elected Jewish president, after all.

The slow-moving Russian invasion is causing massive loss of life on both sides. Russia’s military losses just within a few weeks, both in terms of personnel and equipment, has already surpassed the toll the US took during its twenty years of invasion-cum-occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Shocking images of indiscriminate Russian bombing of Ukrainian cities, including a maternity hospital, a theater housing children, and an elderly care facility have sent shockwaves across the world.

Soon after the invasion started, with an overwhelming 141-5 majority, the United Nations passed a resolution deploring the invasion and calling for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. The list of nations that sided with Russia against the resolution reads like a select list of the most unfree, brutal, and repressive nations on earth: Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria. These are nations ruled by authoritarian “strongmen,” with weak, stagnated economies. These strongmen govern by violence rather than cooperative deliberation, and are terrified by the ideals of freedom and democracy that Ukrainians are now defending with awe-inspiring bravery.

Besides the five member states taking Russia’s side outright, there were thirty-five member states that abstained. That list includes Tanzania, which itself suffered an invasion in 1978, by the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and South Africa, usually a beacon of democracy in Africa, whose very own late Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu once said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” It also includes Bangladesh, which, in 1971, suffered a brutal assault by the Pakistan Army, resulting in the deaths of countless East Pakistanis, now known as Bangladeshis.

Pakistan, which never misses an opportunity to champion the plight of the people of Kashmir, enthusiastically chose the side of Russia, at the exact moment when the latter had just started its invasion of Ukraine and initiated a potentially brutal occupation.

Whatever was the realpolitik of the thirty-five abstaining member states, the majority of which are developing countries, their position on Ukraine is immoral and more than likely to hurt their own economic interests.

Russia and Ukraine export about 30% of the world’s wheat and 20% of the world’s corn, and they produce about 80% of the world’s sunflower oil. Due to favorable climate and soil conditions, Ukraine and southwestern Russia are known as the “world’s food basket.” The seaports in Ukraine, some of which are now under constant Russian assault, constitute some of the world’s most important ports for agricultural exports.

As Russia’s war on Ukraine drags on, with no clear signs of a truce yet, the United Nations has warned that a global famine may ensue. A recent blockade of the Black Sea by Moscow has already caused delays in crucial grain exports, exacerbating existing food crises in conflict-ridden countries such as Sudan, Yemen, and Ethiopia.

Even relatively stable countries like Egypt, which is the world’s largest importer of wheat and sources almost all of its wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine, may face an acute food crisis if the war lasts too long. Countries like Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan – all major importers of food grain from Russia and Ukraine – may face serious import hurdles as well.

Fast-rising inflation across the globe may make matters even worse, particularly given that food-exporting countries like Russia, Brazil, and Ukraine may decide to hold on to their crops as “hard assets” as they try to blunt the impact of run-away inflation. High energy prices, on top of food price inflation, may push poor countries like Sri Lanka towards imminent default on their national debt.

Russia, currently under unprecedented international sanctions, may also impede food and energy exports as a retaliatory measure, a genuine national security measure, or both. Up to 300 ships have recently been stopped by Russian forces from departing the Black Sea, virtually blockading one of the main arteries of global food supply. The Russians blamed Ukrainian mines for the blockade.

The world’s largest shipping companies are avoiding Ukraine both due to the fear of breaching Western-led sanctions, and due to worsening security concerns as the Russian invasion crippled Ukraine’s port operations. Freight insurance costs for food exports from Ukraine and Russia, even when available, also have sky-rocketed, further exacerbating price inflation.

Russia’s invasion has already displaced 10 million Ukrainians, both inside the country and as refugees abroad, depleting the international community’s scarce resources for food and shelter assistance. This may have profound implications for about one million Rohingya refugees currently under World Food Program assistance in Bangladesh, and several million Afghan and Syrian refugees. The Russian invasion may end up being one of the most destructive events for the global order of the last seventy years. The morally and economically prudent thing to do for all countries of the world, including the thirty-five nations that abstained at the UN, is to persuade Vladimir Putin to stop his reckless invasion. The abstainers may soon realize that they dangerously placed themselves on the wrong side of history and acted against the common good of their own people.

This article was co-authored with Shafquat Rabbee. A version of it was published under the following title:

  • “Abstentions on UN resolution over Ukraine indefensible,” Asia Times (Hong Kong, 21 March 2022)