Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took centre-stage at the United Nations on Tuesday where US President Joe Biden warned the world against trying to “appease” Russia’s “naked aggression”.
Wearing his trademark military fatigues, Zelensky joined the annual UN General Assembly for the first time since the war and listened intently as Biden urged solidarity against Russia’s invasion.
Russian President Vladimir Putin — who did not come to New York — is expecting that the world “will grow weary and allow it to brutalise Ukraine without consequence”, Biden said.
“But I ask you this: If we abandon the core principles of the UN Charter to appease an aggressor, can any member state in this body feel confident that they are protected? If we allow Ukraine to be carved up, is the independence of any nation secure?” Biden said.
“We must stand up to this naked aggression today to deter other would-be aggressors tomorrow.”
Biden won applause from the chamber when he called for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but several prominent world leaders decided to miss this year’s UN session, including from China, and allies Britain and France.
Zelensky is set to meet leaders less friendly to Ukraine’s cause, including Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has said previously that Ukraine shared blame for the war and faulted the billions of dollars in Western military aid to Kyiv.
Lula, who casts himself as a neutral mediator, told the General Assembly that “work needs to be done to create space for negotiations.” “A lot is invested in weapons and very little in development,” Lula said.
Zelensky, who until recently only travelled in utmost secrecy, will on Wednesday take part in a special session on Ukraine at the UN Security Council, where Russia is a permanent member wielding a veto over any binding actions.
He is also due to stop in Washington.
Visiting a New York hospital treating wounded Ukrainian soldiers on Monday, Zelensky said that the United Nations still provides “a place for Russian terrorists”.
Dire climate crisis warnings
Russia has met overwhelming criticism at the General Assembly over its February 2022 invasion, but the focus on the war has also drawn criticism from developing countries who believe it has distracted the West, especially from other urgent priorities.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the General Assembly with a bleak speech highlighting the recent floods that killed thousands in Derna, Libya.
“Even as we speak now, bodies are washing ashore from the same Mediterranean Sea where billionaires sunbathe on their super yachts,” Guterres said.
“Derna is a sad snapshot of the state of our world — the flood of inequity, of injustice, of inability to confront the challenges in our midst.”
In similarly dark language, Biden used his speech to highlight the flooding as well as wildfires in North America and Europe and drought in the Horn of Africa.
“Taken together these snapshots tell an urgent story of what awaits us if we fail to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and begin to climate-proof our world,” Biden said in the excerpts.
Zelensky will use his UN trip to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who have both maintained relations with Russia — as well as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a key ally.
Addressing a reception to mark Germany’s 50 years in the United Nations, Scholz voiced alarm about the “new rifts opening up in the world”. “Imperialism is once again showing its ugly face,” he said.
Managing US-China tensions
Biden in his speech offered reassurances about the intense competition between the United States and China, which has spurred warnings that the world could face a new Cold War.
“When it comes to China, I want to be clear and consistent. We seek to responsibly manage the competition between our countries, so it does not tip into conflict,” Biden said.
Chinese Vice President Han Zheng met on the sidelines of the General Assembly on Monday with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in the second high-level meeting within days between the powers aimed at keeping tensions in check.
One meeting that is definitely not expected at the United Nations is one between Biden and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
The hardline Iranian leader headed to the United Nations just as Iran and the United States completed a swap of five prisoners each, after Biden worked to unblock $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue that had been frozen in South Korea.
Biden, facing domestic criticism for the deal with the arch-enemy, vowed at the United Nations to do all to keep the clerical state from developing a nuclear weapon.