Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, President Joe Biden on Wednesday cast the defining conflict facing global leaders as a duel between democracy and autocracy, directly responding to new threats from Russian President Vladimir Putin to escalate the war in Ukraine.
The speech is Biden’s first at the forum since Russia’s invasion, offering him the opportunity to condemn the Kremlin in front of an audience of fellow heads of state.
Biden opened his remarks with a strong rebuke of Putin after he earlier Wednesday ordered a partial mobilization of reservists in Russia and raised the specter of using nuclear weapons after a retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region.
“Let us speak plainly, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council invaded its neighbor, attempted to erase the sovereign state from the map,” Biden said. “Russia has shamelessly violated the core tenants of the United Nations Charter.”
“Just today, President Putin has made overt nuclear threats against Europe and reckless disregard of the responsibilities of a nonproliferation regime,” Biden continued. “Now, Russia is calling, calling up more soldiers to join the fight and the Kremlin is organizing a sham referendum to try to annex parts of Ukraine, an extremely significant violation of the U.N. Charter. The world should see these outrageous acts for what they are.”
Biden called the conflict “a war chosen by one man” and slammed Putin for his attacks on Ukraine’s schools, railway stations, hospitals.
“Even more horrifying evidence of Russia’s atrocity and war crimes: Mass graves uncovered in Izium, bodies, according to those that excavated those bodies, showing signs of torture. This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, plain and simple. And Ukraine’s right to exist as a people. Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe, that should not–that should make your blood run cold,” he said.
Biden reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to help Ukraine and called on other U.N. members to do the same.
“Each of us in this body who determined to uphold the principles and beliefs we pledged to defend as members of the United Nations, must be clear, firm and unwavering in our resolve,” he said.
Biden also announced a commitment of $2.9 billion in global food aid, an effort to address growing famine in the Horn of Africa, and rising food prices worldwide due to the war in Ukraine, and inflation.
As Biden grapples with a series of complicated global issues, the high-stakes summit presents a range of challenges for the administration.
Although U.N. General Assembly meetings offer an abundance of opportunity for face-to-face diplomacy — something the president prides himself on — two key players weren’t in attendance: the leaders of Russia and China.
“Our competitors are facing increasingly strong headwinds, and neither President Xi nor President Putin are even showing up for this global gathering,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday.
In Putin’s case, the most pressing of those headwinds are losses on the battlefield in Ukraine, according to administration officials.
Ahead of an engagement with his counterpart from the U.K., Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced reports that Moscow plans to hold sham referenda in occupied territories in Ukraine to pave the way to annex territory.
“I think this is also not a surprise this is happening now. We have seen in the last weeks significant gains by Ukraine,” Blinken said. “It’s a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of Russian failure.”
But as a number of other heads of state push for negotiations for peace, the gathering won’t offer a robust opportunity for Biden to pursue that path with the leaders of the countries involved in the conflict. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is in New York, but there are no plans for a meeting with U.S. officials on the books.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will also give a speech on Wednesday, but he will do so remotely as the only leader allowed to appear virtually this year.
China’s Xi Jinping’s absence means there’s no chance an in-person meeting with the president, something that hasn’t happened since Biden took office. And the two have an ever-growing list of differences to discuss.
The past months have seen multiple escalations, with China responding to any step perceived as the U.S. moving towards recognizing Taiwan as a sovereign state with shows of force, a strategy a senior State Department official described as an attempt to normalize military pressure.
While the administration says Washington’s long-standing “One China” policy remains in effect, Biden also said U.S. troops would defend Taiwan if it were attacked.
Biden addressed competition with China during his speech Wednesday.
“As we manage shifting geopolitical trends the United States will conduct itself as a reasonable leader,” Bien said. “We do not seek conflict. We do not seek a cold war.”
The impermanent 5?
Russia’s exalted position as one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council has thrown a significant wrench in the body’s efforts to check its aggression, prompting calls that it should be removed altogether.
U.S. officials appeared to be aligning behind a plan that, instead of subtracting Russia as a permanent member, would seek to make additions to the Security Council.
A senior State Department official said that Biden would attempt to “reenergize” the push for reform by arguing the body needs to be “more representative of the world’s population, and filled with countries that are ready to work together.”
The odds of expanding the Security Council appear slim. Reforming its makeup would require amending the U.N. charter, a step that Russia or any other permanent member could veto.
The rest of the agenda
While the war in Ukraine is shaping up to dominate the General Assembly, administration officials have stressed they want to take on other global issues as well.
Biden in his speech discussed the need to tackle food insecurity and climate change.
“Let this be the moment, we find within ourselves, the will to turn back the tide of climate devastation and unlock a resilient, sustainable clean energy economy to preserve our plant,” Biden said.
Whereas COVID-19 was a major theme in his address last year, Biden this year only called for access to vaccines worldwide, and urged funding for prevention.
One pressing matter facing the White House is its push to return to an Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran. Indirect negotiations appear to have stalled again, and officials from both countries appear increasing pessimistic that the pact can be renewed.
Sullivan said Biden plans to reiterate that the U.S. is open to returning to an agreement, but that he isn’t anticipating any major breakthroughs.
“While the United States is prepared for a mutual return to the joint comprehensive plan of action if Iran steps up to its obligation, the United States is clear: we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” Biden said in his speech Wednesday, in which he said the U.S. will pursue critical arm control measures.
Even a meeting with one of America’s closest allies has its thorns. Biden will hold his first meeting with the U.K.’s new prime minister, Liz Truss, as the differences between the two’s economic policies become ever apparent.
Recently, Truss said completing a long-awaited trade deal with the U.S. was not a key priority and unlikely to happen anytime soon. But Sullivan said it would be on the president’s list.
“I do think that they will talk about the economic relationship between the U.S. and the U.K.,” Sullivan said, adding they would also hit other areas where Truss and Biden have more in common, such as support for Ukraine and addressing Europe’s energy crisis.