Russia's invasion of Ukraine took center stage at this year's premier political gathering amid warnings that such naked aggression could spread further in Europe and spill beyond its borders if Moscow is not stopped.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and U.S. President Joe Biden, whose nation is Ukraine's biggest military backer, each took the stage at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday to rally support for Ukraine's cause.
It was Zelenskyy's first in-person U.N. appearance since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Last year, the assembly made an exception to its usual policies and let him deliver a virtual address.
After a year and a half of fighting for control of Ukraine, Russia faces what could be a long war of attrition as Ukraine's military wages a counteroffensive with drone attacks targeting Crimea and Moscow. Zelenskyy's rare physical appearance at the United Nations' headquarters in New York signaled the urgency of his appeal.
He reminded the world that Ukraine – for a brief time the world's third-largest nuclear power – had voluntarily given up its nuclear arsenal in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed and thousands of nuclear arms were left on Ukrainian soil. It did so because the U.S., U.K. and Russia all said they would guarantee Ukraine's security in a set of 1994 agreements known as the Budapest Memorandum.
"The world then decided Russia should become a keeper of such power. Yet, history shows it was Russia who deserved nuclear disarmament the most, back in the 1990s. And Russia deserves it now – terrorists have no right to hold nuclear weapons. No right!" Zelenskky said.
"But truly not the nukes are the scariest now," he said. "While nukes remain in place, the mass destruction is gaining its momentum. The aggressor is weaponizing many other things and those things are used not only against our country but against all of yours as well."
Biden used his speech to counter doubts about financial and military support for Ukraine in America and elsewhere as the war grinds on.
"Sovereignty, territorial integrity, human rights — these are the core tenets of the U.N. Charter, the pillars of peaceful relations among nations, without which we cannot achieve any of our goals. That has not changed, and that must not change," Biden said.
"Yet, for the second year in a row," he noted, "this gathering dedicated to peaceful resolution of conflicts is darkened by the shadow of war — an illegal war of conquest, brought without provocation by Russia against its neighbor, Ukraine."
Republican lawmakers in the U.S. Congress and leaders of some developing nations have complained the aid for Kyiv could go to other urgent priorities. Biden, however, warned that if Russian President Vladimir Putin's war on Ukraine is not stopped, the consequences will be felt around the world.
"If we allow Ukraine to be carved up, is the independence of any nation secure?" said Biden. "I’d respectfully suggest the answer is no. We have to stand up to this naked aggression today and deter other would-be aggressors tomorrow."
Biden pointed to Russia's invasion and its effective blockade of Ukraine's ports – which continues after Moscow pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative with the U.N. and Turkey – as key factors behind global food shortages and rising energy prices that have led to deepening hunger and poverty among poorer nations.
Zelenskyy, too, drew attention to the Ukrainian ports in the Black and Azov Seas that have been blocked by Russia.
"Until now, our ports on the Danube River remain the target for missiles and drones. And it is a clear Russia’s attempt to weaponize the food shortage on the global market in exchange for recognition for some, if not all, of the captured territories," said Zelenskyy.
"Russia is launching the food prices as weapons," he said. "The impact spans from the Atlantic coast of Africa to Southeast Asia. This is the threat scale."