On the same day that Ukraine marked 31 years of independence from Soviet rule and six months of war with Russia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke by video to the United Nations Security Council about the worldwide impact of Russia’s assault as escalating threats of a nuclear catastrophe at the Zaporizhzhia power plant jeopardize global peace and security.
The “Russian military has turned the territory of the largest nuclear power plant in Europe . . . into a war zone,” Zelensky said to the Council on Aug. 24, while rallying the international community to remain “united” against Russian aggression. “Ukraine’s independence is your security.” The meeting also occurred as Ukraine celebrated its national Independence Day and as Zelensky said a Russian missile attack on a railway station in the Dnipropetrovsk region left at least 15 people dead and about 50 wounded. (AP reports that the death toll has risen to 22.)
Russian troops have seized the Zaporizhzhia plant, which is Europe’s largest such energy provider, since March 4. Shelling near the site — located on the southern edge of the Dnipro River in southeast Ukraine — has alarmed Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who at a UN press briefing on Aug. 3 described the situation as “very volatile” and called on Russia and Ukraine to allow an IAEA technical team to inspect the facility to ensure its safety and security.
Since the start of Russia’s full-fledged incursion on Ukraine, Grossi has repeatedly asked for access to Zaporizhzhia, which now sits in a war zone and is guarded by Russian snipers while Ukrainian staff keep it operating. But coordination between Ukraine and Russia, who blame each other for the shelling, has been stalled for months. Publicly, Russia says it welcomes a visit from the UN agency, but Ukraine has rejected the idea of inspectors accessing the plant from Russian-occupied territory.
Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, told PassBlue this week that Ukraine wants to add military inspectors to the IAEA visit to help determine if Russia is using the plant to store ammunition and other weaponry. (On Aug. 25, some media reported that “safety systems” at the plant were activated after power cuts were reported across swaths of Russian-controlled Ukrainian territory.)
The Security Council scheduled its meeting on Aug. 24 to mark the six-month milestone of the war in Europe, but Russia pre-empted it by holding an emergency session on the nuclear plant the day before — lasting 80 minutes as diplomats sounded alarms over a possible radiation threat from attacks on Zaporizhzhia. Russia has claimed to reporters at the UN that it has been amenable to an IAEA visit since June, but the UN has been wary of the security risks for a team to access the site as fighting seemingly goes on around it. (Grossi said on Aug. 25 that his agency was close to finalizing a plan to access the plant.)
“Today marks a sad and tragic milestone — six months since Russia’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine,” Guterres said in his remarks at the Wednesday session, which lasted 2.5 hours. “The people of Ukraine need peace, and they need it now.” Guterres also noted the relative success of the “landmark” Black Sea grain deal, made possible by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he added, and the “constructive approach” of Russia and Ukraine, despite their war.
The public briefing was held at the request of Albania, Britain, France, Ireland, Norway and the United States, in response to what US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield described as Russia’s “brutal full-scale war against Ukraine,” which has caused “horrific atrocities” and, more recently, incited “grave concerns” over the potential nuclear disaster around Zaporizhzhia.
Before Zelensky’s remarks, his third speech to the Council in the last six months, Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s envoy to the UN, objected to Zelensky appearing virtually. Nebenzia insisted that everyone who participates in a Council session “must be physically present in the Council chamber” as doing so “respects” all 15 member states. As a result, Nebenzia requested a procedural vote that requires a minimum of nine votes to be adopted and cannot be vetoed by the Council’s permanent members, or the P5: Britain, China, France, Russia and the US. Thirteen member states voted in favor of the proposal to have Zelensky speak, while China abstained and Russia objected.
Kyslytsya tweeted about Russia’s request: “Well, russians are notoriously known for being world champions of shooting in the foot; masochistically they asked to put to a vote Ukraine’s request to let @ZelenskyyUa address the Security Council.”
At the meeting, the European permanent and elected members — Britain, Albania, France, Norway and Ireland — predictably condemned Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and called on Moscow to withdraw its forces from the plant to avoid the risk of what Nathalie Broadhurst, the deputy ambassador of France, called “a nuclear accident with potentially devastating effects.”
Additionally, James Kariuki, Britain’s deputy ambassador, added that his country stands with the “heroic people of Ukraine,” while Ambassador Ferit Hoxha reaffirmed Albania’s “unwavering solidarity” and Trine Heimerback, Norway’s deputy ambassador, called on Russia to “immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine.” Yet suggesting specifics on how Russia could leave while saving face and Ukraine not ceding any of its territory were not broached.
Mexico, another elected member, has been taking a rather neutral approach to Russia’s war, but at the sessions this week, the deputy ambassador, Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, made impassioned pleas. He is deeply involved in the 10th review conference of the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty, or NPT, underway at the UN (which ends Aug. 26), and may be keenly aware of possible nuclear disasters.
Gómez Robledo noted that Ukraine, “whose independence we are celebrating today, tomorrow and forever” and that despite the “major diplomatic milestone” of the Black Sea grain deal, called Russia’s “invasion of a sovereign country” a “flagrant violation of Article 2.4 of the United Nations Charter” and reaffirmed Mexico’s support for “Ukraine’s independence.”
“Any territorial acquisition resulting from the illegal use of force is null and void,” he added. Yet the word “Russia” was not evoked.
However, other Council members — including the United Arab Emirates, Gabon, Ghana, Brazil and India — remained neutral in their remarks and avoided mentioning Russia directly as well. Instead, they stressed the need for “all parties” and “both sides” of the war to avoid actions that would risk a “nuclear catastrophe.” China’s ambassador, Zhang Jun, who is also rotating president of the Council for August, asked whether the body has “found the right direction” and “made earnest efforts” to ease “the situation” in Ukraine.
India’s new ambassador to the UN, Ruchira Kamboj, described her country’s medical offerings to Ukraine, saying, “As we meet today to mark six months since the beginning of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, India has just dispatched its twelfth consignment of humanitarian aid to Ukraine; consisting of 26 types of medicines, including ‘hemostatic bandages’ meant to stem bleeding of deep wounds in children and adults. This was a specific request by the Ukrainian side and we made sure that we reacted in the fastest possible time to meet this.”
Kenya, which has been the most outspoken of the three African elected members of the Council against the war, said, without referencing Russia, “We see in Ukraine’s war a grim warning that we too may be engulfed by the competitions and confrontations that are contributing to its ferocity.”
Martin Kimani, Kenya’s envoy, continued: “That is why we believe that Ukraine’s immediate fate is so important to the world. Ukraine deserves the same freedom and independence that we enjoy. It is a member of our United Nations in good standing.”
In her briefing, Rosemary DiCarlo, the head of the UN’s Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, focused on the continuing humanitarian damage to Ukraine during Russia’s onslaught, which the UN says is violating international humanitarian laws.
“Civilians are paying a heavy price in this war,” DiCarlo said. “During the past 181 days, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has recorded 13,560 civilian casualties: 5,614 killed and 7,946 injured in Ukraine.” Her numbers, she added, were “based on verified incidents” but that “actual numbers are considerably higher.”
DiCarlo warned that the months ahead — if the war lasts — could bode an even bleaker season ahead. “As winter approaches, the destruction caused by war, combined with the lack of access to fuel or electricity due to damaged infrastructure, could become a matter of life or death if people are unable to heat their homes,” she said. “An estimated 1.7 million people are already in need of urgent assistance with heating . . . and winterizations as temperatures in parts [of Ukraine] are expected to decline to -20 degrees Celsius,” or minus-4 Fahrenheit.
Nebenzia ceded ground to the deadly reality in Ukraine. “No one is arguing that it is difficult for [Ukrainian civilians] today,” he said, but it’s the responsibility, he added, of the “Kyiv regime” whose “Western sponsors” instead of “condemning their Ukrainian mentees” supply them with “more weapons.”
“We had no choice but to launch a special military operation to de-Nazify and demilitarize Ukraine,” Nebenzia added, the goals of which he described as being “steadily fulfilled.”
Thomas-Greenfield of the US reiterated comments that she has made in the last six months, saying that Russia “wants to destroy Ukraine, its culture, its people, its very existence.” It’s “Russia alone” who can bring “a swift resolution to this crisis.” (President Biden said on Aug. 24 that the US would deliver nearly $3 billion worth of more arms and equipment to Ukraine, its largest-single provision of military aid since Russia’s attack began six months ago.)
Zelensky also repeated Russia’s violations of the Geneva Conventions, saying: “There is no such war crime that the Russian occupiers have not yet committed on the territory of Ukraine. But if Russia is not stopped now, and in Ukraine, if it’s not stopped by winter . . . all these Russian murderers will probably end up in other countries, Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America.”
Yet after the hours of articulate, forceful speeches by the 15 members and Zelensky, the war shows no signs of let-up. After the meeting, dozens of UN ambassadors gathered around Kyslytsya, who read a long joint statement to reporters marking the six-month toll and his country’s independence day, a moment of both celebration and despair.
As the diplomats were told by photographers to move in more closely to one another for better picture results, Kyslytsya said, “It’s a very good thing that there are so many of us that we need to squeeze; however, we will not squeeze. We will expand in support of Ukraine, believe me.”
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