More than 150 global leaders descended on New York this week — to meet one another, further their own interests and to help address some pressing global problems. And in the long (77-year) tradition of the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) gathering, they came for their moments at the UNGA podium. Before the General Assembly is over, that will mean more than 150 addresses to the world, long and short, polite and ranting, covering all manner of global issues and points of view.
And yet this week, the speech that mattered most wasn’t given at U.N. headquarters. It was given at the Kremlin.
By now the headlines of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brief address to the nation Wednesday are well known: the “partial mobilization” of up to 300,000 Russian reservists; the announcement of referendums to be held in four regions of eastern and southern Ukraine; and a fresh diatribe against the Ukrainian resistance and in particular its Western backers. The latter was punctuated by a blunt warning: “I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and some components are more modern than those of the NATO countries.” Putin added that he was “not bluffing.”
Though the words were spoken nearly 5,000 miles from U.N. headquarters, they landed with force at the General Assembly. And they brought a level of tension and animosity perhaps not seen at the U.N. since the dark days of the Cuban missile crisis, when then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Adlai Stevenson rebuked his Soviet counterpart Valerian Zorin in the Security Council. In the same room this week, on the day after Putin’s speech, Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded an end to Putin’s “reckless nuclear threats”; Blinken’s Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had left the room rather than listen to the rebuke — to which Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba quipped, “Russian diplomats flee almost as aptly as Russian soldiers.”
Fury at the U.N., fury in Russia
Putin’s speech drew anger in the halls of the U.N. and in Russia alike — but for different reasons.
At the U.N., the response took aim at the planned referendums and the not-so-veiled references to the Russian nuclear arsenal. President Joe Biden blasted Putin’s “overt nuclear threats”; the speech had made clear, Biden said, that Russia’s war was aimed at “extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, plain and simple. Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe, that should make your blood run cold.” As for Putin’s plans to annex Ukrainian territory, France President Emmanuel Macron said those constituted a “new imperialism.”
There were also signs of fraying in some more Putin-friendly corners.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, a neighbor and until recently a Putin ally, expressed deep anxiety about the rising tensions. “For the first time in two generations,” he said in his Wednesday General Assembly speech, “We face the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons and not even as a last resort.”
China, which has toed a Kremlin-like line on Putin’s “special military operation” (including refusing to call it a “war”), reacted Wednesday with calls for a negotiated solution. It wasn’t the first time China had said that, and it might not have sounded like criticism, but calls for negotiations are clearly not in line with large-scale troop call-ups and warnings of a nuclear attack. On Friday, Kuleba tweeted about his UNGA visit with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi: “My counterpart reaffirmed China’s respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as its rejection of the use of force as a means of resolving differences.” That’s certainly not a tweet that will be well received in Moscow.
Even before Putin’s speech was broadcast, India had issued its own call for peace talks — “today’s era is not of war,” India Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, sitting next to Putin last week in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Another key global player, Turkish president Recip Tayyip Erdogan, had made his views known on American television. When PBS anchor Judy Woodruff asked whether Russia should be permitted to keep some of the territory that it has taken from Ukraine, Erdogan’s answer was a flat no; such lands, he said, ought to be returned to Ukraine. This from a leader who has good relations with Putin and has acted as a go-between in earlier negotiations. As Grid’s Joshua Keating noted, “If Turkey, of all countries, is saying absolutely not, Russia can’t keep any of this territory, that’s a good sign that there’s not a lot of international support for Russia’s political position on this conflict.” Certainly it’s a sign that few countries will support the taking of territory by annexation.
“Nyet voine!” (“No to war!”)
Meanwhile, after Wednesday’s speeches were done, the U.N. delegations might have found — on their hotel room TV screens or social media feeds — startling scenes of the fury that Putin’s announcement had unleashed in Russia itself. Here it was the mobilization — not the referendums or the nuclear warnings — that had provoked the response.
It is never easy to gauge the scope of dissent in Russia, but it was clear that Putin’s “partial mobilization” had landed with a thud and sparked the largest public expressions of anger in months. OVD-info, which tracks protests and arrests in Russia, reported that more than 1,300 Russians had been detained in nearly 40 cities across the country. Scenes from Moscow’s storied Arbat showed people screaming “Nyet voine!” (“No to war!”); some were beaten, many were cuffed and dragged into police vans.
Putin may have been trying to thread a needle, well aware that a full-scale mobilization would have been wildly unpopular, but also that vocal nationalists — including stalwart Kremlin supporters on Russian television — had been screaming for a whatever-it-takes assault on Ukraine. Those demands had multiplied in the wake of the Ukrainian rout in the Kharkiv region in the first days of September. It was a humiliation these people could not bear.
If Putin’s announcement wasn’t enough for the hard-line pro-war crowd, it was far too much for the other constituency — Russians who may have bought into the “special military operation,” as Putin has called from the beginning, but not to anything more than that. For nearly seven months — indeed, since he last felt compelled to address the nation — Putin and his top aides had convinced the Russian people that this really wasn’t a war. There was a “life goes on” quality to the message; “we are dealing with a nasty, anti-Russian (and in the most vile bit of Putinist misinformation) — genocidal entity in Ukraine. The army will take care of it.”
But now he was calling for 300,000 young Russians to report to duty.
Beyond the protests, there was another reaction — harder at this stage to gauge but potentially just as important: young men headed for airports or borders. Internet searches spiked for “how to leave Russia.”
Creating Russian territory
On Friday, the referendums got underway, with residents having been given all of three days’ warning, and with large numbers of the Ukrainian population gone — having fled the fighting or gone to participate in the fighting. The precedent for such a referendum in Crimea eight years ago was a sham, and all indications are that this sham will be followed by Russian annexation of the four areas. Putin was clear about the implications: This will be Russian territory now; attack it at your own risk.
The confluence of Putin’s speech and the UNGA sessions was dizzying in many ways, particularly — as Grid’s Keating noted — because a Security Council member was orchestrating a land grab that is a blatant violation of the U.N. charter.
As Grid reported this week, the role of the United Nations in the Ukraine conflict is both crystal clear and maddeningly limited. The clarity is to be found in the charter’s prohibition against any such seizure of another nation’s territory; the frustration derives from the fact that Russia is a founding member of the Security Council (actually the Soviet Union was; the seat was given to Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse). That Security Council seat gave Russia a veto over any resolution.
But global support matters for Vladimir Putin. He has referred to such support often during the last several months. And it cannot be overstated: This has been a very bad couple of weeks for the Russian president — at home and on the global stage both. His support has eroded in both places. He has lost ground on the battlefield, heard blistering criticisms from the pro-war and anti-war camps in his own country, felt forced to acknowledge publicly the “concerns” felt by China and India and found no nation willing to voice support for his most recent pronouncements.
All this brings to mind one more piece published by Grid this week — a story written in response to a question: What happens when a nuclear-armed nation looks at risk of losing a conventional war? Put differently, would a cornered Putin accept defeat before turning to the nuclear option?
As U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said this week in his introductory speech to all those global visitors: “The General Assembly is meeting at a time of great peril.”
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.