NEW YORK — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday called on the world’s nations, big and small, to rally behind Kyiv as it defends itself against Russia’s invasion, warning that the conflict “is not only about Ukraine.”
In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Zelenskyy focused heavily — if not necessarily by name — on countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia that have tried to remain neutral in the war. He urged them to support a 10-point Ukrainian peace proposal.
He also stressed topics such as food insecurity, nuclear threats and the unfairness of a global system that seems to primarily benefit the great powers. He spoke as an approaching winter threatens to halt a lagging Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russia.
“Each decade, Russia starts a new war,” Zelenskyy said. “Many seats in the General Assembly hall may become empty if Russia succeeds with its treachery and aggression.”
Zelenskyy’s efforts are likely to play well rhetorically among many of the officials gathered before him at the U.N.’s annual gathering of world leaders in New York. Many fellow world leaders are, after all, using their time at the podium to also denounce the world powers’ dominance.
But Zelenskyy’s appeals are less likely to lead to developing countries taking action to isolate or even sideline Moscow in a meaningful way.
Too many countries have critical economic and security relationships with the Kremlin to simply walk away, even if they sign on to symbolic measures denouncing the war and repeatedly call for a peace agreement.
The fact that China is backing Russia, at least diplomatically, in the war also makes these other countries think twice about abandoning Moscow or enforcing Western sanctions on it.
That means Russia may not feel enough of a financial squeeze to leave Ukraine anytime soon.
This was Zelenskyy’s first in-person appearance at the annual U.N. gathering since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. The Ukrainian president is also expected to appear at a special U.N. Security Council meeting on Ukraine on Wednesday.
Zelenskyy, wearing his standard green military fatigues and boots, opened his speech Tuesday by assailing Russia for its aggressive nuclear posture and stressing that Russia’s nuclear threats put global security at risk.
“History shows it was Russia who deserved nuclear disarmament the most back in the 1990s, and Russia deserves it now,” he declared, alluding to the removal of nuclear weapons from Ukrainian territory after the fall of the Soviet Union. “Terrorists have no right to hold nuclear weapons.”
Zelenskyy further recounted alleged Russian atrocities in the conflict, including the forced deportations of thousands of Ukrainian children. He highlighted Moscow’s past military interventions in Moldova and Georgia, and Russia’s support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad during the Arab country’s civil war.
He warned that Russian aggression would not stop.
“This is a real chance for every nation to ensure that aggression against your state, if it happens, God forbid, will end,” Zelenskyy said, “not because your land will be divided and you will be forced to submit to military or political pressure, but because your territory and sovereignty will be fully restored.”
Condemning Moscow’s decision to exit the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a deal that allowed shipments of Ukrainian agricultural products to exit the Black Sea and reach the global food market, Zelenskyy said that Russia’s actions amounted to a “weaponization” of food.
Zelenskyy also criticized Russia for “using energy as a weapon” and for its efforts to “turn other countries’ power plants into real dirty bombs,” pointing to Russia’s attacks on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine.
The divides around the war were clearly visible in the attendance at Zelenskyy’s speech. While delegates present were largely stoic as they heard Zelenskyy speak, and Zelenskyy earned several applause lines, several sections in the sloping hall were visibly empty.
During much of Zelenskyy’s address, only one Russian diplomat could be seen at the country’s desk in the General Assembly hall, usually jotting down notes with no perceptible facial reaction to Zelenskyy’s remarks.
The Ukrainian leader came to New York intent on courting as many countries as possible from Latin America, Africa and Asia. His aides said he planned many meetings from officials from such countries.
Although many of the countries have signed on to past U.N. General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression, they have not taken stronger moves, such as reducing purchases of Russian energy products or enforcing U.S. and European sanctions on the Kremlin.
Zelenskyy highlighted Ukraine’s 10-point formula for peace and called on the U.N. to “end the aggression” and reject “shady dealings.” The latter appeared to refer to Russia’s efforts to keep many developing countries on its side.
“Evil cannot be trusted,” the Ukrainian leader warned.
Zelenskyy will head to Washington later this week, where he’ll meet with President Joe Biden, members of Congress, and other top officials.