The UN General Assembly summit this week will be dominated by a battle – between the US and its allies on the one hand and Russia on the other – for global support for Ukraine’s fate as the global south fights to prevent the conflict from overshadowing the existential threat of famine and the climate crisis.
Returning to an entirely personal general debate, presidents and prime ministers will gather in New York, many of them straight from London, where diplomacy got underway on the sidelines of the Queen’s funeral.
Russia is currently retreating to the battlefield and to the battle for the hearts and minds of the world over the fate of Ukraine. The general assembly voted 101-7 with 19 abstentions to allow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to deliver a pre-recorded video speech, exempting him from requiring speakers to appear in person.
India, a longtime ally of Moscow that tends to abstain on Ukraine, voted in favor of Zelenskiy. The vote took place on the same day that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly berated Vladimir Putin, telling him that “today is not a time for war” as they gathered together at a regional Asia summit in Uzbekistan. Putin said he was aware of India’s “concerns,” echoing what he had said about China the day before.
The week-long session of the United Nations General Assembly and leaders’ speeches begins when mass graves are discovered after Russia’s withdrawal from the Ukrainian city of Izium.
War crimes are likely to take center stage in speeches by Zelenskiy and Joe Biden on Wednesday, and the UN Security Council will convene a ministerial meeting on Thursday morning chaired by French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna focusing on accountability for war crimes in Ukraine.
The Russians “should expect that it will not be business as usual when they arrive in New York tomorrow,” said U.S. envoy to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
“They will be isolated. They will be condemned in the Security Council, but also more broadly in the General Assembly,” she told CNN.
Despite widespread sympathy at the United Nations General Assembly for Ukraine’s plight over the Russian invasion, there has been irritation among developing countries that the focus on the conflict is pushing discussion and action on parallel food and climate crises that threaten mass displacement and famine in the global south.
Ukraine has pushed for more resolutions condemning Russia in the Security Council and General Assembly, but Kiev’s Western supporters have warned of the risk that the dwindling number supporting such resolutions could become the story.
“There has been an ebb and flow of interest and involvement from countries not directly affected by Ukraine and so we have had to work hard to make it clear that we are talking about those issues that do concern them in their own right,” said a European Commissioner. diplomat at the UN.
On Tuesday, Biden will chair a summit on food security, and US officials have also indicated Washington is ready to talk about reforming UN institutions, including the Security Council.
Western member states will try to use the food security summit to demonstrate the links between the Russian invasion and global food shortages.
“It is useful to link the two where necessary, because it prevents Ukraine from being seen as a European problem that does not really matter,” said the European diplomat.
Russia and the West are engaged in a propaganda battle across Africa over responsibility for the grain shortages caused by the interruption of exports from Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has toured Africa to portray Russia as a victim of Western imperialist war while highlighting Russia’s role in supporting decolonization movements.
In a parallel step to bolster its support in the General Assembly, the US has abandoned its non-committal stance on reforming UN institutions such as the Security Council to make them more representative.
On the reform of the board, US Assistant Secretary for International Organizational Affairs Michele Sison said Friday: “We do not believe that the United States should defend an outdated status quo.”
“While we have a clear eye on the obstacles to Security Council reform, we will make a serious call to countries to forge consensus on credible, realistic proposals for the future,” Sison said. “To remain credible in the 21st century, the council must better reflect global realities and incorporate regional perspectives.”
As there are competing plans to change Security Council membership, all of which will be rejected by Russia and China, the change in US stance is unlikely to lead to concrete reforms. It is primarily intended to further isolate Moscow and Beijing as guardians of the status quo.