Ukraine war dominates annual U.N. General Assembly debate

The top official at the United Nations warned Tuesday that mounting tensions — spurred on by the war in Ukraine and climate change pressures — have created a moment of “colossal global dysfunction” amid multiplying crises facing humanity.

The alarming assessment by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres came in remarks opening the annual U.N. General Assembly gathering in New York, where rhetorical fireworks are expected to fly Wednesday when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov address the world body. 

President Biden is also among the world leaders set to speak before the gathering Wednesday. White House officials say he plans to sharply rebuke Russia for its nearly 7-month-old invasion and call on world leaders to ramp up pressure on Moscow. 

A separate anticipated speech will come Wednesday from Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. He is likely to criticize the U.S. for refusing to yield to Tehran’s demands in troubled talks aimed at reviving the Obama-era nuclear deal among the Islamic republic, the U.S., China, Russia and the European Union. 

Unease over the Ukraine war, Iran’s nuclear program, China-Taiwan tensions and other controversies loomed over the first day of leaders’ speeches on Tuesday, with Mr. Guterres warning that geopolitical divisions are “undermining the work” of the U.N. Security Council. 

“The international community is not ready or willing to tackle the big dramatic challenges of our age,” Mr. Guterres said. “These crises threaten the future of humanity and the fate of our planet — crises like the war in Ukraine and the multiplication of conflicts around the globe, crises like the climate emergency and biodiversity loss … [and] crises like the dire financial situation of developing countries.” 

Division among world powers is “undermining international law, undermining trust and people’s faith in democratic institutions [and] undermining all forms of international cooperation,” the general secretary said. “We cannot go on like this.” 

His remarks set a sober tone for the gathering in New York City, where leaders and top diplomats from more than two dozen countries spoke Tuesday, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Mr. Macron ripped into Russia during his remarks, warning that the Ukraine invasion amounted to modern-day imperialism that has divided the world. “Those who remain silent today,” said Mr. Macron, “are serving the cause of a new imperialism, a contemporary cynicism that is destroying the world order.” 

“When I hear Russia saying it’s ready for new cooperation and a new international order without hegemony, that’s a tall story,” the French president added. “On the basis of what? Invading your neighbor? Non-respect of borders you don’t like? What’s this order? Who is hegemonic today? Russia.” 

Mr. Erdogan offered a notably more neutral address. The Turkish president, who has emerged as a key player and mediator in the conflict, steered clear of explicitly criticizing either side. 

As a NATO member, Turkey has supplied Ukraine with lethal drones targeting Russian troops, but Mr. Erdogan has also met multiple times with Russian President Vladimir Putin and recently worked alongside U.N. officials to broker a deal securing the safe passage of Ukrainian grains exports through the Black Sea. 

The Turkish president called Tuesday for the United Nations Security Council to be more inclusive. “The world is greater than five,” he said, referring to the council’s five permanent members: the U.S., U.K., China, Russia and France. 

Mr. Putin will not be in New York this year to defend himself. He is skipping this year’s General Assembly and Mr. Lavrov will lead Russia’s delegation. 

Mr. Guterres, meanwhile, lamented atrocities that have occurred in Ukraine, as well as “widespread destruction” that Russia’s invasion of its neighbor has unleashed. 

The secretary-general focused more broadly on what he called “a once-in-a-generation global cost-of-living crisis” that’s been “turbocharged by the war in Ukraine.” While he called on the world to “come together” and overcome divisions — citing the recent Ukrainian grain deal as a hopeful sign — Mr. Guterres’ overall message was stark. 

“Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, our world is in big trouble,” he said. “Divides are growing deeper. Inequalities are growing wider, and challenges are spreading farther.” 

“Let’s have no illusions, we are in rough seas,” he added.

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