Ukrainian President Zelenskiy tells UN that Russia is weaponising everything from food to children, calls for global unity

Ukrainian President Zelenskiy tells UN that Russia is weaponising everything from food to children, calls for global unity
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the UN General Assembly that Russia has weaponised everything from food and energy to kidnapped children in his war against Ukraine. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin September 20, 2023

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has issued a stark warning to the international community, saying in his speech to the UN that Russia is "weaponising" everything from food to children in its war against Ukraine and has called for a united front against Russia, warning that similar tactics could be used against anyone. 

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, Zelenskiy stressed the urgency of global unity in the face of Russia's continued "aggression" in Ukraine. He painted the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a grave threat to the global order, akin to the perils of nuclear weapons.

“Ukraine gave up its third largest nuclear arsenal in the world and the world decided Russia should become the keeper of such power. Yet history showed that it was Russia that deserved to be disarmed the most back in [the] 1990s. And Russia deserves it now. Terrorists have no right to hold nuclear weapons. No right,” Zelenskiy told the members of the UN.

“But nukes are not the scariest now. While the nukes remain in place the mass destruction is gaining momentum. The aggressor is weaponising many other things and all things are used not only against our country, but against all of yours as well," Zelenskiy declared, underlining that Russia is not limiting these tactics to Ukraine but is employing them globally. He urged international leaders to unite against the aggressor and focus their collective capabilities on addressing these challenges.

“We must act united to defeat the aggressor and focus all our capabilities and energy on addressing these challenges,” he said in English. “It takes our unity to make sure that [such] aggression will not [happen] again.”

In a sign of the growing uncertainty and divided support for Ukraine amongst the global south, Zelenskiy delivered his address to a partially filled UN chamber, with many delegations opting not to attend. As bne IntelliNews has reported, while the support for Ukraine in the West is overwhelming, Russian President Vladimir Putin has more support in the in the global south, where many countries are sympathetic to his complaint that the world should be run on multipolar lines, not unipolar with the US at its head.

“Russia is weaponising nuclear energy. Not only is it spreading its unreliable nuclear power plant technologies, but it is also turning other countries’ nuclear power plants into real dirty bombs,” said Zelenskiy, referring to the boom in Russian nuclear power technology and fuel exports. As bne IntelliNews has reported, uranium is the new gas for the Kremlin, which is using the export of nuclear power plant (NPP) technology and the 60-year fuel supply deals that go with it, as a geopolitical tool to bind other countries into close relations with the Kremlin.

The theme of unity ran as a thread throughout Zelenskiy's speech, which was partially aimed at dealing with these divisions, as he attempted to unite sentiment by appealing to the UN’s founding principles.

“United we will turn weapons back into food again,” said Zelenskiy referring to the Black Sea Grain Initiative deal that allowed Ukraine to export food, but was suspended by Russia on July 17.

“When hatred is weaponised against one nation, it never stops there,” he said at the UN General Assembly’s annual top-level meeting. “The goal of the present war against Ukraine is to turn our land, our people, our lives, our resources into weapons against you against the international rules-based order.”

The conflict in Ukraine has exacerbated global supply disruptions caused by the pandemic, leading to soaring food and energy prices, significant impacts on the global economy, and increased hardship in developing countries.

More than 140 heads of state and government ministers participated in the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly. The UN comprises 193 member states. Tuesday's visit marked the Ukrainian leader’s first in-person trip to the UN since the war started in February 2022. At last year’s General Assembly he delivered remarks from Ukraine by video link. At the time, Ukrainian troops had just smashed through Russian lines in the north-east Kharkiv region and routed the defenders, who fled in panic.

This year, Zelenskiy's speech comes amid a palpable waning of support in some quarters amongst Ukraine’s allies, on which it is totally dependent for materiel and money. Those divisions were on display as Zelenskiy gave his speech to a half-empty hall, as many countries have chosen to sit on the sidelines of the dispute, even if they don't fully back Russia's assault on Ukraine. 

0923 Ukraine Zelenskiy at UNGA 190923 - half-empty hall

Over the course of his 15-minute speech, the meeting’s often disregarded speeches time limit, Zelenskiy warned wavering leaders not to trust Russia, which he said has sought to exploit divisions with propaganda campaigns across Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia.

“Evil cannot be trusted. Ask [Yevgeniy] Prigozhin if one bets on Putin’s promises,” Zelenskiy said, referring to the former leader of the Wagner mercenary group, who died last month when his plane exploded after it departed a Moscow airport, in an incident that Western nations have blamed on the Kremlin.

The theme of global unity ran throughout the address as Zelenskiy delivered yet another finely judged speech. Zelenskiy, a former actor and comedian, has honed his oratory skills (and improved his English) to the point where he has become a masterful speaker in his never-ending campaign to maintain the support of the international community in Ukraine’s existential struggle against Russia.

“I’ve seen him at numerous international events and meetings, and I know he has a type of superpower, the capacity to really persuade people in person,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement to The Washington Post. Kuleba accompanied Zelenskiy to New York.

“We are now at a critical juncture in time as Ukraine continues to advance on the battlefield,” Kuleba said, “and it is critical to sustain and strengthen worldwide support for Ukraine.”

Russia’s ambassador to the UN brushed off Zelenskiy's speech in a quip to a reporter who asked him for his thoughts on Zelenskiy’s speech.

“Did he speak?” Russian Deputy UN Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy said with a wry smile when an Associated Press reporter asked about his reaction to the address. “I didn’t notice he was speaking. I was on my phone.”

In an interview with the Reuters news agency on the sidelines of the UNGA, Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on September 19 that Ukraine urgently needs air defences, including ammunition and spare parts.

Stoltenberg said recently that the Nato allies will stand with Ukraine “until victory” and the conflict was a “war of attrition” but not a stalemate, given the gains Ukraine has made with a counter-offensive it began in June to try to reclaim territory occupied by Russian forces.

“If we want an end to the war, if we want a just and lasting peace, then military support to Ukraine is the right way,” the Nato chief said. “Ukraine needs many different types of support.”

Zelenskiy went on to tie the Ukraine war into the mounting climate crisis that has visited death and destruction across the world this summer. He said that at a moment when global warming is causing drought, extreme weather and human devastation, humanity could scarcely deal with a bloody war of choice on top of it all.

“Extreme weather will still impact normal global life and some evil state will also weaponise its outcomes,” Zelenskiy said. “A natural disaster in Moscow decided to launch a big war and killed tens of thousands of people. We have to stop it.” He declared that respect for the rule of law and the UN Charter was important to all nations, not just his own.

Zelenskiy pointed to the food and fuel crunches, and he highlighted what Ukraine says were kidnappings of at least tens of thousands of children taken from Ukraine after Moscow’s invasion: He also accused Russia of committing genocide by kidnapping Ukrainian children. “What will happen to them?”

“Those children in Russia are taught to hate Ukraine, and all ties with their families are broken. And this is clearly a genocide,” Zelenskiy said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was unable to attend since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for his arrest in March; he is charged with kidnapping children from Ukraine. Russian officials have denied any forced transfers of children, saying some Ukrainian youngsters are in foster care. Russia’s veteran Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is due to address the forum on Putin’s behalf at the weekend.

Nevertheless, the much-hyped counter-offensive has been a disappointment and failed to deliver the same sort of spectacular successes that the Kharkiv offensive delivered at the same time last year. That has led to a slowly building, but palpable, Ukraine fatigue amongst Zelenskiy's Western allies that threatens Kyiv’s ability to defend itself if it continues.

Following his UNGA appearance, Zelenskiy is set to visit Washington, DC while in the US, to meet with US President Joe Biden. During this visit, he will also engage with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where there is ongoing debate over additional military aid for Ukraine.

The US Congress is considering Biden's request for up to $24bn in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, though divisions exist over spending priorities. US lawmakers face a September 30 deadline to pass a federal spending bill that includes further aid to the war-torn Ukraine.

In his efforts to maintain strong aid support for Ukraine, Zelenskiy faces increasing concerns from leaders of the Global South and some Republicans in Congress, who argue that the war is diverting resources from other crucial priorities.

In Washington a growing faction of the Republican Party is rebelling against further spending on military aid for Ukraine, most notably former president Donald Trump, who says he will stand for re-election in the next year’s presidential election. The Ukraine war is rapidly becoming a presidential campaign issue, with some candidates standing on a platform of ending aid to Ukraine, simply to distinguish themselves from Biden, who has been an ardent supporter of Ukraine.

“We must stand up to this naked aggression today and deter other would-be aggressors tomorrow,” Biden told the assembly on September 19 in his own speech. As he pledged support to Ukraine, there was a round of applause, including from Zelenskiy.

Although most Democrats and a significant portion of Republicans remain staunchly behind Kyiv, the blowback among House Republicans may be enough to derail an effort to approve a supplemental package of aid for Kyiv and more support next year. Stoltenberg and Zelenskiy have recently begun preparing the ground by warning the West to prepare for a “long war”, as it becomes increasingly clear there will be no spectacular gains from this counter-offensive.

A possible meeting between Zelenskiy and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will be especially important, as McCarthy has been vague about whether he intends to meet with Zelenskiy and is dithering on approving more support. McCarthy implied on September 19 that the meeting would go ahead during the Ukrainian leader’s visit to Washington in the next few days.

McCarthy's sign-off is necessary to bring supplemental Ukraine funding to a floor vote, but he is also in the midst of a battle to hold on to his job amid mounting pressure from the hard-right wing of his party, which is less keen on the war.

Asked whether he would commit to the Ukrainian leader to funding more aid, McCarthy told reporters: “Is Zelenskiy elected to Congress? Is he our president? I don’t think I have to commit anything. I have questions for him: where’s the accountability in the money we’ve already spent? What is the plan for victory? I think that’s what the American public wants to know,” McCarthy said as cited by the Washington Post.

Zelenskiy kicked off his US trip by visiting Ukrainian veterans at the Staten Island hospital who had been injured in the fighting. Zelenskiy awarded medals to the soldiers who had lost limbs. With help from a New Jersey-based charity called Kind Deeds, 18 troops have been fitted for prostheses and are undergoing outpatient physical therapy at the hospital.

“We all will be waiting for you back home,” Zelenskiy told those he met. “We absolutely need every one of you.”

Zelenskiy will return home after the UNGA to the prospect of a long cold fight as winter begins to close in next month. Bankova was hoping for another quick win and the White House has suggested that should Ukraine make significant gains on the battlefield, that would prepare the ground for the start of ceasefire talks. But those hopes have already faded away now.

“There’s no intention whatsoever by the Ukrainians to stop fighting during the winter,” General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said September 19 in remarks in Germany, where he and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin were meeting Ukrainian military leaders alongside other backers to plan further support. “They have a strategic initiative right now.”

In an interview earlier this month, Milley said Ukraine had about 30 to 45 days of fighting weather left before the autumn rains arrive and the heating season begins.

US intelligence officials also have predicted that Ukraine will not reach the city of Melitopol during the current push, one of the key objectives of the counter-offensive this year, that would allow Ukraine to cut the land bridge between Russia’s mainland and the Crimea peninsula.

“For the first time in modern history we have the real chance to end the aggression on the terms of the country that was attacked. And this is a real chance for every nation to ensure that aggression against your state, if it does happen, God forbid, will end. Not because your land has been divided and you will be forced to submit to military or political pressure, but because your territory will be fully restored,” Zelenskiy said outlining what he means by unity.