Russia’s Invasion Shadows U.N. Assembly Amid ‘Colossal Global Dysfunction’

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Divided by war, strained by shortages and faced with the cataclysm of global warming, dozens of world leaders convened at the United Nations in New York on Tuesday for the first full, in-person General Assembly since the pandemic began.

Among all the global crises, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dominated the day, with heads of state addressing the violence of the conflict, the chaos in supply chains, the soaring energy prices and the other ripple effects of the war.

“We cannot go on like this,” said António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, in opening remarks to the assembly. “We have a duty to act. And yet we are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction.”

At least two presidents, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Emmanuel Macron of France, used the United Nations as a stage to cast themselves as would-be peacemakers in the war in Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan met with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Uzbekistan last week and called on him to return captured territories in Ukraine — reflecting the growing pressure on Mr. Putin from nations like India and China that have been key sources of economic support for Russia in the face of Western sanctions.

Mr. Macron has for months engaged with Mr. Putin, apparently with little success, though he has helped to keep Europe unified behind Ukraine. On Tuesday, the French president was the most prominent speaker of the Western alliance countering Russia, and he was vehement in his denunciation of the invasion — even as he insisted that he could play a role in brokering peace.

“What we’ve seen since Feb. 24 is a return to the age of imperialism and colonies,” he told the assembly, referring to the day Russia’s invasion began. “France rejects this. France, obstinately, will look for peace.”

But it remained far from clear how any of the world leaders who gathered in New York might be able to sway Mr. Putin, who chose not to attend the assembly, or what the United Nations might resolve to do this week, however high the widespread but not universal anger at Mr. Putin.

As a member of the U.N. Security Council, Russia holds veto power over its actions, leaving nations and allied blocs to come up with their own policies — and forcing Mr. Guterres to focus on specific crises, like a deal to get grain exports out of Ukraine’s ports and a mission to stabilize a Russian-controlled nuclear plant in Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan, the mercurial president of Turkey, played a central role in the grain talks, and on Tuesday he trumpeted his role in that deal and as the host of inconclusive peace talks in March.

“We think the war will never have a triumph, and a fair peace process will not have a loser,” he told the assembly. “We need a dignified way out of this crisis, through a diplomatic process that is rational, fair and which is applicable.”

Throughout the war, Mr. Erdogan has tried to maintain a close relationship with Mr. Putin, seeking to mitigate in Turkey the fallout from the war as he heads into an election year with his country’s economy faltering. He has also denounced the invasion, and said in an interview televised on Monday by PBS that Russia should return all Ukrainian territory it has captured.

“This is what is expected,” Mr. Erdogan said in the interview. “This is what is wanted.”

Since the war began, Mr. Macron has spoken periodically with Mr. Putin and has emphasized that Ukraine and Russia would have to negotiate to end the conflict.

On Tuesday, the French leader challenged those nations that have remained “neutral” in the war, saying they were “wrong” and making a “historic” error. “Those who are keeping silent today are, in a way, complicit with the cause of a new imperialism,” he said.

He called on the members of the U.N. Security Council “to act so that Russia rejects the path of war and assesses the cost for itself and for all of us — and, really, bring an end to this act of aggression.”

Mr. Macron and Mr. Erdogan were two of the most closely watched speakers on Tuesday in the absence of President Biden, whose speech was delayed by a trip to Britain for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. The U.S. leader will address the assembly on Wednesday, when he is expected to speak on themes of international cooperation and human rights, and to warn that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine violates international law and threatens order.

The war has galvanized much of Europe, pushing Sweden and Finland to apply for NATO membership and prompting even Ignazio Cassis, the president of famously neutral Switzerland, to say on Tuesday that Russia’s “act of military aggression” violated the U.N. charter.

“Neutrality does not mean indifference,” he said. “Neutrality does not mean an absence of solidarity.”

To some extent, the war has also given new purpose to the United Nations — if only as it tries to cope with urgent crises, like the safety of a major nuclear power plant seized by Russian troops in Ukraine.

For Mr. Guterres, the conflict has unexpectedly elevated his role as a humanitarian mediator. He has bluntly condemned Russia for violating the U.N. charter and has called for investigations into potential crimes against humanity in Ukraine.

The war, Mr. Guterres said on Tuesday, has “unleashed widespread destruction with massive violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.”

But as much as the war loomed over the assembly, the leaders of several smaller nations touched only briefly on the conflict in their speeches, reflecting the reluctance of many countries to get entangled in the rivalries, and economic sanctions, imposed on Russia since the war began.

In their view, the focus on the war has taken global attention away from the crises they face, including climate change, food shortages and internal conflicts.

Macky Sall, the president of Senegal, called on major powers not to let their rivalries sow new destruction on the African continent. “Africa has suffered enough of the burden of history,” he said. “It does not want to be the place of a new Cold War.”

For leaders from the Middle East, the war in Ukraine was not the most pressing issue. King Abdullah II of Jordan and the Emir of Qatar Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, brushed over the fighting there and instead urged the assembly to support the long unresolved cause of the Palestinians.

The leaders of two medium-size powers also expressed general concerns about the challenges facing their countries, and the world, but did so without casting any blame.

President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea, without naming any nations in his address, said freedom and peace were in “jeopardy.” And Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, called on the international community to address the humanitarian effect of the fighting, particularly on energy and food.

The coronavirus pandemic, though it had kept world leaders from gathering for two years, was not a central point of discussion. But its presence was still felt, illustrative of the struggles of U.N. officials trying to wrangle officials into even the bare minimum of cooperation. Calling the assembly to order, the session’s president, Csaba Korosi, pleaded for them to pay attention to the rules.

“I would like to remind members that masks are to be worn by the attendees at all times when indoors, except when directly addressing the meeting,” he said, as presidents, ministers and diplomats milled around, most without masks.

Reporting was contributed by Carlotta Gall, Cora Engelbrecht, Yonette Joseph and Jack Nicas.

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