THE BLOG

Why the UN General Assembly Is Unlikely to Sway Russian Foreign Policy

04/14/2014 06:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2014

On Mar. 27, 2014, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that, while not referring to Russia by name, condemned its actions in the Crimean Peninsula. The resolution passed with 100 countries voting for, 11 against, and 58 abstaining, and it called the Crimean referendum to rejoin Russia illegitimate.

Media outlets and diplomats from both the East and the West have attempted to derive PR victories from the vote. U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power tweeted that the "world made clear borders are not mere suggestions," while Russia's Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin noted, "It is obvious there is no isolation." News articles sprung up on both sides, quick to point out the isolation of Russia or lack thereof.

Placing the 100-to-11 vote in an historical context suggests that the margin is indeed significant. In 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, the UN general assembly passed a similar resolution condemning Russia's occupation of the region of Abkhazia. This vote passed with 14 countries voting for, 11 against, and over 100 abstentions. The 14 countries voting for were comprised almost entirely of former Soviet Republics hoping to avoid Georgia's fate. The 86 additional nations condemning Russia in 2014 shows the shift in international opinion over Russian foreign policy.

But while a 100-to-11 vote in favor sounds impressive, it is not clear that the UN resolution will have any concrete effect on Russian foreign policy. Russia is more concerned with retaining its core sphere of influence than with being well-liked, so obtaining even 11 votes against the resolution means Russia is keeping its friends close.

It comes as no surprise, then, that two U.S. military officials estimated Friday that Russia has amassed some 40,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, 10,000 more than it had roughly a week before. Coming just four days after the UN general assembly resolution, this action indicates that the Kremlin has heard the voice of the international community and is not particularly impressed, or worse, has increased its military presence to test the willingness of the international community to take action. Furthermore, a classified US intelligence assessment warned that Russia is more likely to move into Eastern Ukraine than American intelligence previously believed.

Considering the context of the resolution, the international community should not expect a change in Russian behavior for the better. That is, as a non-binding declaration from an international body with no direct power to intervene in the confrontation or sanction the Russian Federation, the resolution can do little more than label Vladimir Putin an international troublemaker.

The UN Security Council considered a similar resolution calling for its members not to recognize the referendum in Crimea, but unsurprisingly Russia exercised its prerogative as a permanent member of the Security Council and vetoed the resolution. A mere General Assembly resolution, it seems, will not be enough to end this conflict, and if Russia were to invade Eastern Ukraine, it would force the international community's hand. How and when the confrontation will conclude remains to be seen, but judging by Russia's actions over the past week, reigning in the Kremlin's behavior will require more than diplomatic finger wagging.