In last-minute change of plans, America’s top envoy, Antony Blinken, flew to New York City to attend a long-scheduled United Nations Security Council meeting this morning to speak about the possible war threats to Ukraine. The session, led by Russia, was meant to mark the anniversary of the Minsk agreements to end the war in the Donbas region.
The three agreements, signed in 2014 and in 2015, have never been genuinely carried out by the parties, and the war has left at least 14,000 people dead, according to the UN.
Given the global vitriol over Ukraine and that a Russian deputy foreign minister was presiding over the UN meeting, it turned into a public point-by-point airing of accusations and recriminations that echoed the slightly less angry Council session on Ukraine on Jan. 31. Once again, the dialogue hardly sounded diplomatic, and Blinken suggested war could erupt in days.
Both he and Sergey Vershinin of Russia delivered their messages methodically. Blinken, who arrived 90 minutes into the meeting with a large entourage, detailed what the US says is Russia’s scenario for Ukraine, based on a “manufactured provocation” that would trigger war.
“First, Russia plans to manufacture a pretext for its attack,” Blinken said. The provocation, he added, will incite the government to “issue proclamations declaring that Russia must respond to defend Russian citizens or ethnic Russians in Ukraine.”
“Next, the attack is planned to begin. Russian missiles and bombs will drop across Ukraine. Communications will be jammed,” he added. “Cyberattacks will shut down key Ukrainian institutions. After that, Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans. We believe these targets include Russia’s capital — Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million people.”
The Council debate on the Minsk pacts had been planned by Russia for its presidency this month. It was clear that the Feb. 17 session could become a verbal battleground because of Russia’s having amassed at least 100,000 troops around most of Ukraine’s border in the last few months and as diplomatic efforts by Europeans and the United States to cool down emotions over Ukraine have appeared to forestall what may be inevitable: a bloody mess even this week.
Vershinin’s speech followed Blinken’s. The Russian focused on the Minsk agreements and Ukraine’s seeming dismissal of them, noting that the “main goal” for the meeting was the Security Council’s reaffirming that “there’s no alternative to the pacts.”
“Unfortunately seven years down the road, we are increasingly thinking that the implementation of the Minsk agreements is not something that’s in the plans of our Ukrainian neighbors,” Vershinin said. He cited examples of Ukraine’s unwillingness to carry them out, including quoting a Ukrainian official apparently saying that doing so “means destroying the country.”
“Another excuse that we hear,” Vershinin went on, “is that Russia is not implementing some of its obligations in Minsk agreements. And it is very possible that this is something that we’ll also hear today. At the same time, it’s obvious that there are absolutely no grounds for that, because there is no mention of Russia in the text of the Minsk agreements.” (Russia is a signatory to them.)
Vershinin’s entourage amounted to about four people, unlike Blinken’s dozen or so. A politician who was educated at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Vershinin led a Council meeting on Feb. 16 as well and was seen eating lunch with other Russian delegates in the UN cafeteria that day. He spoke to reporters at length after the Council debate on Ukraine, whereas Blinken raced out of the meeting, bypassing the media thronged outside the chamber.
As for a “baseless accusation” that Russia “allegedly was going to attack Ukraine,” he concluded in his Council speech, “I think we’ve had enough speculation on that. . . . We have long ago clarified everything and explained everything. And the announced date of the so-called invasion is behind us.”
Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, Sergiy Kyslytsya, also spoke in the Council, as did all of its members and other countries.
“On this day, 7 years ago, the Ukrainian city of Debaltseve sustained a full-fledged offensive by the Russian regular troops and their proxies,” Kyslytsya began, refuting Russia’s claims. “Heavy artillery and rocket shellings did not spare neither Ukrainian military, nor civilians. . . . This happened despite the Minsk Package of Measures was signed a week earlier and its first provision contained commitment to comprehensive ceasefire.
This is just one example of how Russia violated the agreements almost immediately after signing them.”
The UN’s head of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, an American, delivered remarks virtually from the Munich Security Conference. UN Secretary-General António Guterres was on his way to the conference, where he will speak on Feb. 18. Officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation for Europe also spoke virtually at the Council meeting, updating the members on the group’s special monitoring mission, or SMM, for Ukraine. They acknowledged the artillery shelling that took place earlier in the day on the front lines of the war in eastern Ukraine.
Blinken’s showing up at the Council was announced by Linda Thomas-Greenfield to her fellow Council members right before the meeting. He was on his way to the Munich conference but diverted his plans for a short stop in New York City, the US mission to the UN said.
“Overnight, after a series of conversations with the White House, the National Security Council, and the State Department, I asked Secretary Blinken to come speak directly to the UN Security Council on his way to Munich about the serious situation in Ukraine,” Thomas-Greenfield said in a statement. “Our goal is to convey the gravity of the situation. The evidence on the ground is that Russia is moving toward an imminent invasion. This is a crucial moment. This morning’s Council meeting should not distract us from that fact — it should focus on what is happening right now in Ukraine.”
Blinken also mentioned the Minsk pacts in his remarks. “These agreements, which were negotiated in 2014 and 2015 and signed by Russia, remain the basis for the peace process to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine,” he said. “This council’s primary responsibility — the very reason for its creation — is the preservation of peace and security. As we meet today, the most immediate threat to peace and security is Russia’s looming aggression against Ukraine.”
Although Blinken’s gesture to continue diplomacy was buried far down in his speech, he said at the end: “The Russian Government can announce today — with no qualification, equivocation, or deflection — that Russia will not invade Ukraine. State it clearly. State it plainly to the world. And then demonstrate it by sending your troops, your tanks, your planes back to their barracks and hangars and sending your diplomats to the negotiating table.
In the coming days, the world will remember that commitment — or the refusal to make it. I yield the floor.”
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.