Biden added, “If nations can pursue their imperial ambitions without consequences, now we put at risk everything.”
Biden’s comments amounted to an unusually blunt condemnation of a prominent U.N. member at the first in-person meeting of the General Assembly in three years, as dozens of heads of state looked on. Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with Chinese President Xi Jinping, stayed away from the gathering.
The U.N. meeting is unfolding this week against a backdrop of intensifying crisis in Ukraine, as Putin on Wednesday ordered a partial military mobilization to call up as many as 300,000 reservists, endorsed stage-managed referendums as an apparent precursor to annexing parts of Ukraine, and hinted ominously that he is prepared use nuclear weapons in the region.
“In the face of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Putin warned. “This is not a bluff.” The comment was widely seen as a thinly veiled reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
Biden directly addressed the threat in his speech and called on other countries to stand firm against Russia’s actions, warning that failure to condemn Moscow for violating the U.N. charter would pose a threat to global security. The U.N. charter was adopted at the organization’s founding as an effort to maintain world stability after the devastation of World War II.
“This world should see these outrageous acts for what they are,” Biden said. “Putin claims he had to act because Russia was threatened, but no one threatened Russia, and no one other than Russia sought conflict.”
Biden also called for far-reaching, if vague, changes to the U.N. Security Council. The council has five permanent members with veto power — the United States, China, Britain, France and Russia — and 10 that are elected to two-year terms on a rotating basis.
While Biden stopped short of calling for Russia’s expulsion from the Security Council, he laid out the numerous ways the country had violated the U.N. charter — particularly by attempting to seize a nation’s territory by force. He also called for an increase in both permanent and nonpermanent members of the council, which could have the effect of diluting Russia’s power.
Biden also said council members should refrain from use of the veto “except in rare, extraordinary situations, to ensure that the council remains credible and effective.” Russia is the most frequent user of the veto — in February, it vetoed a resolution calling for its forces to withdraw from Ukraine — but critics say the United States has repeatedly used the veto itself to shield Israel from criticism.
Developing countries have long advocated for reforms to the Security Council, which critics portray as an outdated relic of the mid-20th-century global landscape. For example, they say, it’s not clear why France should be a permanent member but India should not.
With his endorsement of reform, Biden — who cited the need for more representation from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean — may also have been seeking to keep developing nations from abandoning the coalition against Russia, as the war’s global effects hit those nations most severely.
With Russia escalating its aggression and many countries facing a potentially difficult winter of soaring fuel costs, the global alliance that has stood against Russia with notable unanimity is likely to come under its most severe strain yet in coming months.
Biden also addressed the broader global struggle between democracy and autocracy — a frequent topic of focus for him — and touched on food insecurity, climate change, public health and other topics. The president has emphasized the battle between pro- and anti-democratic forces at home as well, warning that “MAGA Republicans” who reject legitimate election results pose an existential threat to American democracy, referring to the “Make America great again” slogan of former president Donald Trump.
“The United States is determined to defend and strengthen democracy at home and around the world, because I believe democracy remains humanity’s greatest instrument to address the challenges of our time,” Biden said Wednesday. “Democracies can deliver for their citizens, but also deliver for the rest of the world, as well.”
Biden’s confrontation with Russia will continue into Thursday, when his top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, faces off with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a U.N. Security Council meeting that will focus on war crimes and violations of international law in the Ukraine conflict.
Lavrov’s decision to attend the meeting surprised some U.S. officials, who had expected Moscow to stay away from a gathering designed to condemn Russia’s plans to hold staged referendums and annex occupied territories in Ukraine. If Russia does annex the enclaves of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, U.S. strategists fear Moscow would then portray any Ukrainian military action in the vicinity as a direct attack on Russian territory, justifying an escalated response.
Thursday’s Security Council meeting comes amid fresh allegations that Russian forces have committed atrocities in the previously occupied city of Izyum, where mass graves have been discovered and residents have recounted torture, killings and forced disappearances.
The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, and U.N. Secretary General António Guterres are expected to attend the session, as well, making it potentially one of the highest-profile confrontations between Russian officials and their critics since the war began in February.
“We expect that a number of other permanent and rotating Security Council members will be there to discuss the challenges that have been posed by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and also war crimes and accountability,” said a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.
Russia has denied committing any atrocities, and in turn has accused Ukraine of targeting Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the country’s east.
Biden also spent a considerable part of his speech on U.S. attempts to lead multilateral efforts to solve global problems, including climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.
And he said he wanted to be “direct” about the competition between the United States and China. “As we manage shifting geopolitical trends, the United States will conduct itself as a reasonable leader,” Biden said. “We do not seek conflict. We do not seek a Cold War.”
He stressed that Washington would not ask smaller countries to choose between the United States and Russia or China, but some national leaders voiced frustration about the intensifying great-powers competition and said it added to the problems they face. Many developing countries in Africa and Latin America, for instance, resent the U.S. push to condemn Moscow while they bear the brunt of rising food and energy prices stemming from the war on Ukraine.
Biden sought to address some of those concerns Wednesday by announcing $2.9 billion in new assistance to address global food insecurity, citing a multiyear drought in the Horn of Africa that has created a humanitarian emergency and put parts of Somalia at risk of famine.
The president condemned Russia for “pumping out lies” about the causes of global food shortages by trying to blame the crisis on sanctions imposed on it following the invasion of Ukraine. U.S. sanctions allow Russia to export food and fertilizer, and a deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations to end Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports in July has helped ease global food and grain shortages and created vital silo space for Ukrainian farmers’ next harvest.
“In every country in the world, no matter what else divides us, if parents cannot feed their children, nothing — nothing else matters,” Biden said.
The president also heralded U.S. investments in climate change, which other world leaders had addressed in their own speeches over the previous two days, especially those from countries that remain especially susceptible to extreme weather driven by a warming planet.
After his speech on Wednesday, Biden met with Guterres, and the two discussed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its impact on the international community, as well as multilateral efforts to address the climate crisis and food security crisis, according to a White House statement.
Biden also met with British Prime Minister Liz Truss, who ascended to the country’s leadership after the recent departure of Boris Johnson. Biden expressed his condolences on the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the White House said. Biden also met with French President Emmanuel Macron later Wednesday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also spoke Wednesday, unveiling a plan to end the war. The five-point proposal urged world powers to punish Russia and surge military aid to Kyiv in an effort to force Kremlin forces out of Ukraine.
“Russia wants war, it’s true, but Russia will not be able to stop the course of history,” he said.
Zelensky’s remarks earned a rare standing ovation from the assembly, which earlier had voted to allow him to address the body remotely, a privilege denied other world leaders. The Russian delegate remained seated, as did delegations from countries such as Namibia and the United Arab Emirates.
Other leaders joined Biden in condemning Russia’s ongoing invasion and recent escalation. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters that Russia’s referendums and mobilization were an “act of desperation,” adding, “Russia cannot win this criminal war.”
Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, said Putin was clearly threatening to use nuclear arms. “What Putin said was, he’s ready to use all arms at his disposal,” Borrell told reporters at the United Nations. “When someone says ‘all arms’ … he implicitly also means nuclear arms.”
“That is something the international community cannot accept,” he said, adding that the United Nations “this week will have to react.”
In his speech, Biden said Putin “has made overt nuclear threats against Europe and [shown] a reckless disregard for the responsibilities of the nonproliferation regime.”
Borrell said he had called an emergency meeting of foreign ministers of the European Union’s member states who are attending the General Assembly. He said he expects to issue the bloc’s response to Putin’s threat at Thursday’s U.N. Security Council meeting on Ukraine.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.