NEW YORK — By the time Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took the stage at the United Nations General Assembly this week, he and his country had already lost much of the audience.
Throughout the annual gathering, world leader after world leader had expressed deep discomfort if not outright condemnation over Russia’s war in Ukraine. Even some countries that have stayed friendly with the Kremlin called for a cease-fire or other ways to end the crisis. Few offered words of comfort to Russia. And Russian President Vladimir Putin, who did not attend UNGA, did himself no favors when he announced mid-week that he was escalating the battle and might even use nuclear weapons.
The growing global unhappiness with Russia was hard to miss. A senior U.S. diplomat told POLITICO that some foreign officials turned down Russian invitations to meet on the UNGA sidelines this past week given the optics. “Their dance card wasn’t very full,” the diplomat said.
But for now, it’s more a shift in tone than anything tangible that could add pressure to the Kremlin economically or militarily — many countries still rely on Russia for oil and gas supplies. Lavrov, for one, seemed to realize this, and so the veteran diplomat did not hold back in his speech Saturday.
He insisted that Moscow’s war was just and that Russia was defending itself and Ukraine-based Russian speakers against a neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv — a claim not based in reality. He blamed U.S. and European sanctions for rising food insecurity — an allegation the West denies — not, for instance, Russia’s efforts to block Ukrainian grain shipments. He also cast the expansion of NATO as a threat the Kremlin could not ignore.
“I'm convinced that any sovereign, self-respecting state would do the same in our stead, a state which understands his responsibility to his own people,” said Lavrov, a man often described by foreign affairs observers as “wily.” In particular, he slammed the United States, Ukraine’s most critical backer, for its role as a “hegemon” that undermines the global rules it claims to uphold. “Name a country where Washington interfered by force and where, as a result of that, life improved,” Lavrov said.
Lavrov’s defiance, nonetheless, doesn’t change the uncomfortable reality for Russia that is growing increasingly apparent: Some of its staunchest allies are questioning the wisdom of its war in Ukraine, which has handed Russia a series of major territorial losses in recent days.
The shift in tone became obvious in the days before the U.N. gathering of world leaders in New York.
During a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan earlier this month, Putin met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Russian leader acknowledged that fellow autocrat Xi — whose nation is arguably Russia’s most important friend — had raised “questions and concerns” about the Ukraine war. The Indian leader, meanwhile, reportedly told Putin that “today’s era is not an era of war,” which some took to be a careful rebuke.
Then came UNGA, which offered even more countries a platform to express their frustration. “The timing was fortuitous,” a senior U.S. diplomat said of the annual meeting, which usually is held in September.
Some countries didn’t want to avoid the topic of Ukraine, especially those with populations hit by food and energy shortages and price hikes resulting from the war, not to mention from climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic. Latin American and African countries, in particular, have suffered but, for historical and economic reasons, many of those same countries are keen to avoid openly taking sides between Russia and the West when it comes to Ukraine.
So they often emphasized the negative global fallout of the fighting instead.
“The continuation of the hostilities endangers the lives of innocent civilians and jeopardizes the food and energy security of millions of families in other regions, especially in developing countries,” warned Brazilian Foreign Minister Carlos Alberto França.
Putin’s physical absence from UNGA was not a surprise, but he alarmed those gathered by announcing Wednesday that he was mobilizing hundreds of thousands more troops, supporting referendums to “annex” some Ukrainian territories, and might even use nuclear weapons in his effort to defeat Kyiv. The latter in particular angered many foreign leaders and drew especially strong pushback from U.S.-allied countries that have supported Ukraine from the start.
Putin is engaging in “saber-rattling threats,” said Liz Truss, the new British prime minister. “This will not work.”
For now, there were no major tangible breaks with Moscow from countries such as India and China that continue to fill the Kremlin’s coffers by purchasing Russian energy supplies. Whether Russia keeps getting that level of income could depend on whether European states that also still rely on Russia for energy can agree to price caps currently under discussion. Even if they do, that doesn’t mean major purchasers like in New Delhi or Beijing will go along.
That said, in the world of diplomacy, shifts in tone and talk are often critical steps toward more serious moves, including reducing economic ties, officials and analysts said.
“I think there has been tremendous progress,” said Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow with The German Marshall Fund of the United States. “It is incredibly hard to get countries even diplomatically to shift course, especially when they have direct interest, current or longstanding relations.”
Charles Kupchan, a former White House National Security Council official, pointed out that not only is Putin facing more global discontent, he’s facing growing anger at home over what he still calls a “special military operation.”
“More Russians are taking to the streets to protest the war — and leaving the country to avoid military service,” Kupchan said.
The United States, its European partners, as well as Ukraine itself, seized virtually every opportunity they could during UNGA to make the case that Ukraine was the right side in what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described as a fight between “good and evil, light and dark.”
Ukraine was the primary focus of President Joe Biden’s UNGA speech, which he delivered hours after Putin unveiled his escalation plans. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised Ukraine at every turn during an endless series of meetings with global counterparts, including China’s foreign minister. Blinken’s schedule remained punishing even after it was adjusted so Blinken could deal with the death of his 96-year-old father on Thursday. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, also was omnipresent throughout UNGA.
Lavrov had meetings, too, but — at least from what was publicly available — it was a relatively lean schedule. Those countries whose delegates at UNGA met with Lavrov were typically ones with poor U.S. relations, such as Cuba.
Lavrov also seemed intent on avoiding direct encounters with U.S. and Ukrainian counterparts. During a major U.N. Security Council meeting about Ukraine on Thursday, Lavrov came in only to deliver his remarks — which were defiant — and left quickly afterward. U.S. officials said it was just more evidence of growing Russian isolation.
Another event that U.S. officials saw as a good omen was the overwhelming vote by U.N. member states in favor of letting Zelenskyy address UNGA via a video recording. The rules usually require that a world leader appear in person to speak. If they don’t appear, their foreign ministers may speak, though after heads of state.
Dan Baer, a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the Biden team was smart to spend much of its time at UNGA focusing on transnational issues. For instance, the United States hosted a conference on global food security on the sidelines of UNGA and announced billions of dollars in new U.S. funding to help resolve the crisis.
“This was not a ‘you’re either with us or against us’ approach,” said Baer, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It was a ‘we’re concerned about the repercussions on the global system — tell us what you’re seeing’ approach.”
Of course, one of the lingering frustrations about this past week was with the United Nations itself.
The world body, especially the U.N. Security Council, is not living up to its promise of serving as a forum to resolve global disputes. Russia’s role as a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council has made that body increasingly irrelevant, a fact hard to escape when Putin rattles the proceedings by announcing he’s escalating the war in Ukraine.
“When a permanent member of the Security Council takes the opportunity to double-down on violating the U.N. Charter during the General Assembly with what feels like impunity, I would not say this strengthens the U.N.’s effectiveness,” said Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “It reinforces its weakness as an enforcement body.”