Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of genocide (and a lot of other things) on Tuesday, during a characteristically emphatic speech delivered at the UN General Assembly.
Donning his signature olive green, Ukraine’s comedian-turned warrior-president described Vladimir Putin as an existential threat to all nations and also to “the international rules-based order.”
Notably, he suggested the world’s aversion to conflict between nuclear powers has allowed Russia to weaponize energy and food to the obvious detriment of lower-income nations, many of which are upset with the developed world for what some believe is a myopic focus on Ukraine and an approach to the energy transition which disadvantages energy-insecure, poor countries.
“Other wars seem less scary than the so-called ‘great powers’ firing their nuclear stockpiles,” Zelensky said. In hindsight, he suggested, Russia should’ve been made to surrender its doomsday arsenal, not Ukraine. “Terrorists have no right to hold nuclear weapons,” he remarked.
But nuclear warheads aren’t the only weapons of mass destruction, Zelensky went on. “The aggressor is weaponizing many other things and those things are used not only against our country, but against all of yours as well.”
He said Russia’s goal in choking off the supply of Ukrainian grain to the world is to secure recognition of captured territory in Ukraine in exchange for the free movement of food. In other words, Zelensky accused Putin of holding the world hostage with hunger. “The impact spreads from Africa to Asia,” he said.
Zelensky moved on to energy, and he didn’t limit his critique to the Kremlin’s weaponization of oil and natural gas. He also said Russia is trying to “turn other countries’ power plants into real dirty bombs.” He was referring, of course, to Zaporizhzhia. “Is there any sense [in] reducing nuclear weapons when Russia is weaponizing nuclear power plants?” he wondered.
Around halfway through his speech, Zelensky turned to Ukrainian children, scores of whom have been relocated to Russia over the course of the conflict. For months, the Kremlin worked to fast-track adoption and assimilation. That effort is the subject of extreme international consternation. Zelensky claimed Kyiv has the names of “tens of thousands” of children forcibly removed to Russia.
“We are trying to get these children back home but time. Time goes by. What will happen to them?” he asked. He had an answer: They’ll be taught by Russia to hate Ukraine. “This is clearly a genocide,” he pressed.
Zelensky didn’t stop there. He said Russia starts a new war “every decade,” blamed Putin for the chemical weapons used in Syria and in no uncertain terms warned that Putin won’t stop with Ukraine unless the Kremlin is compelled to accept what would amount to an unconditional military defeat — an “end to aggression on the terms of the nation which was attacked,” as he put it.
Ukraine is looking to garner support for a multi-point settlement arrangement which entails a wholesale withdrawal of Russian forces and the payment to Kyiv of reparations. Zelensky wants a summit organized around the plan. Suffice to say Putin isn’t interested.
Earlier Tuesday, Joe Biden delivered a predictable speech from the same podium. “If we allow Ukraine to be carved up, is the independence of any nation secure?” he asked. “The answer is no.” If we’re honest, the answer is actually “Yes.” The Russian military’s woeful performance in Ukraine plainly indicates Putin’s army would be summarily routed in a conflict with another major power. If he can’t capture Kyiv from Belarus, he damn sure can’t march on Paris. But Biden’s point is well taken. It’s about deterring aggression.
To be sure, America’s disastrous legacy of post-World War II military interventions casts a long shadow. Some of what Zelensky said Tuesday could just as easily apply to the US invasion of Iraq as it could to Russia in Ukraine. But, as ever, I’d implore readers to guard against that sort of “Whataboutism.” There’s no sense in which George W. Bush’s decision to topple a dictator without a plan for what to do next excuses Putin’s decision to invade his neighbor two decades later. There’s no connection between those two events. They have some things in common (they’ll both be remembered as moronic military misadventures that cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, for example), but one doesn’t excuse the other.
Relatedly, I’m not sure there’s as much cognitive dissonance among the American public in that regard as US foreign policy critics sometimes intimate. Americans weren’t exactly thrilled about the war in Iraq once it became apparent how ill-conceived it really was. There were highly critical documentaries, all manner of bad press and outward displays of protest, even as Americans do generally try to strike a balance between hating America’s wars and showing compassion for the troops compelled to fight them. (Try making an anti-war documentary as a Russian citizen living inside Russia while the war is still going on and let me know how it goes.)
In any case, Zelensky’s next stop is Washington, where he’ll make the rounds in support of another $24 billion in US aid for Ukraine. Some House GOPers are unconvinced and unfortunately, average Americans will lose interest in the cause as time goes on, unless and until Putin does something outlandish to galvanize public support in the West anew. Hardline House Republicans will doubtlessly make aid for Ukraine a sticking point in what are already fraught negotiations around US government funding.
Putin may believe he can wait out impatient Western voters. Sham elections aside, he’s not beholden to public opinion at home, and neither are Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-Un, both of whom are likely to support Moscow militarily until it’s obvious Putin can’t win.