At a press conference in Kiev with the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Vice President Biden stated that the world’s rejection of Russia’s actions in Crimea was evident in last month’s “overwhelming vote” by the UN General Assembly. That’s the terminology the White House has obviously settled on. For example, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said back in March: “I would point you to the overwhelming vote in the United Nations General Assembly.” In accord, “overwhelming” is the word that major media outlets have used to describe the vote ever since (for example, LA Times, New York Times, TIME).

But was it?

How does the vote on Ukraine compare to past votes by the UN General Assembly in response to foreign military interventions? And how strong was the wording of the Ukraine resolution compared to these other cases? Specifically, we need to know two things: (1) the vote count; and (2) the strength of the resolution’s text. Just imagine, for example, if the past GA resolutions were far tougher in their stance and yet garnered even greater international support than a watered down Ukraine resolution.

Before diving into such comparisons, I should note that I strongly favor using international institutions to increase the costs of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. I have proposed using the International Criminal Court for such purposes in earlier posts at Just Security (here and here). And I should add that the UN Security Council vote on Crimea was clearly overwhelming.

But the General Assembly vote deserves closer scrutiny.

Indeed, rather than a tendentious reading of it to serve political objectives, we need sober reflection on how much political support the resolution truly garnered. That kind of inquiry can help us assess how much political room Moscow really thinks it has to maneuver on the international stage, and how much support the US can count on in its efforts to pressure Russia.

So, let’s compare.

The Ukraine resolution is often described as overwhelming because of the split: 100 Yes to 11 No votes. The No’s also included a band of largely disreputable states (Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe). But what about the rest of the UN member states? Abstentions? Not voting? Indeed, failure to consider those votes might be so misleading that what looks like an overwhelming Yes to No ratio (e.g., 75 to 20) could mask a dismal level of support without even a  majority of UN member states in favor (for example, check out the UN vote distribution on the US invasion of Panama).

So, here’s the complete tally for the Ukraine Resolution:

Yes: 100, No: 11, Abstentions: 58, Not Voting: 24, Total voting membership: 193.

In other words: 52% of UN member states supported the resolution. Now, let’s see how that compares to similar resolutions in the past:

  1. USSR intervention in Afghanistan, General Assembly Res. vote: 68% support
  2. US intervention in Grenada, General Assembly Res. vote: 68% support
  3. Russian intervention in Ukraine, General Assembly vote: 52% support

On the basis of these numbers alone, I would call the Afghanistan and Grenada votes overwhelming. The Ukraine resolution? Sorry, no.

Now, let’s compare the text of these resolutions.

1. Resolution on USSR intervention in Afghanistan:
Operative paragraph 2: “Strongly deplores the recent armed intervention in Afghanistan”
Operative paragraph 4: “Calls for the immediate, unconditional, and total withdrawal of the foreign troops from Afghanistan”

2. Resolution on US intervention in Grenada:
Operative paragraph 1: “Deeply deplores the armed intervention in Grenada, which constitutes a flagrant violation of international law and of the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of that State”
Operative paragraph 4: “Calls for an immediate cessation of the armed intervention and the immediate withdrawal of the foreign troops from Grenada”

3. Resolution on Russian intervention in Ukraine:
Operative paragraph 2: “Calls upon all States to desist and refrain from actions aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including any attempts to modify Ukraine’s borders through the threat or use of force or other unlawful means”
Operative paragraph 3: “Urges all parties to pursue immediately the peaceful resolution of the situation with respect to Ukraine through direct political dialogue”
Operative paragraph 5: “Underscores that the referendum held in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea…, having no validity, cannot form the basis for any alteration of the status of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea”

The Ukraine resolution is obviously much weaker. Indeed, it was heralded principally for declaring the Crimean referendum invalid (paragraph 5). It does not come close to “deploring” the armed intervention or calling for the “cessation” or “withdrawal” of foreign troops. In short, a much weaker resolution passed by a much smaller majority (compared to Afghanistan and Grenada).

If you previously thought this was an overwhelming vote against the Russian intervention in Ukraine, you might reconsider.