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Seizing the Moment: The UN General Assembly and Ukraine

The UN General Assembly annual session is often dismissed as just a platform for grand speeches. This year, however, it may act as a platform for some useful initiatives on Ukraine.

The stage is set: the UN General Assembly in session. Image: The White House

On Tuesday, the UN launched the High-Level General Debate at the 77th Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Global leaders are yet again descending en masse on midtown Manhattan for the annual UNGA event, which is often referred to disparagingly as a ‘gabfest’. This year’s theme is entitled ‘A watershed moment: transformative solutions to interlocking challenges’. While UNGA rarely achieves any of its lofty goals, there is a real opportunity this time for the event to live up to its title if member states apply the right pressure on Russia to end the war in Ukraine.

In preparation for the summit, on Monday – the day most global leaders were in London for the funeral service for Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – UN Secretary-General António Guterres outlined his concerns. Guterres offered a laundry list of global challenges: ‘conflicts and climate catastrophe, mistrust and division; poverty, inequality and discrimination; rising costs of food and energy; unemployment and declining incomes; massive displacement and dislocation; the ongoing effects of a global pandemic; and a lack of access to finance for developing countries to recover – a crisis not seen in a generation’. These challenges have all been exacerbated by the spill-over from the war in Ukraine; hence, ending the war as soon as possible would indeed go some way to mitigating them.

UNGA provides a ripe moment for a pincer-like focus on Ukraine for several notable reasons. First, Russia is increasingly on the back foot militarily in this war, with Ukraine’s early September offensive resulting in major gains in the northeast of the country. While Russian troops still occupy around a fifth of Ukraine’s territory, today Russia controls less Ukrainian territory than it did back in April, when Moscow shifted its focus to the east of Ukraine, rather than seeking to control the entire country.

Ukraine is confidently on the march, facing a demoralised Russian military, and a Russian public gaining the confidence to outwardly express reservations about this ‘special military operation’. This is not to say the war will end soon, nor that Ukraine is about to defeat Russia: it could easily grind on for years in a protracted stalemate, especially if Putin makes good on his promise of partial mobilisation. But every war has its tipping points, and they need to be seized in a timely manner before they vanish.

Every war has its tipping points, and they need to be seized in a timely manner before they vanish

Not only is Russia doing poorly on the battlefield, but President Vladimir Putin is also being pressured by several of his closest allies. With much of the international media focused on the mourning and the funeral for the late Queen, some may have overlooked a significant event last week. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan, Putin’s two biggest and most important backers, India and China, expressed their dissatisfaction with the war. Putin even admitted publicly that both countries had questions about the war, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went further in his public remarks when he said, ‘this is not the era for war’. Adding his voice from the UNGA podium on Tuesday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, another ally with an admittedly more complicated relationship with Russia, argued that all captured land should be returned to Ukraine.

These changes are significant, especially with respect to China and India, which have supported Putin in various international fora and abstained in the March UNGA resolution ‘deploring the aggression’. In China, the local media has been repeating Russian talking points practically verbatim, focusing on Western imperialist tendencies: the West has been trying to bring Ukraine into NATO, and the West should be blamed for food and energy shortages because it is prolonging the war through the supply of weapons to Ukraine. Russia’s narrative also blames Ukrainian mines in the Black Sea for the global food and energy shortages, and argues that it is on the side of suffering states against the ‘neo-imperialists’ of the West.

Notwithstanding the fact that sovereign Ukraine wanted to join NATO, the arguments about Western imperialism have found fertile ground in many countries. It should not be forgotten that 35 countries abstained in that critical UNGA vote. Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov visited Uganda – one of the 17 abstainers from Africa – in late July, and lamented the West’s ‘colonial mindset’, which ‘demanded Africa vote against Russia’. President Yoweri Museveni echoed the Russian talking points after meeting with Lavrov. He argued that Uganda stood by the US during the Cuban Missile Crisis because the US clearly did not want Russian missiles close to its shores, so ‘those same principles should apply today’, meaning Russia understandably does not want NATO so close to its borders in Ukraine.

Rather than get into a ‘whataboutism’ debate over which country is the most egregious imperialist, the point is to stay focused on the suffering of the Ukrainian people and the negative spill-over this war has had at the global level

Museveni’s son and groomed successor, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, wrote on Twitter that ‘the majority of mankind (that are non-white) support Russia’s stand in Ukraine’. Indeed, Uganda is not alone in this view; leaders from other countries, such as Algeria, have also been publicly commenting on the said imperialism and colonialism of NATO’s post-Cold War eastward expansion.

What Should an Effective Approach at UNGA Look Like?

Coalition countries need to meet quietly with China and India, encouraging them to make even more of a difference with Putin. China cannot possibly be pleased that in early August two additional European countries – Estonia and Latvia – departed from the 16+1 club that it had been painstakingly building in eastern and southern Europe since 2012 (Lithuania’s withdrawal last year had already reduced the nomenclature from 17+1 to 16+1). It is precisely these parts of the former Soviet empire – the Baltic states and Eastern European countries – that understand Russian imperialism better than any other country. They should engage not just with China and India, but also with the abstainers from Africa, Latin America and Asia. They are the true credible voices in this debate, far more so than Western European countries and the US, many of which have a chequered history when it comes to colonialism and unprovoked wars of aggression.

Even if a number of African states fondly recall Russian support for their liberation struggles during the Cold War – South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola among them – these countries are not being asked to supply weapons to Ukraine, but to see the conflict in its wider context and use their influence with Putin. After all, they are also the most impacted by the spill-over from the conflict in terms of escalating food and energy costs. Rather than get into a ‘whataboutism’ debate over which country is the most egregious imperialist, the point is to stay focused on the suffering of the Ukrainian people and the negative spill-over this war has had at the global level.

positive recent sign is India joining 100 other countries at the UN voting in support of allowing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to give a virtual address this week – rare for UNGA. This year, the US, the UK and their close allies across Europe need to implement a highly coordinated and concerted strategy to turn an annual gabfest into a truly watershed moment.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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