U.S. President Joe Biden called out Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations, as the Russian leader significantly escalated war efforts and threatened nuclear retaliation.
Speaking to the annual gathering of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) in New York Wednesday morning, Biden used most of his address to condemn Moscow.
“Let us speak plainly. A permanent member of the United Nations Security Council invaded its neighbor, attempted to erase a sovereign state from the map,” Biden said. “Russia has shamelessly violated the core tenets of the United Nations Charter, no more important than the clear prohibition against countries taking the territory of their neighbor.”
In the biggest escalation of the Ukraine war since Russia’s February 24 invasion, hours before world leaders gathered at the U.N. headquarters, Putin in Moscow announced the partial mobilization of his country’s military, calling up 300,000 reservists and vowing he would consider all options to protect what he considers Russian territory, raising concerns of a nuclear attack.
“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people – this is not a bluff,” Putin said in a televised address to the nation.
Biden called out Putin’s “overt nuclear threats against Europe” as a “reckless disregard for the responsibilities of the Non-Proliferation regime” – the various international treaties that prohibit the use of nuclear weapons.
“And the Kremlin is organizing a sham referendum to try to annex parts of Ukraine, an extremely significant violation of the U.N. Charter,” he added, referring to Putin’s move to hold referendums on four occupied Ukrainian regions to join Russia, widely seen as a prelude to annexation of those territories.
The Russian leader’s announcement came after his troops suffered battlefield setbacks in northeastern Ukraine and came at a fortuitous time for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his Western allies, who were concerned that war fatigue had set in among U.N. members gathering this week, observers noted.
“You never want to talk about escalation, particularly when they’re vague nuclear threats, as a positive thing,” said David Bosco, who teaches international studies with a focus on the U.N. Security Council at Indiana University. “But from a diplomatic standpoint for Ukraine and for Ukraine’s backers, I do think this helped sharpen the focus on that conflict and also probably had the effect of isolating Russia to an even greater degree than it’s already been isolated,” Bosco told VOA.
Zelenskyy was to deliver remarks Wednesday afternoon. Last week, a majority of the General Assembly’s 193 member states allowed the Ukrainian leader an exception to U.N. rules that say speeches in this year’s high-level session must be delivered in person.
Belarus, Cuba, Eritrea, Nicaragua, North Korea and Syria supported Russia in voting against allowing Zelenskyy’s video speech. Since Putin is not attending in person, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will make the address on behalf of his country on Saturday, as ministers are given later speaking slots than leaders.
Traditionally, as host, U.S. presidents always speak second after Brazil, but Biden forfeited his Tuesday speaking slot as he was returning from London, where he attended Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral.
In his UNGA remarks, Biden called out Beijing’s “horrible abuses against pro-democracy activists and ethnic minorities” in China’s Xinjiang region and “the increased repression of women and girls by the Taliban in Afghanistan.”
Human rights groups have accused China of detaining more than 1 million minorities in camps, restricting freedom of movement, and engaging in torture, forced sterilization and sexual violence under the guise of Beijing’s campaign against religious extremism in Xinjiang. China has denied the accusations.
Biden touched on other global conflicts, including the war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, the violence in Haiti and political oppression in Venezuela, and reiterated support for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinian people.
As negotiations stalled, Biden said the United States will never allow Tehran to obtain nuclear weapons. He also said the U.S. stands with “the brave women of Iran,” in reference to protests this week over the death of 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, under suspicious circumstances after she was arrested in Tehran by the morality police – a unit that enforces headscarves and strict dress codes for women.
Authorities have denied that Amini suffered any mistreatment at their hands and say heart problems caused her death. Her family said she had no history of heart trouble.
Security Council reform
In a jab to Russia, which has used its veto power to block Security Council action on Ukraine, Biden said UNSC members including the United States should refrain from wielding the veto, “except in rare, extraordinary situations,” to ensure that the council remains credible and effective.
“Russia’s use of the veto in the Ukraine situation has really brought new attention to veto and it’s obviously very unpopular with the U.N. members as a whole,” Bosco said.
In his remarks, Biden threw his support behind expansion of the membership of the Security Council “to become more inclusive, so they can better respond to the needs of today’s world.”
“This includes permanent seats for those nations we have long supported and permanent seats for countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said.
By showing that it’s open to reform, the administration hopes it can put China and Russia in a corner, said Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group. “The U.S. will want to highlight the fact that they are blocking improvements to the U.N.,” Gowan told VOA.
Observers have voiced skepticism that progress on the decades-long UNSC reform debate is imminent. The U.N. Charter must first be amended, which requires a two-thirds vote of its members, and any reform must be agreed to by the five permanent members with veto power.
Last week, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, noted that since 2009, Russia has cast 26 vetoes and that in 12 cases it was joined by China, while the U.S. has used its veto only four times since 2009.
Food security and global health
Global food prices have dramatically increased because of supply chain disruptions and rising energy and fertilizer costs brought upon by the pandemic and exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Biden announced more than $2.9 billion would be used to address global food insecurity, in addition to the $6.9 billion already committed by the administration this year, according to the White House.
“A multiyear drought in the Horn of Africa has created a dire humanitarian emergency, with parts of Somalia at risk of famine for the second time in just over a decade. This new announcement of $2.9 billion will save lives through emergency interventions and invest in medium- to long-term food security assistance in order to protect the world’s most vulnerable populations from the escalating global food security crisis,” the White House said in a statement.
On Tuesday, the U.S. convened a Global Food Security Summit co-chaired by Secretary of State Antony Blinken with the leaders of the European Union, African Union and Spain, and hosted with Colombia, Germany, Indonesia and Nigeria.
Beyond aid, the world needs a much more robust international agenda to meet the U.N. goal of ending hunger by 2030, which it is currently not on track to meet, said Rob Vos, economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
“We do need a lot more investments in food systems for the coming decades to make them more resilient,” Vos said in an interview with VOA, “to monitor much more closely the risk of food crisis from breaking out.”
Later Wednesday, Biden delivers remarks at a Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria replenishment conference. His administration has proposed a $6 billion pledge over the next three years to meet the $18 billion the Global Fund is seeking to fight the three diseases.
The Global Fund has helped reduce AIDS-related deaths by 70 percent and new infections by 54 percent, but the gains are fragile, according to the ONE Campaign, a group working to end preventable diseases by 2030.
“In just two years, two decades of progress against AIDS slammed on the brakes as COVID-19 and other global crises took center stage,” ONE Campaign’s president, Tom Hart, said in a statement.
ONE’s analysis shows that falling just $1 billion short could result in 25 million more new cases of the three diseases in countries where the Global Fund invests from 2024 to 2026.
VOA’s Michael Lipin contributed to this report.