UNITED NATIONS — After two years of discourse dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s U.N. General Assembly has a new occupant of center stage: the war in Ukraine.
The pleas made by leaders from around the world for peace were both an altruistic amplification of besieged Ukrainians’ plight as well as born from self-interest. As several speeches made clear, the repercussions of the Russian invasion have been felt even thousands of miles away.
“It is not just the dismay that we feel at seeing such deliberate devastation of cities and towns in Europe in the year 2022. We are feeling this war directly in our lives in Africa,” Ghanaian President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo said Wednesday. “Every bullet, every bomb, every shell that hits a target in Ukraine, hits our pockets and our economies in Africa.”
The speeches that elided any direct reference to the conflict were few, but the war resonated even in the absence of its direct invocation. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the president of Kazakhstan, never let the words “Ukraine” or “Russia” slip from his lips, but he made several seemingly pointed allusions.
He opened his remarks by painting a bleak picture of a world catapulted into a “new, increasingly bitter period of geopolitical confrontation” that’s engendered “the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons, and not even as a last resort.”
Just hours later, Russian President Vladimir Putin – who is not attending the U.N. General Assembly – declared that he would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons to defend his country’s territory.
PHOTOS: At UN, Russia’s war in Ukraine is both text and subtext
Russia is a key ally of Kazakhstan, and the war in Ukraine has left the former Soviet country in an awkward spot. Tokayev performed a similar dance last week during Pope Francis’ visit, refusing to speak directly about Ukraine while generally decrying a morbid state of affairs.
On Tuesday, Tokayev laid out “three primordial principles: the sovereign equality of states, the territorial integrity of states, and peaceful coexistence between states.”
“These three principles are interdependent. To respect one is to respect the other two. To undermine one is to undermine the other two,” he said.
The theme of territorial sovereignty resonated in other speeches, as countries who have faced infringements invoked their own traumas or cited the fate of Ukraine as a fear.
“We must not be silent in Bosnia and Herzegovina either. We owe that to our vivid memories of the horrors of war and aggression,” Šefik Džaferović, chair of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said Wednesday. “The United Nations system was unable to prevent or stop the war in my country in the period between 1992 and 1995. Unfortunately, that happened again with Ukraine.”
Russia has long been accused of trying to destabilize the Balkans anew – including Bosnia and Herzegovina. Džaferović’s turn at the rostrum came a day after Putin met with a Bosnian Serb separatist leader in Moscow.
Russian peacekeepers have been stationed in Transnistria, a breakaway region in Moldova, since the end of a separatist war in 1992. Sandwiched between description of how the war in Ukraine – “our neighbor and friend” – has affected her country, Moldovan President Maia Sandu called for the “complete and unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops” from Transnistria.
Poland is the Ukrainian ally that has taken in the most refugees, and President Andrzej Duda made 34 references to the country in his speech Tuesday.
“We must not forget those who are suffering,” Duda said. “Let us remember that six months of Russian aggression in Ukraine has brought the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II.”
But Duda also highlighted how Ukraine has captured the world’s attention when many other momentous crises outside of Europe have not.
“Were we equally resolute during the tragedies of Syria, Libya, Yemen? Did we not return to business as usual after two great tragedies of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the wars in the Horn of Africa, and while condemning the invasion of Ukraine, do we give equal weight to fighting mercenaries who seek to destabilize the Sahel and threaten many other states in Africa?” he said.
On the first day alone, Ukraine drew more than 150 mentions across speeches from leaders, including the U.N. secretary-general. Antonio Guterres opened the General Assembly by touting Ukraine and Russia‘s deal – with the help of Turkey – over grain shipments as an example of successful multilateral diplomacy. The war was threaded throughout his speech, as he turned to its gloomier yields.
“The fighting has claimed thousands of lives. Millions have been displaced. Billions across the world are affected,” he said.
In the lone video address to the General Assembly, for which he was given special dispensation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself called out the seven countries who voted against the allowance: “Seven. Seven who are afraid of the video address. Seven who respond to principles with a red button. Only seven.”
None of those seven had yet spoken. But even if those countries had somehow prevailed, Slovakian President Zuzana Čaputová said it was incumbent on other countries to advocate for Ukraine.
“The democratic world and all of us must be a voice of Ukraine. The voice that won’t be silent, voice that will continue to testify about Russia’s crimes in Ukraine,” she said Tuesday. “The voice that will remember, and that will act – so no one is ever allowed to commit such atrocities again.”
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