Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told world leaders on Tuesday, September 19, that Russia is “weaponizing” everything from food and energy to abducted children in its war against Ukraine. While the world has various agreements that restrict arms themselves, “there are no real restrictions on weaponization,” he said at the UN General Assembly’s annual top-level meeting.
Zelensky also said that Russia was carrying out “genocide” by abducting children, in a plea for solidarity to the United Nations General Assembly. “Those children in Russia are taught to hate Ukraine and all ties with their families are broken. And this is clearly a genocide,” Zelensky said.
Zelensky took to the world stage at a sensitive point in his country’s campaign to maintain international support for its fight. Nearly 19 months after Moscow launched a full-scale invasion, Ukrainian forces are three months into a counteroffensive that has not gone as fast or as well as initially hoped.
Ukraine and its allies cast the country’s cause as a battle for the rule of international law, for the sovereignty of every country with a powerful and potentially expansionist neighbor, and for the stability of global food, fuel and other supplies that have been rocked by the war. The commodity upheaval has triggered inflation and caused serious hardships for poor countries.
“We must stand up to this naked aggression today and deter other would-be aggressors tomorrow,” US President Joe Biden told the assembly Tuesday in his own speech. As he pledged support to Ukraine, there was a round of applause, and the UN cameras showed Zelensky, sitting in Ukraine’s seat in the General Assembly, clapping his hands.
Russia insists war is justified
Russia insists its war is justified, claiming that it is defending Russian speakers in Ukraine from a hostile government and Russian interests against NATO encroachment, and more. The war has raged longer and losses have been greater than Russia hoped, and the fighting has spurred widespread international condemnation and sanctions against Moscow.
But the Kremlin also has influential friends that haven’t joined the chorus of censure: China and India, for instance, have staked out neutral positions. So have many Middle Eastern and African nations. Many Latin American and Caribbean countries prefer to focus world attention on other global issues, including climate change and conflict in Africa.
Moscow is keen to display its global influence and its relationship with China and insists that it cannot be internationally isolated by the US and its European allies. Russia gets its chance to address the General Assembly on Saturday when Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is expected on the rostrum.
Meanwhile, Ukraine is concerned that backing from its allies may be ebbing. They have supplied billions of dollars’ worth of arms but fear that their stockpiles are shrinking and that defense contractors are struggling to boost production lines.
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Hours before Zelensky spoke at the UN, allied defense leaders convened at a US military base in Germany to discuss the next steps. Some nations pledged further money and weapons. But a key sticking point is whether to supply longer-range missiles that Kyiv insists it needs in order to hit Russian troops and facilities from a safe distance – as far as about 300 kilometers away. The US is wary of the request, worried that Ukraine could use such weapons to strike deep into Russian territory and provoke Moscow.
The US Congress is currently weighing Biden’s request to provide as much as $24 billion more in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, amid a growing partisan divide over spending on the conflict. Zelensky is scheduled to spend time Thursday on Capitol Hill and to meet with Biden at the White House.
After landing Monday in New York, Zelensky suggested that the UN needs to answer for allowing his country’s invader a seat at the tables of power. “For us, it’s very important that all our words, all our messages, will be heard by our partners. And if in the United Nations still – it’s a pity, but still – there is a place for Russian terrorists, the question is not to me. I think it’s a question to all the members of the United Nations,” Zelensky said after visiting wounded Ukrainian service members at Staten Island University Hospital.
Zelensky also is due to speak Wednesday at a UN Security Council meeting about Ukraine. Russia is a permanent, veto-wielding member of the council, and Lavrov is expected to make remarks. Asked whether he would stay in the room to listen, Zelensky said, “I don’t know how it will be, really.”
Zelensky has taken the United Nations to task before – even before the war launched by a neighbor that, as a Security Council member, is entrusted with maintaining international peace and security. In one memorable example, he lamented at the General Assembly in 2021 that the UN was “a retired superhero who’s long forgotten how great they once were.”
During his time at the Staten Island hospital, he awarded medals to military members who had lost limbs. With help from a New Jersey-based charity called Kind Deeds, 18 troops have been fitted for prostheses and are undergoing outpatient physical therapy at the hospital, according to its leaders.
“We all will be waiting for you back home,” Zelensky told those he met. “We absolutely need every one of you.”