A Russia deeply embroiled in Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II sent its foreign minister to the United Nations Security Council on Monday to extol the virtues of peace and diplomacy. But Western diplomats immediately accused Moscow of hypocrisy.
The spectacle came as Russia approached the end of its month-long presidency of the Council. Intent on taking full advantage of the platform, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov led a day-long session described as focusing on UN Charter enforcement, international rules and multilateralism.
But the meeting also gave Russia a chance to denounce its opponents and try to turn the narrative of the invasion of Ukraine around and view the West as the true aggressor.
“No one allowed the Western minority to speak for all of humanity,” Mr Lavrov said at the Council. “They must be polite and respect all members of the international community.”
For all the theater – the US and European members of the Council emphatically did not send their own foreign ministers – the session made clear the dangers the world faces.
António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, warned that the multilateral global system was “under greater strain than at any time since the United Nations was founded” and warned that tensions between major powers increased the risk of conflict. And Mr. Lavrov himself spoke of the world standing at a “possibly even more dangerous threshold” than it was during the Cold War.
Even as the Russian forces continued their relentless campaign to subjugate Ukraine, Mr. Lavrov delivered a long, sweeping speech to the Council that touched on the West’s aggression over the decades, from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the invasion of Iraq.
But Western diplomats said the aggressor today is clearly Russia.
“This illegal, unprovoked and unnecessary war is in direct contradiction to our most sacred principle: that a war of aggression and territorial conquest is never, ever acceptable,” said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield .
Mrs. Thomas-Greenfield brought to the United Nations Elizabeth Whelan, an American whose brother, Paul Whelan, is imprisoned in Russia. And she demanded the release of another imprisoned American, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.
Richard Gowan, the UN director of the International Crisis Group, a foreign policy think tank based in Brussels, said: “In a sense, everyone got what they wanted today. Lavrov had to show that Russia’s position in the Security Council is assured. Western diplomats had to be rude to Lavrov. So that was a win-win situation for both parties.”
But the real audience Lavrov was trying to reach—and the opportunity presented by the month-long Security Council presidency—may have lay elsewhere.
The West’s attempts to punish Russia for its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine have been only partially successful. Many countries in Asia and Africa, still paying the price of Western colonialism, have refrained from condemning the war. And often caught between competing superpowers, they find great appeal in the topic of the Security Council of the day: multilateralism.
In addition to the Council’s 15 members, more than a dozen Asian and African countries also took part in the debate, calling for a more balanced, less polarized world order that is more aligned with the goals of the United Nations.
Nepal’s ambassador Amrit Bahadur Rai said the topic is urgent for small countries. “We expect the members of the Council, especially the permanent members, to work harder to build a consensus to address the issues facing the world today,” he said.
In welcoming Mr. Lavrov as the leader of the meeting, the Chinese ambassador seemed to be sending a message to the West.
“We oppose the distortion by some countries of the meaning of international law and the imposition of their own will on the international community,” said Ambassador Zhang Jun.
In a long speech that preceded Mr. Lavrov’s remarks, Mr. Guterres mentioned the war only once.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in violation of the United Nations Charter and international law, is causing immense suffering and devastation to the country and its people, and adding to the global economic disruption caused by the Covid-19 outbreak. 19 pandemic,” the secretary-general said. .
Mr Guterres’s apparent circumspection suggested he did not want to risk alienating Mr Lavrov ahead of critical negotiations to renew a deal that would allow much-needed Ukrainian grain trapped by the war to be restocked. be shipped. The grain deal expires on May 18 and the United Nations is concerned that its collapse will have serious consequences for global food security.
Mr Lavrov had a one-on-one meeting with Mr Guterres on Monday afternoon, where the two men discussed the war in Ukraine, the grain deal and the situation in Afghanistan and Syria, according to a UN reading of the meeting.
The presidency of the Security Council rotates among its members. Russia’s is over at the end of the month,
The Kremlin’s opponents could not prevent Russia from taking the presidency, or prevent Mr Lavrov from chairing Monday’s session. They could only try to refute the Moscow story.
Before the meeting, European Union Ambassador to the United Nations, Olof Skoog, made a statement on behalf of the bloc as all 27 ambassadors stood beside him. “By organizing this debate, Russia is trying to portray itself as a defender of the UN Charter and multilateralism,” he said. But, he said, “Everywhere you look, Russia is scorned.”
Mr Lavrov will chair a Council meeting on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians on Tuesday.
Despite all the outcry over Russia holding the presidency, the Security Council has been handling things largely as usual in recent weeks, with backdoor diplomacy and planned events as usual.
The Council discussed two crises this month: the abrupt war in Sudan and the Taliban’s ban on women working, including for UN agencies.
“In either case, Russia is not an outright spoiler,” said Crisis Group analyst Mr Gowan. “Perhaps those crises helped keep Council members in line.”
In a rare show of unity, members of the Security Council issued an official statement condemning the fighting in Sudan and calling for an immediate ceasefire and a return to political dialogue.