Zelenskyy: Our peril is yours

Ukraine just first battle, he tells U.N.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

UNITED NATIONS -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday that Russia is "weaponizing" everything from food and energy to abducted children in its war against Ukraine -- and he warned world leaders that the same could happen to them.

"When hatred is weaponized against one nation, it never stops there," he said at the U.N. General Assembly's annual top-level meeting. "The goal of the present war against Ukraine is to turn our land, our people, our lives, our resources into weapons against you -- against the international rules-based order."

Even as he embarked on his mission to confront skeptical voices, Zelenskyy received a warm welcome inside the grand U.N. chamber. But in a possible sign of the challenges he faces, he delivered his address to a half-full house, with many delegations declining to appear and listen to what he had to say.

"Mass destruction is gaining momentum," Zelenskyy said. "The aggressor is weaponizing many other things and those things are used not only against our country, but against all of yours as well, fellow leaders."

The war in Ukraine has deepened major global supply disruptions caused by the covid pandemic, driving a huge spike in food and energy prices, jolting the global economy and increasing hardship in many developing countries.

Decades-old energy supply channels to Europe from Russia, a major oil and gas producer, were halted or severely disrupted by the war because of sanctions, trade disputes, pipeline shutoffs and a major push by Western countries to find alternative sources. Russia and Ukraine also are major grain exporters, and Russia withdrew this past summer from a deal that allowed shipments of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea.


Zelenskyy pointed to the food and fuel crunches, and he highlighted what Ukraine says were kidnappings of tens of thousands of children taken from Ukraine after Moscow's invasion: "What will happen to them?"

"Those children in Russia are taught to hate Ukraine, and all ties with their families are broken. And this is clearly a genocide," Zelenskyy said in remarks that ran 15 minutes -- the meeting's often-disregarded time limit.

Over the course of his speech, Zelenskyy warned wavering leaders not to trust Russia, which he said has sought to exploit divisions with propaganda campaigns across Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia.

"Evil cannot be trusted. Ask [Yevgeniy] Prigozhin if one bets on Putin's promises," Zelenskyy said, referencing the former leader of the Wagner mercenary group, who died last month when his plane exploded after it departed a Moscow airport, in an incident Western nations have blamed on the Kremlin.

Zelenskyy sought to connect global food shortages and rising energy prices to Russia's aggression against his country, drawing a link between the conflict and some of the problems that leaders of less-wealthy nations say are being ignored as the United States and Europe focus on dealing with the conflict.

And he said that at a moment when global warming is causing drought, extreme weather and human destruction, humanity could scarcely deal with a bloody war of choice on top of it all.

"Extreme weather will still impact normal global life and some evil state will also weaponize its outcomes," Zelenskyy said. "A natural disaster in Moscow decided to launch a big war and killed tens of thousands of people. We have to stop it." He declared that respect for the rule of law and the U.N. Charter was important to all nations, not just his own.

TRICKY MOMENT

Tuesday marked the Ukrainian leader's first in-person trip to the United Nations since the war started in February 2022. At last year's General Assembly, he delivered remarks from Ukraine by video link. At the time, Ukrainian troops were engaged in a lightning-quick operation that ousted Russian troops from the northeast Kharkiv region. He visited Washington in December, riding off that success after recapturing significant portions of the territory that Russia had taken early in its invasion.

This moment is trickier, after Ukrainian troops pressing a counteroffensive for months have not made the major advances Kyiv and its backers had hoped for. Still, Ukraine has shown its clear ability to hold back Russia and prevent major advances along the front lines. Instead, the war has evolved into a grinding battle of trenches, minefields and artillery and rocket volleys.

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant in March for Russian President Vladimir Putin and another official, accusing them of abducting children from Ukraine. Russian officials have denied any forced transfers of children, saying some Ukrainian youngsters are in foster care.

Russia gets its chance to address the General Assembly on Saturday. Deputy U.N. Ambassador Dmitry Polyansky sat in Russia's seat during Zelenskyy's address.

"Did he speak?" Polyansky said with a wry smile when an Associated Press reporter asked about his reaction to the address. "I didn't notice he was speaking. I was on my phone."

Zelenskyy took to the world stage at a sensitive point in his country's campaign to maintain international support for its fight. Nearly 19 months after Moscow launched a full-scale invasion, Ukrainian forces are three months into a counteroffensive that has not gone as fast or as well as initially hoped.

Ukraine and its allies cast the country's cause as a battle for the rule of international law, for the sovereignty of every country with a powerful and potentially expansionist neighbor and for the stability of global food and energy supplies.

Russia insists that its war is justified, claiming it is defending Russian speakers in Ukraine from a hostile government, protecting Russian interests against NATO encroachment and more.

The war has raged longer and losses have been greater than Russia hoped, and the fighting has spurred widespread international condemnation against Moscow.

But the Kremlin also has influential friends that haven't joined the chorus of censure: China and India, for instance, have staked out neutral positions. So have many Middle Eastern and African nations. Many Latin American and Caribbean countries prefer to focus world attention on other global issues, including climate change and conflict in Africa.

Moscow is keen to display its global influence and its relationship with China and insists that it cannot be internationally isolated by the U.S. and its European allies.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is concerned that backing from its allies may be ebbing. They have supplied billions of dollars worth of arms but fear that their stockpiles are shrinking and that defense contractors are struggling to boost production lines.

$24B MORE?

The U.S. Congress is weighing Biden's request to provide as much as $24 billion more in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine amid a growing partisan divide over spending on the conflict. Zelenskyy is scheduled to spend time Thursday on Capitol Hill and to meet with Biden at the White House.

Zelenskyy is slated to meet with Senate leadership, according to Senate aides, and will also deliver a speech "off-campus that some folks have been invited to," said Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., who chairs the House Democratic Caucus.

The most critical target for Zelenskyy's persuasion would be U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., whose sign-off is necessary to bring supplemental Ukraine funding to a floor vote, but who is in the midst of a battle to hold onto his speakership amid mounting pressure from the hard-right wing of his party.

Asked whether he would commit to the Ukrainian leader to funding more aid, McCarthy told reporters: "Is Zelenskyy elected to Congress? Is he our president? I don't think I have to commit anything. I have questions for him: Where's the accountability in the money we've already spent? What is the plan for victory? I think that's what the American public wants to know."

Zelenskyy's Ukrainian allies said they were depending on his oratory to change minds during his U.S. visit.

"I've seen him at numerous international events and meetings, and I know he has a type of superpower, the capacity to really persuade people in person," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement to The Washington Post. Kuleba accompanied Zelenskyy to New York.

"We are now at a critical juncture in time as Ukraine continues to advance on the battlefield," Kuleba said, "and it is critical to sustain and strengthen worldwide support for Ukraine."

After landing Monday in New York, Zelenskyy suggested that the U.N. needs to answer for allowing his country's invader a seat at the tables of power.

If there is still "a place for Russian terrorists" in the United Nations, "it's a question to all the members of the United Nations," Zelenskyy said after visiting wounded Ukrainian service members at Staten Island University Hospital.

Russia is a permanent, veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, which is entrusted with maintaining international peace and security.

Zelenskyy took the United Nations to task even before the war. In one memorable example, he lamented at the General Assembly in 2021 that the U.N. was "a retired superhero who's long forgotten how great they once were."

A former comedian and actor who took office in 2019, Zelenskyy later became a wartime leader, wearing military fatigues, rallying citizens at home and appearing virtually and in person before numerous international bodies.

At the Staten Island hospital, he awarded medals to military members who had lost limbs. With help from a New Jersey-based charity called Kind Deeds, 18 troops have been fitted for prostheses and are undergoing outpatient physical therapy, hospital leaders said.

"We all will be waiting for you back home," Zelenskyy told those he met. "We absolutely need every one of you."

Information for this article was contributed by Jennifer Peltz, Derek Gatopoulos and Edith M. Lederer of The Associated Press and by Michael Birnbaum, David L. Stern, Serhiy Morgunov, Abigail Hauslohner, Isabelle Khurshudyan, Kostiantyn Khudov and Missy Ryan of The Washington Post.

  photo  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stops to acknowledge the audience applause after he address the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023 at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
 
 
  photo  Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023 at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
 
 
  photo  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, visits with wounded Ukrainian soldiers at Staten Island University Hospital, in New York, Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston, Pool)
 
 
  photo  Dmitry Polyansky, top right, Russia's Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, doesn't look up as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, bottom left, addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
 
 
  photo  Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023 at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
 
 
  photo  Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023 at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
 
 
  photo  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, visits with wounded Ukrainian soldiers at Staten Island University Hospital, in New York, Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston, Pool)
 
 
  photo  Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023 at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
 
 
  photo  Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023 at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)