WASHINGTON: The US and its allies got a new chance to cast Vladimir Putin as a pariah isolated on the global stage with this week’s gathering of world leaders in New York, even as the United Nations has failed to stop or even curb Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The big question is whether the condemnation will matter, and whether some nations reluctant to choose sides will turn words into action.
In speech after speech, leaders appearing before General Assembly condemned Russia’s invasion of its neighbor. They also sought to inject new momentum into efforts to counter the global food crisis sparked by the war, including a US announcement of an additional $2.9 billion in food aid. The UN Security Council was set to meet Thursday on Ukraine in a meeting where Russia’s actions were certain to be condemned despite the veto it holds to prevent real action.
“This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, plain and simple,” President Joe Biden told the General Assembly in a speech Wednesday. “If nations can pursue their imperial ambitions without consequences, then we put at risk everything this very institution stands for — everything.”
While the response from Biden and other western leaders was no surprise, even some leaders who had previously been wary of taking sides were a little more forthright in calling out Putin. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to cast himself as a mediator but also used an interview with PBS NewsHour to urge Putin to return occupied territory to Ukraine.
“The lands which were invaded will be returned to Ukraine,” Erdogan said. Still, the Turkish leader refrained from laying blame with Putin directly, instead calling for a negotiated solution.
The war in Ukraine has dominated not just the formal speeches that characterize this busy week of global diplomacy. The conflict is also shaping many of the bilateral conversations between leaders in conference rooms, and framing the hushed conversations in hallways of the city’s packed luxury hotels.
So far, however, Putin seemed undaunted by all the criticism.
As he’s done frequently in the past, President Putin skipped the General Assembly’s big week, sending Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in his stead, and seemingly thumbed his nose at all the calls for peace by accelerating the war. With the diplomatic events in full swing, he announced the partial mobilization of as many as 300,000 more troops and declared his intent to hold referendums and annex territory his troops still occupy.
“The UN was created to help avoid circumstances like this but as long as Russia has a veto in the Security Council and can conduct aggressive wars, the UN cannot serve that purpose,” former US Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Balance of Power With David Westin.”
There may be more to come, from nations that have more influence over Putin. He faced criticism — albeit mild — from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in recent weeks, even though the Indian leader hasn’t participated in US-led efforts to impose sanctions on Russia over the war.
Modi won’t attend this week’s event in New York but his foreign minister may bring some pressure to bare in India’s speech on September 25.
At the same time, there was plenty of evidence that for all the condemnation from the west, other countries still wanted to do business with Russia. Lavrov had a full slate of meetings — although his staff didn’t say who with.
Senegal’s Macky Sall urged a “negotiated solution” to the crisis and urged leaders not to divide less powerful nations along ideological lines.
“Africa has suffered enough of the burden of history,” he said. “It does not want to be the place of a new Cold War.”
Although some countries in Southeast Asia and Africa have been reluctant to join sanctions against Moscow, there has also been immense attention this week on the global food crisis, which has worsened dramatically as a result of Russia’s war.
“Zambia joins other governments in expressing particular concern about the ongoing war in Ukraine,” President Hakainde Hichilema said from the UN podium on Wednesday afternoon. “We also take this opportunity to stress the far-reaching negative consequences of this war, particularly on the prices of food across the world.”
“A few months of war can erase decades of progress,” he said.
With Russia wielding a veto as one of the permanent five members of the Security Council, the UN will have to rely on such shows of unity.
“We must face the fact that the credibility of the United Nations is at stake due to the aggression against Ukraine by Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said from the podium on Tuesday, criticizing the “dysfunctionality” of the Security Council — where it’s not among the standing members — and noting Tokyo’s long-standing desire for a UN overhaul. “The United Nations does not exist solely for the benefit of the great powers. The United Nations exists for the entire international community.”
The most impassioned cri de coeur about Putin’s invasion came from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who sought to call attention to the deep divisions in his speech kicking off the week of meetings and speeches.
“We cannot go on like this,” Guterres said. “We have a duty to act. And yet we are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction.”