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Biden, Zelensky implore world leaders at U.N. to stand up to Russia in Ukraine

President Biden speaks at the United Nations.
President Biden addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a dire warning Tuesday, telling global leaders gathered at the U.N. General Assembly that Russia’s invasion is a threat that extends beyond the war zone as he seeks continued support for his besieged country.

“The goal of the present war against Ukraine is to turn our land, our people, our lives, our resources into a weapon against you — against the international rules-based order,” Zelensky said.

His comments echoed a plea by President Biden, who urged his foreign counterparts earlier in the day to strengthen their resolve in supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, two “core tenets” of the U.N. Charter.

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The two leaders, who will meet at the White House on Thursday, have sought to convince allies to maintain their military support despite a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has fallen short of expectations, and to persuade unconvinced nations to turn their back on Russia. Some developing nations that have been hardest hit by the economic turmoil wrought by the war have urged global leaders to shift their attention away from Ukraine and refocus on other challenges including poverty and inequality.

During his speech in New York, Biden laid out a U.S.-led vision to confront the world’s most pressing challenges, including tackling the climate crisis, addressing artificial intelligence and investing in developing nations of the Global South. Last year, Biden opened his remarks with a forceful condemnation of Russia’s invasion. On Tuesday, he spent most of his speech highlighting progress made on global infrastructure partnerships and investment in low- and middle-income countries.

“The United States seeks a more secure, more prosperous, more equitable world for all people, because we know our future is bound to yours,” Biden said before the U.N. chamber. “Let me repeat that again: We know our future is bound to yours. And no nation can meet the challenges of today alone.”

The president reiterated his unwavering support for Kyiv and urged others to do so, casting Russia’s aggression as a threat to all nations.

“Russia believes that the world will grow weary and allow it to brutalize Ukraine without consequence,” Biden said. “But I ask you this: If we abandon the core principles of the U.N. Charter to appease an aggressor, can any member state feel confident that they are protected? If we allow Ukraine to be carved up, is the independence of any nation secure?”

“We must stand up to this naked aggression today to deter other would-be aggressors tomorrow,” he added.

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Zelensky, too, tried to connect the conflict to some of the issues developing nations are grappling with as a result of the war, including food shortages and rising energy prices. He condemned Russia, accusing it of weaponizing food, energy and artificial intelligence and abducting Ukrainian children.

He acknowledged that the war comes at a moment when much of the world is enduring the effects of the climate crisis, including recent flooding in Libya that has left thousands dead.

“When all of this is happening, one unnatural disaster in Moscow decided to launch a big war and kill tens of thousands of people. We have to stop it,” Zelensky implored. “We must act united to defeat the aggressor and focus all our capabilities and energy on addressing these challenges.”

Zelensky’s visit coincides with a difficult juncture in the war. A much-vaunted Ukrainian counteroffensive that began in June has made only incremental progress — in contrast to dramatic battlefield gains at this time last year, when Ukrainian forces retook thousands of square miles of territory in the country’s northeast.

The recent fighting has largely devolved into a bloody war of attrition, as Ukrainian troops seek to punch through formidable fortifications Russian troops have created over a period of months, including dense minefields, trenches and tank traps.

Some incremental progress has been reported in recent days, with Ukraine saying it captured a strategic eastern hamlet over the weekend. In the country’s south, Ukraine also reported gains, but its troops have not yet managed to mount a serious challenge to Russia’s grip on a vital land bridge connecting mainland Russia to the occupied Crimean peninsula.

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Ukrainian forces, however, have scored a string of recent successes in attacks against Russia’s Black Sea fleet, a feat that is particularly notable as Ukraine has no navy, but instead relies on drones and long-distance missile strikes.

Over the course of the summer, some tensions have emerged between Zelensky’s government and Western backers. As it has since the start of the war, Ukraine has repeatedly pleaded for more weaponry, as some U.S. officials have let it be known that they disagree with its battlefield strategy.

Many Western military analysts, though, say the picture is a nuanced one.

“Ukraine’s got to be really careful, because they’re losing a lot of troops and equipment that they can’t afford to,” said Tim Willasey-Wilsey, a visiting professor in the war studies department at King’s College London. “But they’ve got Russia really rattled over Crimea — these attacks on the Black Sea fleet have been amazingly successful.”

Zelensky has also presided over what is generally an unwelcome development for any wartime leader in the thick of battle: a shake-up at his Defense Ministry, primarily in response to concerns about corruption in military procurement.

All six Ukrainian deputy defense ministers were dismissed from their posts Monday, two weeks after the president replaced Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, who had been on the job throughout the 19-month-old war.

In addition to his White House visit, Zelensky will also meet Thursday with congressional leaders as he tries to secure more support. A CNN poll released last month found that 51% of respondents said that the U.S. “has done enough” to aid Ukraine in the war, compared with 48% who said they want America to do more.

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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), who is set to meet with Zelensky on Wednesday, told reporters Tuesday he had “questions” for the Ukrainian leader.

“Where’s the accountability on the money we already spent?” McCarthy said. “What is the plan for victory?”

Congress has already approved $113 billion in total aid for security and humanitarian assistance. Biden is asking Congress for more than $13 billion in additional military support for Ukraine and $8.5 billion for humanitarian aid. Though there is broad bipartisan support for Kyiv, some hard-right Republican lawmakers have opposed sending more aid to Ukraine as part of a government funding deal.

Though much of Biden’s U.N. speech was intended for an international audience, his remarks were also aimed at convincing voters that he’s restored American leadership on the world stage at a critical moment for the international rules-based order. A glimpse of that argument came during a political fundraiser Monday, when Biden told Democratic donors he would not “side with dictators like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”

“Maybe [former President Donald] Trump and his MAGA friends can bow down, but I won’t,” said Biden, who is attending four political fundraisers during his New York stay as the 2024 campaign ramps up.

Later on Tuesday, Biden met with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and leaders of five Central Asian nations — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — which includes countries that border Russia and China. The meeting was the first of its kind at the leaders level, administration officials said.

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The president also sought to rebuff any notion that the U.S. is ratcheting up tensions with China, despite recent U.S.-led efforts to counter China’s international investment program and to shore up relationships in Beijing’s backyard.

“When it comes to China, let me be clear and consistent,” Biden said. “We seek to responsibly manage the competition between our countries so it does not tip into conflict.”

Biden was the only member among the U.N. Security Council’s permanent members in attendance. China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Putin, who has a warrant for his arrest by the International Criminal Court, were absent from this year’s General Assembly. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron also skipped the meeting.

On Wednesday, Biden will meet Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before traveling back to Washington.

Subramanian reported from Washington, Wilkinson from the United Nations and King from Kyiv.

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