President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, denouncing Russia’s “unprovoked aggression,” told the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday that if it did not break the grip of Russian veto power, it would be powerless to resolve conflicts around the world, adding his voice to the rising calls to reform how the body works.
“Ukrainian soldiers are doing with their blood what the U.N. Security Council should do by its voting,” Zelenskyy said Wednesday, arguing that “veto power in the hands of the aggressor is what has pushed the U.N. into deadlock.”
Zelenskyy’s appearance before the council helped make it the highest-level direct confrontation over the invasion of Ukraine, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia and his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, taking the seats normally occupied by their ambassadors and stating their countries’ cases.
Lavrov and Zelenskyy did not cross paths – the Russian did not enter the hall until after the Ukrainian had spoken and left – in a bit of choreography that reflected a session in which the two talked past each other.
The Russian foreign minister read a long and detailed speech, citing decadesold events and familiar grievances, speaking so fast that the U.N.’s simultaneous translator stumbled and struggled to keep up – all without engaging with the accusations leveled against his country. “We hear slogans – invasion, annexation, aggression,” Lavrov said, as if those were mere words, not facts.
In relatively brief remarks, Zelenskyy did not dwell at length on the bloody realities of the war, knowing that his allies would do so, but instead took aim at the structure of the Security Council, the U.N. arm empowered to take the toughest actions, including imposing sanctions and deploying military personnel.
Five nations – the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain – are permanent members and have veto power, meaning that no action that any of them objects to stands a chance. The other 10 seats rotate among more than 170 other member countries, as chosen by their peers, which do not wield vetoes.
Zelenskyy advocated changing U.N. rules to allow the General Assembly, which is made up of all member countries, to override a Security Council veto by a two-thirds vote. But that change would, itself, be subject to a veto, making it a nonstarter for the foreseeable future.
Notably, neither Blinken nor Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden of Britain, whose countries would be averse to seeing their own powers watered down, addressed Zelenskyy’s proposal in their speeches. But many other countries have raised the issue of recasting the Security Council this week, calling for broader and more equitable representation for them, and at least limitations on veto power, if not its abolition.
“I think that Zelenskyy believes that by talking about U.N. reform, he is turning Ukraine’s battle into a global cause,” Richard Gowan, the U.N. director for the International Crisis Group, said in an interview. “He is certainly right that a lot of U.N. members believe that the council is out of date and needs reform, and the veto is especially unpopular. But council reform is also a diplomatic hornet’s nest, and the procedural and political obstacles to reorganizing the council or changing veto rules are prohibitively high.”
Zelenskyy argued that the United Nations was wrong to allow the privileges of the Soviet Union, after it collapsed, to be inherited in the 1990s by Russia, “which, for some reason, is still here among the permanent members of the Security Council.” He called Russian diplomats “liars whose job is to whitewash the aggression and genocide.”
As he spoke, the Russian ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, looked down at his phone and tapped at its screen.
Even as the Security Council prepared to meet, Russian forces struck the largest oil refinery in central Ukraine. And an explosion shook a cargo ship in the Black Sea near the border of Romania and Ukraine; it was not clear what caused the blast.
Russia found little resembling support at the Security Council, denounced not only by council members but also by Secretary-General António Guterres and leaders of many other nations who were given permission to attend and address the session. They reiterated that Russia’s invasion and the atrocities that have followed are violations of the U.N. charter and other international laws.
“It’s hard to imagine a country demonstrating more contempt for the United Nations,” Blinken said.
He spoke of his emotional visit to the town of Yahidne, Ukraine, and meeting some of the hundreds of civilians who had been held in a crowded, unsanitary basement there by Russian troops for 28 days early in the war. Some people died there, he said, including a 6-week-old baby.
“In this war, there is an aggressor and a victim,” he said.
Lavrov repeated the false claim that Ukraine is controlled by “neo-Nazis” and recited the Kremlin’s case that the conflict is the fault of the United States, for meddling in Ukrainian politics over the past two decades, and of Ukraine, for abusing and discriminating against Russian speakers.
The ousters in 2004 and 2014 of pro-Russian governments in Ukraine were purely the work of the West, he argued. This is a consistent theme for President Vladimir Putin’s Russia – that smaller nations that align with the West or oppose Russia must be taking orders from Washington and its allies. Lavrov even said that the United States should “command” Zelenskyy to negotiate.
Zelenskyy pushed once again for his plan for peace with Russia, but that, too, is a nonstarter, at least for now, requiring Russia to withdraw all of its troops and paramilitary forces. Similarly, Russia says its annexation of Ukrainian territory is nonnegotiable.
At the start of the meeting, Nebenzya, the Russian ambassador, engaged in a lengthy procedural argument with Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania, who was conducting the meeting because his country holds the council’s rotating presidency. Nebenzya objected to Zelenskyy being allowed to speak before the council members.
“There is a solution, if you agree,” Rama replied. “You stop the war, and President Zelenskyy will not take the floor.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.