Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lashed out at Russia for killing tens of thousands of his citizens in his first in-person address to the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday, calling for Moscow to be stripped of its powerful veto as one of the permanent members of the UN’s top decision-making body.
“Veto power in the hands of the aggressor is what has pushed the UN into deadlock,” Zelenskyy told council members during a tense session, adding that it is impossible for the body to stop Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because of Moscow’s ability to veto any effort or initiative at the Security Council.
“Most of the world recognizes the truth about this war. It is a criminal and unprovoked aggression by Russia against our nation, aimed at seizing Ukraine’s territory and resources,” Zelenskyy, clad in the military-style fatigues that have become his hallmark since Russia’s invasion in February 2022, said.
Amid the impassioned speeches, it was admissions of the UN’s powerlessness to stop the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II that rang truer than the calls for changing the international body’s rules, something that few diplomats think is likely. Zelenskyy’s appeal came as Ukraine’s allies in the U.S. and Europe have grown increasingly pessimistic about prospects for ending the war soon.
Kyiv’s counteroffensive has progressed slowly and officials now see the fighting continuing for years to come, challenging governments to keep up military and financial support amid growing domestic opposition to the cost.
Russia is digging in for a long conflict, confident it can outlast Kyiv’s allies, according to U.S. and European officials.
Zelenskyy will be in Washington Thursday to press his case for more assistance with President Joe Biden and Republican leaders in Congress, some of whom have questioned calls for continued support.
At the beginning of the heated Security Council meeting, Russia’s UN envoy objected to Zelenskyy’s presence. As the meeting focused on Ukraine began on Wednesday morning, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, immediately protested Zelenskyy’s participation on procedural grounds and began sparring with the council’s president, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.
“We do not believe that the arguments you’ve advanced are compelling,” Nebenzya told the chamber, reading from a script, as he repeatedly tried to stop Ukraine’s president from addressing the world leaders and foreign ministers gathered for the high-level meeting during this week’s UN General Assembly.
Rama, who was chairing the meeting and was clearly frustrated with Nebenzya’s interruptions, made a joke about how he wasn’t engaging in a “special operation” to allow Zelenskyy to speak – a reference to Russia’s vague euphemism for its invasion of Ukraine.
“Coming from you, all these lectures at violating the rules of this building is quite impressive,” Rama said, telling the Russian representative that Zelenskyy wouldn’t need to talk if Russia simply brought an end to the conflict it started in Ukraine.
After the sharp exchanges, Zelenskyy began his remarks, leaving the hall shortly afterwards. Nebenzya repeatedly looked at his cell phone during the address.
Zelenskyy called for a reform of the UN system with a vote in the broader General Assembly that would allow veto-power to be taken away, in an echo of broader concerns among nations in the so-called Global South that a small clique of powerful countries enjoy unequal influence at the global organization due to their veto power.
“What we observe in the United Nations is increasing support for the idea that in cases of mass atrocities against human rights, veto power should be voluntarily suspended,” Zelenskyy continued. “Regardless of who you are, the current UN system still makes you less influential than the veto power possessed by a few and misused by one – Russia.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also addressed the chamber, arguing that Russia’s invasion has worsened international relations more broadly and made it more difficult to solve other global problems.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in clear violation of the United Nations Charter and international law, is aggravating geopolitical tensions and divisions, threatening regional stability, increasing the nuclear threat, and creating deep fissures in our increasingly multipolar world,” Guterres said.