At UN, Zelensky set for first in-person Russia showdown of war

Wednesday September 20 2023

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrives to address the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City, US on September 19, 2023. PHOTO | TIMOTHY A. CLARY | AFP


Ukraine's president is set to go face to face with Russian officials for the first time since his country was invaded, as the UN Security Council meets Wednesday for a potentially dramatic session.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy flew to New York for the annual UN General Assembly, where he delivered a speech Tuesday in his trademark military fatigues urging the world to stand firm against Russia.

On Wednesday, he will address a special session on the war at the powerful Security Council, where Russia is a permanent member wielding veto power against any decisions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in New York late Tuesday, with official media saying he flew a circuitous route to avoid European airspace.

It remains unclear if Moscow's sharp-tongued top diplomat -- himself a former UN ambassador -- will attend the Security Council session and face Zelenskyy.

Read: Ukraine's Zelensky renews request to address AU


Iconic UN moment?

"The potential showdown could create one of those iconic UN moments," said Marti Flacks, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Two other permanent members, the United States and France, will be represented by their own top diplomats -- Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna.

Albania, a strong supporter of Ukraine, is the current president of the Security Council and has agreed to speaking spots for a massive 60 representatives, according to an agenda seen by AFP.

It will be the most direct diplomatic encounter between Russia and Ukraine since Moscow invaded in February 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who rarely travels to the United Nations, did not come this year. He has skipped other high-profile diplomatic gatherings as Western nations seek to isolate him and as he faces an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Addressing the General Assembly on Tuesday, Zelensky said that Russia's deportations of Ukrainian children -- which triggered the warrant for Putin -- constituted "genocide".

Read: Why ICC wants Putin arrested

Zelensky cast the war as in the world's interest, saying that Russia was "weaponising" both food and energy, including by halting a UN-backed arrangement that let Ukraine ship grain safely through the Black Sea.

"For the first time in modern history, we have the chance to end the aggression on the terms of the nation which was attacked," Zelensky said in a speech met with applause led by Western nations but many empty seats elsewhere.

Biden warning

US President Joe Biden in his own speech Tuesday warned that Putin wanted the world to "grow weary" on supporting Ukraine.
"If we allow Ukraine to be carved up, is the independence of any nation secure?" Biden asked.

"We must stand up to this naked aggression today to deter other would-be aggressors tomorrow."

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that the world must be involved as the war has had "unbearable consequences" for all.

But he also issued a veiled warning against Russian-backed calls to end the war on its own terms by effectively letting it keep swathes of Ukrainian territory.

Read: Putin calls up reservists, warns Russia will use 'all means' for defence

"We should be aware of phony solutions which represent peace in name only," Scholz said.

"Let us not forget that Russia is responsible for this war. And it is Russia's president who can end it at any time with one single order."

But some developing nations have been critical of the attention granted to Ukraine, which has received some $43 billion in military aid from the United States alone.

"It is a grave indictment of this international community that we can spend so much on war, but we cannot support action that needs to be taken to meet the most basic needs of billions of people," South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said.