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In UN Vote, Russia's 'Sphere of Influence' Hedges Its Bets

A screen shows the votes of delegates at the UN General Assembly on a draft resolution concerning the territorial integrity of Ukraine on March 27.
A screen shows the votes of delegates at the UN General Assembly on a draft resolution concerning the territorial integrity of Ukraine on March 27.
The Kremlin may be wondering where some of its neighbors were during a UN vote rebuking Russia's annexation of Crimea.

The 11 states that voted against the resolution are recognizable as traditional Russian allies.

The list includes South American states that are hostile to Washington, such as Venezuela. It also includes Syria, which has relied on Moscow's vote on the UN Security Council to shelter the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

What must have been disappointing for Russia, however, is the fact that only two members of the Moscow-backed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) -- Armenia and Belarus -- voted against the resolution.

Azerbaijan and Moldova voted in favor of the proposal recognizing Ukraine's territorial integrity. All other CIS members either abstained or refrained from voting.

Russia has labored to show that opposition to its actions in Ukraine is a Western phenomenon rather than a worldwide consensus.

But the former Soviet republics are also wary about Russia's justification for its incursion into Crimea, which Moscow says was based on its responsibility to protect Russian speakers.

"This looks like a dilemma to these countries and I'm sure they're facing pressure from Russia," says Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

On one hand, countries like Kazakhstan, which, along with Belarus, is a member of a Russian-backed Customs Union, have based their foreign policies on close ties with Russia.

"On the other hand as soon as this language of compatriots or Russian speakers or ethnic Russians starts [it is being used] as a reason for Russia to consider protecting them," Lipman says, "I think this should be sending these nations to ponder and be really concerned."

In statements over the past month, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Armenia have all given some degree of support or acquiescence to what Russia says is Crimea's "right to self-determination."

Still, with the exception of Armenia, which Lipman calls "a very special case" because it has sought protection from Russia against hostile neighbors, their positions have allowed some ambiguity over the strength of that support.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said the annexation set a "bad precedent" but that Minsk would stand by Russia, its closest ally, nonetheless.

Kyrgyzstan, which did not cast a vote at the UN, at first diverged from Moscow's line by supporting the new authorities in Kyiv, but later called the annexation of Crimea "an objective reality."

Not voting, or casting a vote for abstention, appears to be part of a strategy for many of Russia's neighbors to hedge their bets.

Uzbekistan, which has criticized Russia's actions, abstained. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan -- two countries that have refrained from taking a public position -- were both no-shows for the vote.

Diplomats had earlier predicted that there would be fewer than the 100 votes cast in favor of the non-binding UN resolution and Western allies of Kyiv have called the vote a diplomatic victory.

But Moscow has argued that the number of non-votes or abstentions actually shows a more complicated picture.

Vitaly Churkin, Russia's UN envoy, said UN member states were under "colossal pressure" and he appeared to count the 58 abstentions as implicit support for the Russian side.

"It clearly shows that Russia is not isolated" Churkin said, according to RIA Novosti.
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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer.