In a surprising move, President Volodymr Zelensky of Ukraine showed up at the United Nations Security Council by videoconference on Tuesday, rallying the 15 members to pay attention to him, saying: “Dear Ladies and Gentlemen! Dear members of the UN Security Council who respect and adhere to the UN Charter! Dear representatives of states and leaders who are listening to me now!”
But he soon became graphic, warning the diplomats that although Russia may still observe Council rules and “so far” has not used “weapons” in the chamber to “knock their neighbors’ seats out,” that “surely no one will be surprised if this hall of the UN Security Council is also turned into a zone of violence by representatives of Russia.”
Zelensky’s remote presentation centered mostly on Russia’s recently held referendums in four territories its troops occupy in Ukraine: Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The exercise is an attempted annexation of those provinces into Russia. Yet Zelensky’s participation by videoconference irked Russia’s UN envoy enough for him to object letting the president do so on a technicality. The session went ahead as planned.
Once again in a Council meeting on Ukraine this year, members voiced concerns over Russia’s war in Ukraine. Yet in the Sept. 27 session, Western and a few other members expressed alarm if not outrage over the forced referendums that were just carried out in occupied Ukraine and, relatedly, Russia’s continued violations of the UN Charter.
Tuesday’s meeting occurred as Russia’s invasion of Feb. 24 has taken a more complex turn from the battlefield. As Ukraine has reclaimed areas in the north (Kharkiv) and south (Kherson), the referendums were held in the east and south. Conducted from Sept. 23 to 27, they were foisted on Ukrainian civilians, some of whom voted under watch by armed Russian soldiers wearing balaclavas. The referendums are considered illegal under international law, a fact that numerous Council members repeatedly pointed out. Ukraine and its Western allies are labeling the referendums a “sham.”
On breaching the founding document of the world body, Zelensky said on Tuesday: “Russia already despises the UN Charter. Russia already breaks any rules of this world. So it’s only a matter of time before it destroys this last international institution that can still act. It can!”
Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s UN envoy, said that the referendums were held “on joining Russia” and that they were done in “exceptional transparency, in compliance with all electoral norms” and that 100 “independent observers” from 40 nations watched their “progress.”
“Their official results will be summed up in the coming days,” he added. “This is a long-awaited event for the inhabitants of Donbas, which should bring peace to their lands.” He also noted that Russia would hold referendums in other areas of Ukraine, without specifying where. (A similar referendum was held in Crimea, after Russia invaded the Ukrainian territory in 2014.)
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, America’s envoy to the UN, said of the voting: “Putin intends to commit an act which the UN Charter was expressly designed to prevent: An attempt by one UN Member State to take the territory of another by force. We know this will happen because it follows a well-worn Kremlin playbook. Russia runs sham referenda, in areas controlled by Russia’s military and its proxies, coercing people to ‘vote’ at gunpoint. It then uses these referenda to try to lend a semblance of legitimacy to its attempted annexations of another sovereign state’s territory. The rush for Russia to institute and complete these attempted annexations destroy even the façade of legitimacy.”
As Ukraine “successfully regains control over more of its territory that was wrongfully seized by Russia and more of Russia’s atrocities are uncovered,” Thomas-Greenfield went on, “Russia is rushing to draw a veil over its military losses and the war crimes it has committed.”
The US and Albania are pushing the Council to vote on a draft resolution condemning the referendums, but it will meet the ultimate wall: Russia’s veto.
Ireland’s envoy, Fergal Mythen, summed up the referendums as a “blatant land grab.” Whereas Albania, a neighbor of Ukraine in Eastern Europe, noted ironically that the voting results — which he described as preordained by Moscow — “will reveal that residents would love to be ruled by the invading power: Russia.” Mexico took umbrage at Russia’s actions more delicately, citing a General Assembly resolution (1514) saying that any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the unity of a country . . . “is incompatible with the UN Charter.”
Kenya’s Ambassador Martin Kimani noted that an “annexation” violates the UN Charter and that Russia needs to “heed this truth.”
Rosemary DiCarlo, who runs the UN’s Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, clarified that the referendums were held outside Ukraine’s legal and constitutional framework, so they “cannot be called a genuine expression of the political will,” she said. (The UN spokesperson said earlier in the day that it had no plans to be involved in verifying results of the referendum.)
The Council met last week on Russia’s “impunity” in Ukraine. Foreign ministers, present in New York City for the General Assembly’s annual opening session, convened in the Council to discuss the current state of the Ukraine war. Yet Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, slipped in and out of the room to deliver his remarks and otherwise left his seat to a deputy. (The Sept. 22 meeting was led by France as the rotating presidency of the Council this month and was chaired by its foreign minister, Catherine Colonna.)
In a further twist of President Vladimir Putin’s latest gamble, his country is conscripting civilians in the occupied regions of Ukraine to join the fight with Russian troops. Human Rights Watch called such action a “grave violation” of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime. The organization also said that Russia has been conscripting civilians in Crimea to fight their fellow Ukrainians in the war.
Amid the growing complexities of Putin’s war, he has ordered a “partial mobilization” of up to 300,000 conscripts in Russia to send to the front lines in Ukraine, triggering outflows of Russians from their country to such neighbors as Georgia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. The order, issued on Sept. 21, was followed three days later by Putin’s signing into law amendments strengthening penalties for voluntary surrender to an adversary, desertion or refusing to fight.
On Saturday, Sept. 24, at the UN, Lavrov waved off comments from Washington, London, Brussels and other Western capitals regarding the referendums in Ukraine, telling journalists that the “hysterics we are witnessing are highly indicative.” Calling the voting “democratic processes,” he said that the procedures “are being held by decision of local governments” and that based on the results, “Russia will respect the will expressed by the people who have suffered for years from the neo-Nazi regime’s atrocities.”
He was not asked questions about the newly released report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, which found that war crimes — including rape — have been committed by Russian troops in Ukraine.
Which leads back to Zelensky’s rallying cry to the Council on Sept. 27, as if he were right in the room and not an Ozlike image on a huge screen.
“I want everyone to understand this,” he concluded. “Russia’s recognition of these sham referenda as allegedly normal, implementation of the so-called ‘Crimean scenario’ and another attempt to annex the territory of Ukraine will mean that there is nothing to talk about with this President of Russia. Annexation is the kind of move that pits him alone against the whole of humanity.”
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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.