The conflict’s toll on food and energy prices has accelerated calls in the developing world for a negotiated settlement. And support among the American public has been slipping as a segment of the Republican Party criticizes the war effort’s estimated $73 billion price tag.
But Biden, who is due to address the assembly Tuesday, will be aided by the conflict’s most charismatic voice: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who also will visit New York to raise awareness about Russian atrocities and emphasize how the Kremlin’s invasion violates the United Nations’ most sacred principle of sovereignty of borders — a cause he hopes will unite all countries fearful of coercion by a bigger neighbor.
“President Biden looks forward to hearing President Zelensky’s perspective on all of this and to reaffirm for the world and for the United States, for the American people, his commitment to continuing to lead the world in supporting Ukraine,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday, in a preview of Biden’s activities for the week.
A significant arrow in Biden’s quiver is the relatively poor attendance by America’s main adversaries at the gathering. Russian President Vladimir Putin, facing an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, will not fly to New York and neither will Chinese President Xi Jinping, nor his top diplomat, Wang Yi.
The gathering, known colloquially as the Super Bowl of global diplomacy, is one of the best opportunities for developing countries that don’t get invited to meetings of wealthy nations such as the Group of Seven to voice their concerns about world affairs. The vacancies will offer Biden and Zelensky the chance to dominate the agenda and lend a sympathetic ear to the leaders of less wealthy nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America, a region often called the Global South.
Key to achieving that will be Biden’s planned meeting Wednesday with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a prominent champion of the Global South who has called for peace talks in Ukraine and accused the West of prolonging the conflict by providing weapons and military equipment to Kyiv. “The United States needs to stop encouraging war and start talking about peace,” Lula said in the spring.
Sullivan has made clear that the United States will continue providing military support to Ukraine and discourage what it views as premature calls for peace talks — even as the battle lines in Ukraine harden and it appears less likely that Kyiv’s forces will sever Russia’s land bridge to Crimea, a key Russian military transit route.
“Our job from our perspective is to provide Ukraine with the tools it needs to be in the best possible position on the battlefield, so that it can be in the best possible position at the negotiating table,” Sullivan said.
The U.S. intelligence community assesses that Ukraine will not reach the city of Melitopol in its current offensive. Last week, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Ukrainian troops may have only “30 to 45 days’ worth of fighting weather left” in the current offensive.
On Sunday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told German media there would be no swift end to the conflict. “Most wars last longer than expected when they first begin,” he told the Funke media group. “We are all wishing for a quick peace.”
By contrast, at last year’s U.N. gathering, Ukrainian diplomats arrived in New York with the wind at their backs, with Kyiv’s forces pushing back Russian forces around the southern city of Kherson and the northeastern city of Kharkiv, reclaiming valuable territory.
Still, Milley and other senior U.S. officials have said Ukrainian troops “aren’t done” and are continuing to make “steady progress.”
While majorities of U.N. member states have voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many in the Global South have grown concerned about the prospects of an unending stalemate. A bloc of nations in Africa and Latin America maintain economic and diplomatic links to the Kremlin and are loath to enforce Western sanctions for fear of the economic impact.
“The default position among the majority of U.N. members is we need to negotiate an end to the war,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the International Crisis Group. “If Zelensky sits down at the U.N. Security Council and says we will keep fighting forever, then that will create a clear dissonance with a lot of non-Western countries struggling with debt and poverty who feel that their problems are being overshadowed.”
Sullivan, the national security adviser, contested the notion that there is a significant delta between the U.S. position and the developing world, saying American diplomats have worked hard to close the gap. “We actually believe that we have over the course of the past several months built a strong engagement and dialogue with the Global South on what ultimately a just peace looks like,” he said. “It does not seem that Russia is particularly serious about that at the moment.”
A top U.S. adversary who did make the trip to New York is Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, whose nation has provided Russia a fleet of self-detonating Shahed drones that have menaced Ukrainian troops and population centers. Raisi told a small group of journalists in New York on Monday that Iran is “against the war in Ukraine. Period.”
However, when asked about Iran’s military support for Russia, he appeared to play coy, asking the assembled reporters to show proof while also noting that Tehran has had a complex relationship with Moscow that predates the war.
Beyond Ukraine, Biden’s speech before the world body is expected to tout his administration’s record on global leadership.
The president will also meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday as the two allies navigate a range of challenges arising from Israel’s most right-wing government in history. Biden and many Democrats in Congress are critical of Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul Israel’s judiciary, which they fear threatens the country’s democracy. Netanyahu has also repeatedly rebuffed Biden’s requests to stop the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and allow the United States to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem to service Palestinians.
In light of these divisions, Biden has kept his distance from the Israeli leader, and the meeting in New York will be their first tête-à-tête since Netanyahu won his election last fall.
This week, Biden will also become the first U.S. president to meet together with leaders of the five Central Asian countries, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The discussions with those five countries, sometimes referred to collectively as the “Stans,” are expected to concentrate on trade, climate change and regional security issues. Biden is also set to speak with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres.
Following the meetings in New York, Zelensky will follow Biden back to Washington as both leaders make the case to Congress to approve additional funding for Ukraine. Biden is seeking a package of more than $24 billion in funding that includes $13.1 billion in military aid, $8.5 billion for humanitarian support and $2.3 billion for the government’s financial needs.
The package faces opposition among some House Republicans, but GOP leaders say Zelensky’s visit is likely to be “very, very persuasive,” Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CBS News on Sunday. “Zelensky is a great spokesperson. He really makes the case better than anyone.”
On that the White House agrees — even if Zelensky’s pleas for support occasionally rankle the Oval Office.
“He has proven over the course of the past 18, 19 months, that there is no better advocate for his country, for his people and for the urgent and continuing need for countries like the United States and our allies and partners to step up to provide the necessary tools and resources that Ukraine needs,” Sullivan said.