The UN general assembly summit this week will be dominated by a struggle – between the US and its allies on one side and Russia on the other – for global support over the fate of Ukraine, as the global south fights to stop the conflict from overshadowing the existential threats of famine and the climate crisis.
With a return to fully in-person general debate, presidents and prime ministers will be converging on New York, many of them direct from London, where the diplomacy got under way on the sidelines of the Queen’s funeral.
Russia is currently in retreat on the battlefield and in the contest for global hearts and minds over Ukraine’s fate. The general assembly voted 101-7 with 19 abstentions to allow the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to deliver a prerecorded video address, granting him an exemption from the requirement that speakers should appear in person.
India, a longstanding Moscow ally which has tended to abstain in votes on Ukraine, voted in Zelenskiy’s favour. The vote was on the same day that India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, publicly scolded Vladimir Putin, telling him “today’s time is not a time for war” when they made a joint appearance at a regional Asia summit in Uzbekistan. Putin said he was aware of Indian “concerns”, echoing what he had said the day before about China.
The weeklong session of United Nations general assembly meetings and leaders’ speeches begins as mass graves are being discovered after the Russian retreat from the Ukrainian town of Izium.
War crimes are likely to be central in speeches on Wednesday delivered by Zelenskiy and Joe Biden, and the UN security council will convene a ministerial meeting on Thursday morning, chaired by the French foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, focused on accountability for war crimes in Ukraine.
The Russians “should expect that it will not be business as usual when they arrive in New York tomorrow”, the US envoy to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said.
“They will be isolated. They will be condemned in the security council, as well as more broadly in the general assembly,” she told CNN.
There will be no traditional lunch with ministers from the permanent five members of the security council this year. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is only due to speak on Saturday when most other ministers will have left, so if there is a walkout when Lavrov approaches the lectern, it will have less impact.
Despite broad sympathy at the United Nations general assembly for Ukraine’s plight in the face of the Russian invasion, there has been irritation among developing countries that the focus on the conflict has crowded out discussion and action on parallel food and climate crises that threaten mass displacement and starvation in the global south.
Ukraine has pressed for more resolutions condemning Russia in the security council and general assembly, but Kyiv’s western backers have warned of the risk that the diminishing numbers supporting such resolutions might become the story.
“There has been an ebb and flow of interest and engagement from countries not directly affected by Ukraine and so we’ve had to work hard to make it clear that we’re talking about those issues that do affect them in their own right,” a European diplomat at the UN said.
On Tuesday, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, will chair a summit on food security, and US officials have also signalled that Washington is ready to talk about the reform of UN institutions, including the security council.
Western member states will seek to use the food security summit to point out the linkages between the Russian invasion and global food shortages.
“Linking the two where appropriate is useful because it stops Ukraine being seen as a European problem that doesn’t really matter,” the European diplomat said.
Russia and the west have been locked in a propaganda battle across Africa over responsibility for the grain shortages caused by the interruption of exports from Ukrainian Black Sea ports.
Lavrov has been touring Africa, portraying Russia as a victim of a western imperialist war while highlighting Russia’s role in backing decolonization movements.
In a parallel move to bolster its support at the general assembly, the US has abandoned its noncommittal position on the reform of UN institutions like the security council to make them more representative.
Speaking about reforming the council, the US assistant secretary for international organization affairs, Michele Sison, said on Friday: “We do not believe the United States should defend an outdated status quo.”
“While we’re clear-eyed about the obstacles to security council reform, we will make a serious call for countries to forge consensus around credible, realistic proposals for the way forward,” Sison said. “To remain credible into the 21st century, the council needs to better reflect global realities and incorporate regional perspectives.”
As there are competing plans for changing the membership of the security council, all of which will be vetoed by Russia and China, the change in US position is unlikely to lead to any concrete reforms. It is aimed primarily at further isolating Moscow and Beijing as guardians of the status quo.