Any hopes of civility between Ukrainian and Russian officials at Wednesday’s United Nations Security Council meeting were dashed before the top UN official Antonio Gutierrez could even speak.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was due to open the session despite not being a member of the council. The 15 countries present, minus Russia, wished to discuss Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion.
But Russia’s UN ambassador immediately tried to shut down the welcome before the Ukrainian leader could address the famous horse-shoed table.
Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused the Albanian President, this month’s council head, of trying to turn the meeting into a “one-man stand-up show”, a jab at Mr Zelensky’s former job as a comedian, and implored the countries present to reconsider their invitation.
The response from Albania’s leader was blunt. “Get out of Ukraine and Zelensky won’t have to take the floor,” he said. From then on, the meeting was doomed to fail – and it did not disappoint.
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Moments after the tense opening exchange, Mr Zelensky, having described Russia as a “terrorist state”, turned quickly against the council itself, furious that Ukraine’s invaders remained a permanent member with veto powers that still allow them to block any UN action against them.
“All in the world see what makes the UN incapable,” he said. “This seat in the Security Council, which Russia occupied illegally, through backstage manipulations following the collapse of the USSR, has been taken by liars whose job is to whitewash Russia’s ongoing aggression and genocide.
“Veto power in the hands of the aggressor is what has pushed the UN into a dead end. Regardless of who you are, the current UN system still makes you less influential than the veto power possessed by a few and misused by one – Russia – to the detriment of all other UN members.”
After reciting his proposals to restructure the council, he concluded: “Ukrainian soldiers are currently doing at the expense of their blood what the UNSC should do by its voting – stopping aggression and upholding the UN Charter.”
Throughout his impassioned speech, delivered to many of Ukraine’s allies, Russia’s ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, stared at his phone.
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UK deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden later accused Russia of being “impervious to United Nations demands”.
Anthony Blinken, the US secretary of state, then opened his address by reciting in harrowing detail a visit to Yahidne, north Ukraine, where Russian soldiers tortured civilians in their own basements. As he continued detailing the dangerousness of the Kremlin’s invasion, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, hurriedly entered the room and sat down nearby. He was due to speak next.
The US is suffering from a “complex of superiority”, Lavrov said in his opening remarks. The US were ultimately responsible for a “coup” in Ukraine that overthrew the “rightfully elected” pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, he added, justifying the “special military operation”. He then defended Russia’s veto power at the UN as “legitimate”.
While his comments were nothing novel, Mr Blinken meticulously took handwritten notes as his Russian counterpart spoke. The Ukrainian ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, responding in kind to his Russian counterpart during Mr Zelensky’s speech, duly stared at his phone throughout.
Perhaps the most telling failure of the council meeting, however, was the absence of any of the five leaders of permanent seat holders, namely Russia, China, the US, the UK and France, all of whom hold unmatched sway in debates.
China’s President Xi Jinping chose to skip the United Nations summit altogether amid tensions with the US and anger at its “de-risking” strategy. Vladimir Putin could not attend because the International Criminal Court has issued his arrest warrant, meaning he would be detained the minute he stepped on US soil. These two allied absences were obvious.
But President Joe Biden skipped the meeting because he was dealing with other matters in New York, while Rishi Sunak missed the event because he was busy watering down net zero pledges in London and French President Emmanuel Macron opted out to entertain King Charles in Paris. These were not instances of snubbing but rather evidence of a genuine apathy towards the council.
“It may be a reflection of what they see as the value of this organisation,” Matthew Kroenig, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, told the Financial Times.
“It’s the place where leaders come and give public speeches but that really nothing meaningful gets done.”
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