Ukraine looms over the United Nations General Assembly

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On Friday, the U.N.’s largest body voted to let Ukraine speak. A majority of the General Assembly’s 193 member states approved a document that granted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky an exception to virtually address the chamber this week, even after U.N. officials had established that speeches in this year’s high-level session of the General Assembly, which starts Tuesday, had to be delivered in person. Russia could get only six other countries — Cuba, Eritrea, Belarus, North Korea, Nicaragua and Syria — to vote against it.

Zelensky is set to speak Wednesday, in between the presidents of Indonesia and Malawi, according to the U.N. schedule. It’s safe to say his speech will garner the biggest headlines of the day. The conflict that has sprawled across Ukraine since Russia launched its Feb. 24 invasion will shadow much of the proceedings in and around the United Nations this week as delegates and dignitaries convene at the organization’s headquarters in New York City.

The annual parade of these world leaders to the dais of the General Assembly often feels quite pro forma. Presidents, prime ministers and the occasional foreign minister make paeans to multilateralism, trot out plans to meet development goals and raise warnings about long-running global challenges like climate change. It’s platitudes and politesse. Once in a while, far-right nationalists like former president Donald Trump or Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or a demagogue like the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez opt to make things more interesting, if less diplomatic.

This year, though, there’s bound to be a more confrontational edge. “The war has dominated diplomacy at the U.N. in the year to date and is the greatest challenge to the body’s principles at least since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003,” observed a report by the International Crisis Group think tank. After all, Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, has violated key principles of the U.N. Charter prohibiting the use of force, carried out alleged war crimes, and shrugged off criticism within the U.N.’s main convening chambers.

“Geostrategic divides are the widest they have been since at least the Cold War,” said U.N. Secretary General António Guterres last week. “They are paralyzing the global response to the dramatic challenges we face.”

President Biden, jetting in late after attending the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, won’t quite bridge that divide. Far from the ultranationalism of Trump, he will likely extol his administration’s efforts to partner with European allies in their support of Ukraine and single out Russian President Vladimir Putin for provoking a global crisis. More like Trump, he will likely emphasize his concerns with China’s bellicosity around Taiwan, and Iran’s escalation of its nuclear program. Western powers are also contemplating a symbolic bid at the U.N. Human Rights Council to press China further on its alleged abuses of Uyghur Muslims.

When Biden was vice president, the major intrigue at successive U.N. confabs surrounded whether President Barack Obama would meet his Iranian counterpart in a Turtle Bay corridor. Such an encounter seems off the table now, with Iran’s hard-liner President Ebrahim Raisi ruling out a meeting with Biden in an interview given to CBS’s “60 Minutes,” where he said he saw no distinction between the current U.S. administration and its predecessor.

On the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meetings, the United States, European Union and African Union will lead a summit on food security — the overarching, urgent issue for many parts of the world as the war in Ukraine and the lingering pandemic snarled supply chains and provoked skyrocketing inflation in various countries.

On this front, as well as the reckoning with the pandemic and ongoing efforts to vaccinate the world, there remain pronounced gaps between the West and other nations. Diplomats from the “Global South” have decried the West’s initial vaccine nationalism that saw some wealthy countries hoard supplies of doses while many nations in the developing world could not even distribute vaccines to front-line medical workers.

A recent commission launched by the Lancet medical journal concluded that the pandemic was a “massive global failure” that “exposed major weaknesses in the U.N.-based multilateral system, resulting from excessive nationalism, tensions among the major powers,” and other factors.

On the war in Ukraine, though, Russia will find meager support in New York. While some countries in the developing world want to avoid aligning wholesale with the West, next to no government is in favor of the destabilizing actions taken by the Kremlin. A meeting last week in Uzbekistan of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Chinese-led bloc, was perhaps prelude of things to come. In public settings, Putin seemed to admit to being upbraided in private by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On Thursday, Putin acknowledged the latter’s “concerns and questions” about Russia’s ongoing war effort. The following day, he was lectured in front of cameras by Modi. “Today’s era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you on the phone about this,” the Indian prime minister said.

“I know your position on the conflict in Ukraine, about your concerns that you constantly express,” Putin responded. “We will do our best to stop this as soon as possible.”

The war for Russia is not going well, as recent Ukrainian successes have proven. The Russian-backed separatist republics in the eastern Donbas region are now pleading to the Kremlin to directly annex their territory, perhaps sensing Kyiv’s new momentum. In his exchange with Modi, Putin cast the blame on Kyiv, claiming it had abandoned peace talks and was bent on achieving all its goals “on the battlefield.”

Ukraine’s backers scoff at such rhetoric coming from the country that launched an unprovoked invasion. The Russians “have not indicated that they have an interest in diplomacy,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters. “What they are interested in is continuing to raise this unprovoked war on Ukraine.”

As much as Ukraine may loom over discussions, don’t expect much diplomatic progress this week. “It would be naive to think that we are close to the possibility of a peace deal,” Guterres said this weekend.

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