UNITED NATIONS (AP) — In a surprisingly strong rebuke of Moscow, the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday affirmed Ukraine's territorial integrity and deemed the referendum that led to Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula illegal.
The vote on the Ukraine-sponsored resolution in the 193-member world body was 100 countries in favor, 11 opposed and 58 abstentions. Twenty-four countries did not vote.
While Ukraine has a lot of sympathy among U.N. member states, Russia has a lot of clout. Both sides lobbied hard ahead of the vote, and diplomats had predicted a significant number of abstentions and a maximum 80 to 90 countries supporting the resolution.
So the high number of "yes" votes, representing more than half the 193 U.N. member states, was a sign of international anger at Moscow's slow-motion military invasion of Crimea.
"This support has come from all corners of the world which shows that this (is) not only a regional matter but a global one," Ukraine's Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia told reporters after the vote.
"It's the message that the world is united and Russia is isolated," Deshchytsia said later in an interview with The Associated Press.
He said the strong support reaffirms the U.N. Charter's guarantee of territorial integrity and "will give an overwhelming majority of countries an additional argument" for "stronger and more concrete action" against Russia.
Russia was only able to muster 10 other "no" votes — Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
But Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin called it "a moral victory for the Russian diplomacy, because an increasing number of countries are beginning to understand the complexity of the situation and the motives behind the actions of Crimea and the Russian Federation."
"The fact that almost half of the members of the United Nations refused to support this resolution, I think is very encouraging," Churkin said. "So it's a very encouraging trend and I think this trend will become stronger and stronger."
Among the abstentions were Russia's fellow members of the BRICS, the world's biggest developing economies — Brazil, India, China and South Africa.
Unlike the more powerful Security Council, resolutions in the General Assembly cannot be vetoed and are not legally binding.
Russia has blocked action in the Security Council where they have veto power as one its five permanent members. Even so, the 15-member council has held eight meetings on Ukraine, as Western powers strive to keep up the pressure on Moscow.
Before the vote, Ukraine's Deshchytsia told the assembly that his country's territorial integrity and unity had been "ruthlessly trampled" by Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council entrusted to maintain international peace and security, and in direct violation of the U.N. Charter.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin urged a "no" vote, saying a historic injustice in Crimea has been corrected and its people had expressed their right to self-determination in wanting to join Russia.
He called the resolution "confrontational in nature" and said it would be "counterproductive" to challenge the results of the referendum.
Over the past week, Churkin mounted a campaign against the resolution, claiming the dispute is an East-West issue. Ukraine's U.N. Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev countered in meetings with regional groups that Russia violated the U.N. Charter and stressed that the country is not a member of any bloc.
"The international community has sent a strong message through the passing of this resolution that Russia cannot simply trample over international law," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement after the vote.
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said many supporters recognize that "if such a blatant violation of a nation's borders is left unchecked, the consequences for other nations could be severe."
She said it was also important to note that only a handful of states supported Russia and many, like Russia, "fear free expression and peaceful assembly."
"Today's vote shows that despite significant misinformation spread by Russia, the truth of what Russia has done in Crimea has penetrated to all the regions of the world," Power said.
The resolution adopted Thursday says the referendum on Crimea has "no validity" and calls on all countries and organizations not to recognize Russia's annexation.
It also calls on all parties to immediately pursue a peaceful resolution of the situation in Ukraine "through direct political dialogue" and to refrain from "inflammatory rhetoric that may increase tensions."
Deshchytsia, the Ukrainian foreign minister, told AP his country plans to go back to the Security Council, despite Russia's veto, and will take its case against the annexation of Crimea to other international organizations and individual countries. He said that will include holding an "intensive dialogue" at the Ukraine-NATO ministerial meeting next week.
When asked about the possibility of a formal link between NATO and Ukraine, which Russia strongly opposes, Deshchytsia said "we are talking about all possible options to resolve this conflict."
He said the government's position remains to solve the situation peacefully and diplomatically and NATO membership "at the moment is not on agenda." It would require a decision of parliament for Ukraine to apply for membership in the Western military alliance, he said.
Ukraine needs "good relations ... partnership relations with Russia, and good contact between people of Ukraine and people of Russia," Deshchytsia said.
But in response to the latest situation, Ukraine signed an association agreement with the European Union last Friday "and this direction is supported by the Ukrainian people and gives us an additional argument to say that Ukraine is part of Europe," he said.
Associated Press writer Cara Anna contributed to this report from the United Nations.