World leaders gathered at the United Nations on Tuesday for the opening sessions of the body’s annual General Assembly, held in person for the first time in three years, but with the twin crises of war in Ukraine and famine in Africa weighing heavily on the meeting.
President Biden, who addresses the assembly on Wednesday, and his diplomatic team are working to build unity among allies to continue arming and supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion. With winter approaching and fuel prices rising, US officials fear some European countries may be tempted to cut back on their support.
The war has affected gas supplies, but has done even more damage to the export of millions of tons of grain, fertilizer and cooking oil, exacerbating famine and food shortages in many parts of the world, but especially in Africa. As a result, some African governments have refused to join Western efforts to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Biden administration hopes to offer them reassurance.
But those options are elusive. The US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, insisted that the sessions, which take place over two weeks, will not be dominated by Ukraine, but also acknowledged that the war has triggered a “crisis of confidence”. for the UN
“Certainly other countries have raised concerns that we haven’t, because we’re focused on Ukraine, we’re not paying attention to what’s going on in other crises around the world,” he said. “We know that while this horrible war is raging in Ukraine, we cannot ignore the rest of the world.”
Another senior State Department official later said that countries in the global South were, in fact, receptive to US efforts, especially in renewing grain exports from Ukraine.
“They see us meeting them where they are,” the official said, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss internal talks. “Everyone, not just Europe and Ukraine, is paying the price for this war, especially the global South.”
However, the goal of shifting focus beyond Ukraine was made even more difficult on Tuesday when Russian-backed separatists announced plans to go ahead with referendums in the regions of Ukraine they occupy. Western officials have called the vote a sham that separatists would use to falsely claim that the regions (Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia) should be part of Russia and that residents support the idea.
Biden is expected to be a roundabout critic of that and other aspects of what the administration calls Putin’s escalation. There are concerns that Putin could launch a large-scale mobilization of Russian troops that would significantly escalate the fighting, just as Ukrainian forces have made significant progress in retaking some of their territory.
“The United States will never acknowledge Russia’s claims to allegedly annex parts of Ukraine,” said Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser. “And we will never recognize this territory as anything other than part of Ukraine. We unequivocally reject Russia’s actions.”
Other world leaders who attended the General Assembly, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, joined in the condemnation. Putin is not present and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is the only official who will be allowed to address the assembly remotely by video. The last two General Assemblies were virtual or partially virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic coupled with climate change were already depleting agricultural production and food supplies in many parts of the world. Then Russia’s invasion on February 24 cut off shipping from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, plunging more regions into severe food insecurity. The World Food Program estimates that at least 160 million people face possible starvation, mostly in the global South.
The UN brokered a deal with Russia that freed up grain shipments, and senior State Department officials said the amount of exports is approaching pre-invasion levels. About half of the exports go to the global South, the officials said.
“It’s been a real life-saving mechanism,” said one of the officials.
Meanwhile, the US effort to bolster support for Ukraine received good news from Britain. Prime Minister Liz Truss said her government would match or exceed the record amount of military aid it has committed to Ukraine this year, some $2.6 billion.
But the general mood at this year’s General Assembly was gloomy.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres summed it up, citing myriad conflicts beyond Ukraine: financial crisis and poverty in much of the world and lack of education for children, along with climate and health emergencies and the prospect of famine. . Behind it all is the inability of world leaders, including the UN, to resolve the problems.
“The divergence between developed and developing countries, between North and South, between the privileged and the rest, is becoming more dangerous every day,” Guterres said. “It is at the root of the geopolitical tensions and lack of trust that poison every area of global cooperation, from vaccines to sanctions to trade.”
Nations are “paralyzed in colossal global dysfunction,” he added. “Our world is in danger and paralyzed.”