Ukraine prime minister confronts Russia at UN Security Council

Yatsenyuk accuses Moscow of ‘military aggression’ but says he still believes Russians don’t want war

Ukraine's Prime Minster Arseniy Yatsenyuk, left, at a U.N. Security Council meeting in New York on March 13, 2014.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk confronted Russia at the U.N. Security Council in New York on Thursday, and the U.S. sought to drive a diplomatic wedge between Moscow and Beijing on the issue of Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine’s Crimea.

The Security Council meeting in New York comes amid the crisis in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which has a population composed mostly of ethnic Russians and has long operated with a great deal of autonomy from the Ukrainian government in Kiev.

Russian troops seized control of Crimea last month after protests in Western-leaning parts of Ukraine forced out the country's president, who was closely allied with Moscow. Crimeans will vote Sunday on a referendum — called by the pro-Russian regional legislature — to decide whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

Al Jazeera has learned that the United States hopes to increase diplomatic pressure on Moscow to stand down by seeking a Security Council vote Friday or Saturday on a resolution condemning Russia's actions. The U.S. hopes to persuade China to abstain.

"A lot of the diplomacy right now is focused on China — making sure China doesn't side with Russia and abstains," Al Jazeera diplomatic editor James Bay reported.

While Russia would use its permanent council status to veto any such resolution, the draft would be significant if it gained support from members of the council and made Moscow seem more isolated among the international community. 

"It is about showing the world where the members stand. The key player is the Chinese," Bays reported.

At the Security Council meeting, Yatsenyuk reiterated Ukraine's desire for a dialog, saying his nation has had "warm and friendly relations" with neighboring Russia for decades and that he is also convinced "that Russians do not want war."

"This aggression has no reasons and no grounds," Yatsenyuk said. "This is absolutely and entirely unacceptable in the 21st century to resolve any kind of conflict with tanks, artillery and boots on the ground."

"And I hope that the Russian government and the Russian president will heed the wishes of their people and that we return urgently to dialogue and solve this conflict," he said.

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, speaking after Yatsenyuk at the Security Council meeting, said, "Russia does not want war, and neither do the Russians, and I'm convinced the Ukrainians don't want that either."

However, Churkin did not respond to Yatsenyuk's call for talks. Instead, he urged a return to a European-mediated plan in which Ukrainian protest leaders and ousted President Viktor Yanukovich agreed on Feb. 21 to form a new government and hold an early election.

The Security Council meeting on Thursday was its sixth on Ukraine in less than two weeks. 

At the meeting, Yatsenyuk also accused Russia of violating Article Two of the U.N. Charter, which states that member nations cannot use or threaten to use force against the "territorial integrity or political independence of any state."

He further said Russia is in violation of the nuclear pact it signed in 1994 with Ukraine, Britain and the United States after Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Under that agreement, Ukraine transferred all its nuclear weapons — at that time, the world’s third-largest stockpile — to Russia, in exchange for guaranteed recognition of Ukraine's territorial integrity.

On Thursday, Yatsenyuk said that after Russia's recent actions, "it would be difficult to convince anyone on the globe not to have nuclear weapons."

His comments echoed those of Ukrainian Member of Parliament Pavlo Rizanenko, who on Tuesday said Ukraine made a "mistake" in giving up its weapons and may be forced to arm itself if tensions do not ease.

The meeting comes just after the European Union late Wednesday developed a framework to implement sanctions against Russia if it does not de-escalate on the Ukrainian border. This is the first time Russia has faced such sanctions from the international community since the Cold War.

Shortly before the meeting, the United States circulated a draft resolution, which would reaffirm the Security Council's commitment "to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders."

The draft, obtained by The Associated Press, urges all parties "to pursue immediately the peaceful resolution of this dispute through direct political dialogue" to protect the rights of minorities in Ukraine.

It notes that Ukraine has not authorized Sunday's referendum in Crimea and "declares that this referendum can have no validity and cannot form the basis for any alteration of the status of Crimea."

Diplomats said the resolution's aim is to show strong opposition in the U.N.'s most powerful body to a Russian takeover of Crimea — even though Russia is virtually certain to veto any resolution.

Supporters are hoping that China, which has stressed the importance of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, will abstain rather than veto the resolution.

Beijing has worked with Moscow in the past on multiple occasions to block Security Council resolutions on the conflict in Syria. And after Russia sent troops into Ukraine's Crimea region, Moscow reached out to China for support.

So far, China appears in its state media to have subscribed to Moscow's premise that Russia is acting to protect Ukraine's Russians from perceived dangers. While Russia has said China is in agreement over Ukraine, Beijing has remained largely silent publicly and, analysts say, will likely remain so, in part out of wariness of damaging relations with the U.S. and Europe.

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the council that more than 20,000 Russian troops are in Crimea ahead of Sunday's referendum.

She said the U.S. and other nations "call for the suspension of this referendum, which cannot be regarded as legitimate, especially against the background of foreign military intervention."

British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant added that a "free and fair referendum cannot possibly be held where voters are casting their ballots under the barrel of a gun."

Al Jazeera & wire services

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