Biden and Zelensky say Russia must not win: Key takeaways from the U.N. General Assembly

With the world in turmoil, leaders convened in search of common ground.

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With the opening of the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, leaders from across the world convened to take stock of a global order that has not seemed shakier since the coldest days of the Cold War.

The assembly saw speeches by President Biden as well as by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who made his address in person (last year he spoke over video link from Kyiv). Zelensky also spoke to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stands at a podium as he addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City on Tuesday. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., Vassily Nebenzia, was at the second address, in which Zelensky excoriated his nation for its invasion of Ukraine. In response, Nebenzia tried to stop him from speaking. Failing to do so, the Russian ambassador slumped in his seat, staring at his smartphone. It was a childish response, perhaps, but also a reminder that even the grandeur of the U.N.’s headquarters on the East Side of Manhattan can sometimes take on the cliquish feel of a high school cafeteria.

In Tuesday’s remarks, Biden argued that for the world to be fractured into competing alliances would undo the very purpose of the U.N.

“We have to grapple with the challenges that are more connected and more complex,” he said. “We have to make sure we’re delivering for people everywhere, not just somewhere, everywhere.”

But evidence of that fracture was right before his eyes.

Read more on Yahoo News: Unversed in UNGA? Stumped by SDGs? A glossary of U.N. General Assembly meeting lingo, from the Associated Press

A world ‘unhinged’

Zelensky walks with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. The flags of Ukraine and the United Nations are behind them.
Zelensky and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres at U.N. headquarters on Tuesday. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images)

“Our world is becoming unhinged.”

That was how United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres bleakly assessed the state of affairs. And, he added, “we seem incapable of coming together to respond.”

From climate change to artificial intelligence, “existential threats” are on the rise, Guterres said. He pleaded with global leaders, all with interests of their own, to put humanity’s interests above all.

Read more on Yahoo News: Climate takes center stage at U.N. as global temperatures hit record, from Reuters

High-profile no-shows

Chinese President Xi Jinping walks across a stage.
Chinese President Xi Jinping at the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg on Aug. 24. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

Few could have been surprised that Russian President Vladimir Putin, considered a war criminal by much of the West, did not make the journey to New York. His ally President Xi Jinping of China also stayed away, though he participated in the assembly last year.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who recently met with Biden in New Delhi, remained at home as well.

Two other, less expected no-shows were President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the United Kingdom. Both said they had conflicts, and there is no reason to believe that their absence is a sign of a deeper rift.

“For some European leaders right now there is not a lot of political capital in going to big summits, and you need to be seen at home a lot more,” Richard Gowan, U.N. director of the International Crisis Group, told the Associated Press.

Still, it was hard to avoid seeing the empty seats as somehow symbolic.

Read more on Yahoo News: Everything you need to know about this year’s meeting of leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, from the Associated Press

Biden warns that Russia must not win

President Biden stands at a podium at the U.N.
President Biden addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. (Susan Walsh/AP)

It was Biden who, in early 2022, helped forge an international alliance to help Ukraine defend itself against the invasion Russia launched that February. Support for Ukraine has held, but it has also shown signs of fraying.

Speaking on Tuesday, the American president said that if Ukraine were abandoned by allies, and Russia allowed to formalize claims on land it has conquered and annexed, a dangerous new geopolitical chapter would begin.

“If we allow Ukraine to be carved up,” he wondered, “is the independence of any nation secure?”

Read more on Yahoo News: Biden makes impassioned plea at U.N., warning what could happen if world abandons Ukraine, from USA Today

Zelensky comes to New York

Zelensky stands at a podium at the U.N.
Zelensky speaks at the General Assembly on Tuesday. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

Zelensky made his second trip to the United States in order to attend the assembly. On Thursday he will meet with American lawmakers in Washington.

A surprisingly savvy politician (he was an actor and producer before running for the presidency, and winning the post, in 2019), he grasps that his demands have exhausted world leaders, who have their own domestic concerns.

At the same time, he cannot allow their support for Ukraine to flag, or for Russia to reestablish relations that were severed when the invasion was first launched. So he pressed his case with the urgency of a leader under siege. And, like Biden, he made the case that failing to stop Russia would embolden other despots.

“Weaponization must be restrained. War crimes must be punished. Deported people must come back home. And the occupier must return to their own land. We must be united to make it,” Zelensky said on Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday, he spoke to the Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member. He lamented that reality, calling on Russia to be stripped of its veto power.

“It is impossible to stop the war because all actions are vetoed by the aggressor,” he said.

Read more on Yahoo News: President Zelensky visits Ukrainian soldiers in New York hospital, from the Kyiv Independent

Meetings, meetings, meetings

President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet onstage at the General Assembly.
President Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the General Assembly on Wednesday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On Wednesday morning, Biden met with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. The two have known each other for years but have not met since Netanyahu returned to the post in December 2022 as the leader of a far-right coalition.

Since then, Netanyahu has unveiled a series of highly unpopular judicial reforms supported by religious conservatives and West Bank settlers. He has also effectively sanctioned escalating violence.

The White House said in a statement that Biden “emphasized the need to take immediate measures to improve the security and economic situation, maintain the viability of a two-state solution, and promote a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

He also encouraged Netanyahu to work with him on what would be a historic security agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

His invitation for Netanyahu to visit Washington later this year appeared to be something of an enticement.

Later, Biden — who is intent on showing that, even at 80, he has the energy of his younger peers — sat down with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. He said the United States and Brazil would work together to stem the climate catastrophe.

Biden is also to sit with leaders of “the Stans,” as the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are known. All are in a crucial swath of Central Asia that acts as a kind of buffer between Russia and China, making any alliances there potentially crucial for the United States as tensions with China escalate.

Read more on Yahoo News: Biden set for busy week of foreign policy, including talks with Brazil, Israel and Ukraine leaders, from the Associated Press