Remarks by a Senior Administration Official During a Telephonic Background Briefing on the UN General Assembly Emergency Special Session on Ukraine

Senior Administration Official
October 6, 2022


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hey everybody, thanks for joining – really appreciate it – even though it’s late in the day.

Well, let me just start by quoting Secretary General Guterres from his remarks last week: “Any decision to proceed with the annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine would have no legal value and deserves to be condemned…  [This] stands against everything the international community is meant to stand for.”

Those were the words not of the United States, not of another NATO country, not of a European state; those were the words of the secretary general of the United Nations, and they outline what’s at stake here and how we see this in no uncertain terms. And they show that this is not really about the West versus Russia, or some other formulation; this is really about standing up for the fundamental principles of the UN Charter, and for our collective values. That’s what’s at stake, and that’s what we’re going to be pursuing over the course of the next week.

So with that, let me lay out some of the mechanics of what’s happening up in New York. Last week we saw Russia once again shield itself from accountability and responsibility by vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning its sham referenda and annexation attempt. Not a single country voted with Russia – not a single one. And as Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield promised, we’re going to continue to pursue accountability at the United Nations in the General Assembly, where every country has a vote. And on Monday afternoon, the president of the General Assembly will reconvene the emergency special session on Ukraine to address Russia’s illegal and fraudulent attempt to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory.

The European Union, on behalf of a cross-regional drafting group of several dozen UN Member States, is working on a resolution that will be introduced in the UN General Assembly and considered at this emergency special session to condemn Russia’s actions as a clear violation of the UN Charter and the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. It will repeat the demand that Russia withdraw its forces from Ukraine and from Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, of course cease its unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine, but most importantly it will condemn (inaudible) change Ukraine’s borders by force. And this resolution, once it’s open for co-sponsorship, will be something that we will call on every UN Member State to support.

On Monday, as I mentioned, at Ukraine and Albania’s request, the emergency special session will resume at 3 p.m. with a debate where we expect to hear a number of nations from around the world to clearly and loudly echo what the secretary general has unequivocally said last week: It’s illegal and simply unacceptable to attempt to redraw another country’s borders by force. It goes against everything the UN stands for. We expect that a number of Member States will sign up to take the floor, as we saw the last time this emergency special session was convened, and we expect the debate may well stretch into the following days of the week. It’ll start on Monday; we expect the debate to stretch at least until Wednesday, if not beyond. And at the conclusion of that debate, the resolution that I just referred to will be put to a vote.

The UN Charter is clear: Any annexation of a state or territory by another state resulting from a threat or use of force is a violation of international law, including the UN Charter. And we look forward to reaffirming our commitment to Ukraine and to the UN Charter in the General Assembly in the days to come.

So why don’t I just stop there with those few opening remarks, and open it up for questions?

MODERATOR: And our first question will come from the line of Will Mauldin with Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you so much for doing this, [Senior Administration Official], and it isn’t that late in the day. I wanted to ask what – how you would define success from the U.S. point of view in this vote. Would you be looking for the highest number of yeses of any Russia-related resolution that the General Assembly has considered? Or are you trying to reduce the number of people abstaining, or sitting on the fence? And do you think there are any progress in any regions or particular countries that have abstained in the past on such resolutions? Thinking of the Middle East or Asian countries. Just want to know how you define success on that. And will it be a public vote with public results? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Will. Appreciate you taking the time. I think it’s a very good question. I mean the first thing I would say about defining success is the objective, fundamental objective here of course is to have the General Assembly pass this resolution, because the resolution will set out in no uncertain terms that this is an illegal effort to annex Ukraine’s territory and that the nations of the world do not accept it. So a resolution of this type has a formula for a passage – requires two thirds of those who are voting to pass – and we do expect broad support for this resolution, and our goal is to pass it in the General Assembly so that the United Nations will have spoken against what Russia is attempting to do here.

As the President put it in his speech before the UN General Assembly just a couple of weeks ago, “If nations can pursue their imperial ambitions without consequences, then we put at risk everything the UN stands for.” And that’s exactly what we’re going to attempt to do with this resolution.

I would say as a matter of context, in 2014 Russia purported to annex Crimea, another part of Ukraine. And there was about a hundred countries that came together to vote yes on that resolution and declare the purported annexation invalid, and to call on the UN and other countries not to recognize it. We’re attempting to do something similar here.

Now, we also know the history here. It’s possible that Russia will bully or strongarm countries into abstaining or not showing up to vote. We know a number of countries may want to avoid a debate like this, which is a very tough debate for them. But I think one of the things we’ll be looking for in this vote is essentially who’s going to vote with Russia, how many countries are willing to stand up and cast a no vote for this resolution. And I think that number will be quite low, but we’ll be looking for that as a measure of whether what Russia is attempting to do here, what Putin has said is his objective – to erase Ukraine from the map – is something that – what kind of country wants to stand up with Russia and take that vote. So we’ll be looking at that as well.

Again, the Secretary-General made it clear, because the UN Charter is clear, any annexation is a violation of the principles of the UN Charter, and we hope that countries will be willing to stand up for that.

The second part of your question on a public vote, we expect that this will be a standard vote in the UN General Assembly, which is to say every country will have to mark their vote, and that we will see those results. I know that there is a letter that Russia has circulated suggesting they may seek a secret ballot or some effort to sort of obscure the vote. I guess I would just say to that it doesn’t suggest a high degree of confidence in the outcome if Russia is seeking to obscure the vote count or the results. In my understanding, this is a relatively unprecedented move, and I’m not sure there’s going to be much support for it. It does suggest a bit of desperation when it comes to Russia’s effort to shield itself from accountability at the UN.

MODERATOR: Our next question will come from the line of Michelle Nichols with Reuters.

QUESTION: Thanks. Thanks, [Senior Administration Official], for the briefing, and [Moderator]. Well, Will has just asked basically all the questions, but I just wanted to follow up on China specifically. They’ve been abstaining, obviously, which you guys see as a win. Are you seeing – the president, President Xi, expressed to President Putin his concerns last month. Are you seeing any signs that China is really starting to – their patience is really starting to wear thin with Russia over this war? And are there any other particular large countries that you might be focusing your own lobbying efforts on? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, thanks, Michelle. I appreciate the question. Look, I can’t speak for other countries in how they plan to vote, but I guess I would say a couple of things. First of all, I do think it was significant a couple of weeks ago when you saw Xi Jinping and you saw President Modi both sort of raising questions and concerns about Russia’s approach, and I think we heard from a number of countries – not just the President of the United States but a number of countries around the world express those questions and concerns during High-Level Week at the UN General Assembly. I think we’ve seen those questions and concerns mounting. The Secretary spoke to this in his own remarks during High-Level Week. The President obviously spoke to this extensively. And we’ve continued our diplomatic efforts with all countries to talk about the stakes of votes like this for the UN Charter and everything that the UN system stands for.

We’ll continue to make that case, but I also want to stress one other thing, which is this is not – again, this is not the U.S. – this is not even the U.S. and Europe standing against Russia and asking the UN to kind of weigh in on that dispute. You’ve got countries all over the world that have expressed serious concerns about this kind of imperial ambition that Putin has demonstrated. I think you’ve seen in the Security Council Kenya speak quite eloquently to this. I think you’ve seen other countries talk about what’s at stake when one country tries to redraw borders by force.

So I think we’ll continue to see those voices, including many of the countries in the – that have come together in this cross-regional drafting group to put this new resolution together. There are countries all over the world that are concerned about that, and I think the debate that we’ll see next week will really be an opportunity for those countries to express their concerns about this as well, and then obviously we’ll have a vote on the resolution itself.

I do think you see those concerns. When it comes to China in particular, obviously we have regular diplomatic contact. We make our views clear. I think it’s notable that for having what they have described as a “no limits” partnership with Russia, China has not voted with Russia on these resolutions. And I personally do not consider abstain a great result. I would love to see countries vote for a resolution like this because, from our perspective, it underscores the fundamental principles that we’ve all signed up for, all committed to, and that are critical to keeping peace and security around the world.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up. What lobbying are you doing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, look, I think the world is watching Russia’s outrageous actions in real time. They’re seeing it for – they see it for what it – for what they are. And that’s why we’ve seen more and more countries coming forward to express those concerns. We just talked about a couple of those.

So this resolution, I feel confident saying this resolution will have buy-in from all regions of the world. It’s not just going to be the United States. As I mentioned, it’s not just going to be our European allies. It’s going to be a coalition of countries that are trying to build support for this. We’re going to continue to make the case that there are fundamental principles at stake here, and that’s something that every country has a stake in. So we’re going to be appealing to the principles of the UN Charter, the fundamental principles we’ve all signed up to, and the fundamental principles, frankly, that every Member State agreed to uphold when they joined the United Nations.

Now, I have no doubt that there will be other efforts to persuade countries to not support this resolution. We’ve seen Russia abuse the UN process in the Security Council and by circulating outrageous documents not based in fact to the UN itself. They want to erode the foundation of this institution, but the institution was built on a very fundamental idea, which is you can’t do what Russia is attempting to do in Ukraine today. I think ultimately those principles will be – will prevail in the General Assembly.

OPERATOR:  Our next question will come from the line of Nahal Toosi with Politico. Please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hi. Yes, thank you. When I was reporting on this earlier this week, there was confusion about whether it needed to be a majority vote or a two-thirds vote, and also whether an abstention counts as a vote or not. So if you could clarify that, that would be great.

And also, what are the Ukrainians insisting be included in the resolution itself? Because my understanding is that the more anti-Russia language there is, the less some countries may want to support it.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Halley. I guess I’d say a couple of things. On the vote itself – my understanding is that it’s two-thirds of those who are voting in the General Assembly, and yeses and noes are what counts as voting — abstentions do not count towards the two-thirds requirement. So you’ve got to look at the yeses and the noes, and ultimately you’re looking to have two-thirds yeses versus noes to be able to pass the resolution.

In terms of the negotiation of the language of the resolution, I won’t really get into that back and forth. There’s a – as I said, there’s a cross-regional group that represents countries from all across the world. They’ve gotten together in a room, put their heads together to figure out what’s the right way to craft this so that it really focuses on this fundamental question about whether the international community is going to reject or accept what Russia has purported to do here in holding these sham referenda and purporting to annex Ukraine’s territory. And I think the final draft, as soon as it’s circulated, will make clear that the international community condemns that in no uncertain terms. And that’s the fundamental principle that is at stake in this resolution.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from the line of James Bays with Al Jazeera. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, [Senior Administration Official], thank you, [Moderator], for this. I wanted to – I know what you’ve just said about abstentions not counting, but clearly the fewer abstentions you have and the more positive votes, the more political and moral weight this resolution will have. When you look back at the Council vote last week, among the abstentions – okay, there was Gabon, but China, Brazil, and India. They’re very big countries and people might take their lead – other Member States might take their lead from those countries. How worried are you about their argument, which is basically end the war now, doesn’t matter about the rights or wrongs, and start diplomacy?  How worried are you about that narrative that others will follow that abstention route?

And if I could just add a second part to the question. I know it’s a different chamber and I know it’s a different topic, but in any way do you see the Human Rights Council vote today in Geneva on the Uyghurs as a bit of a bad omen on countries standing up, perhaps, to the West a little?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Hey, James. Thanks. Thanks so much. On the Human Rights Council, I wouldn’t really – obviously we’re in New York; we’re focused on the Security Council and the General Assembly. So I wouldn’t really speak to that. I don’t really think there’s a connection between the two.

When it comes to this resolution, I guess what I would – I guess I would say a couple of – a couple of things about this. First of all, in the Security Council it’s very clear: Russia couldn’t get a single vote on their side. And I do think that that’s a very significant fact and I think it’s one that we’re going to be very focused on as we move to the General Assembly, which is to say Russia – Russia is basically presenting a fundamental proposition here that international law should shield what they’re doing in the territory of Ukraine. And I think the question is whether they can build support for that in the General Assembly in terms of people who are willing to stand with Russia and support their position.

To me, that’s a very fundamental question, as well as the question of whether this has the imprimatur of passing the General Assembly and being a resolution that has the force of the UN and the community of nations that has come together to kind of speak in one voice can – has that force in terms of passing. So that’s what we’re really focused on. Obviously we’re going to be trying to persuade every country that they should support this because we think it does go to fundamental principles, and this is a moment to stand up and stand for those principles.

When it comes to ending the war, we have been and will continue to maintain the same position. Obviously we presented all kinds of offramps in advance of Putin making the decision, taking the decision to invade Ukraine. We pursued diplomacy in advance of that. We’ve pursued diplomacy after that. And as we’ve made clear, if Russia stops fighting tomorrow, this war ends. Unfortunately, if Ukraine stops fighting tomorrow, Ukraine ends. And that fundamental dichotomy is one that every nation considering this resolution will have to take into account.

There is a very simple way to end this war. Russia can stop the fighting, pull back its troops to Ukraine’s borders, and the war will be over. And I think everyone in the world would welcome that result – and diplomacy and efforts of diplomacy to achieve that result will continue. But the reality is Putin has shown no indication that Russia will be willing to stop the fighting, stop these fundamental violations of the UN Charter, and that’s why we have to continue efforts to hold Russia accountable – including like those we’ve been talking about here at the United Nations. So I would simply leave it at that.

Thanks, everybody.