It was a cool scene from a hot war, an icy showdown on an increasingly critical front in the Russia-Ukraine conflict: the political battlefield.
Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy tours North America this week on an existential mission, attempting to maintain support from allies both financial and military.
The most crucial leg of that charm offensive comes in Washington on Thursday, and he’s also been to a New York veterans’ hospital and taken part in U.S. TV interviews. He will be in Ottawa on Friday.
Wednesday produced a unique showdown.
The Ukrainian leader and Russian officials made their case in the same room, enemies in war before a beleaguered body of peace: the United Nations Security Council.
‘The rules don’t apply’ to Ukraine, Russia says
It started with a spat. Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations interjected four times, seeking to delay Zelenskyy’s speech on procedural grounds.
Vassily Nebenzia asked why a visitor should have the right to speak before permanent Security Council members. “On what basis?”
He accused the West and its allies of flouting procedures to give Zelenskyy star billing.
“The rules don’t apply to them,” the Russian said. “They are trying to transform [this] into a one-man standup show.… Today’s meeting will be nothing more than a spectacle.”
The chair brushed him off. Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania presiding over the session, read from a UN rule that allowed this.
He got in a dig at the Russian government, as the aggressor in an illegal war: “Coming from you, all this lecture of violating rules in this building is quite an impressive [thing].”
He sarcastically offered Nebenzia a way out: “You stop the war, and President Zelenskyy will not take the floor.”
Eventually, Zelenskyy spoke.
He laid out details of his proposed 10-point peace plan, which includes Russia withdrawing from all Ukrainian territory.
He rebuked the UN as woefully ineffective.
“Humankind no longer pins its hopes on the UN when it comes to the defence of the sovereign borders of nations,” Zelenskyy said.
He said the institution meets problems with rhetoric instead of solutions and compromises with killers.
He proposed reforms, such as ways to suspend a rogue Security Council member like Russia and a way for the General Assembly to override one of its vetoes.
Let’s not hold our breath: such reforms to the UN Charter would require the support of every member of the Security Council and a two-thirds vote in the General Assembly.
‘Let them die’
Zelenskyy left after speaking. He and his delegation, clad in trademark olive-green military colours, exited from one door.
Across the room, through another door, Russia’s foreign minister walked in moments later. Sergei Lavrov and Zelenskyy never crossed paths.
Lavrov did, however, walk into a dressing-down from the U.S. As he entered the room and sat down, Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia of war crimes.
Blinken shared emotional stories he heard while visiting Ukraine: of civilians crammed into a basement for weeks; of bodies left lying around; of women and children used as human shields; and Russian soldiers taunting people, one shouting, “Let them die.”
Blinken summed up the state of the war: Vladimir Putin, he said, is betting that if he keeps doubling down on violence, the world will cave, and Ukraine will stop fighting.
“But Ukrainians are not giving up,” the U.S. official said.
“We are not giving up, either.”
That remains to be determined. The United States has an election in a little over a year, and Republican front-runner Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed skepticism about arming Ukraine.
In the meantime, there’s a funding crunch in Congress.
Zelenskyy’s tallest challenge this week: the Republican Party
By some measures, the United States has given more military aid to Ukraine than the rest of the world combined, with over $100 billion in aid.
President Joe Biden is now asking Congress for another $24 billion for Ukraine, about half for military use.
This faces real trouble in the House of Representatives: Republicans are souring on Ukraine, and the doubters have new clout.
The Republican Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, faces serious challenges. There are isolated calls within the party to oust him. He’s failing to pass even the simplest budget votes.
And this is not one of those simple issues.
What’s unquestionably true is American support, especially among Republicans, have softened in recent months.
The Republican congressional leader said he intends to press the Ukrainian leader at a meeting expected Thursday.
“Where’s the accountability on the money we’ve already spent? What is the plan for victory? I think that’s what the American public wants to know.”
Meanwhile, there’s a new obstacle in the Senate too.
Republican senator: ‘When will the aid requests end?’
While Zelenskyy was speaking at the UN on Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul was in the Senate, promising to use procedural tactics to block a budget vote should the Senate try packing Ukraine funding into an unrelated spending bill.
He called it inexplicable that a debt-laden U.S. would be adding new debt in order to fund a war with no clear endgame.
“When will the aid requests end? When will the war end? Can someone explain what victory in Ukraine looks like? President Biden certainly can’t,” said the Kentucky Republican.
“With no clear end in sight, it looks increasingly like Ukraine will be yet another endless quagmire funded by the American taxpayer.”
Sensing that split in the U.S., Russia’s foreign minister drove in the wedge.
WATCH | Leaders at the UN give dire warning of global state of affairs:
Speaking to the Security Council after Blinken, Lavrov alluded to political divisions within the U.S. He made a mocking reference to the Democratic Party, meaning the Biden administration, for hosting democracy summits.
Lavrov delivered his speech at lightning speed, reading from notes so quickly that the Russian-English interpreter at times struggled to keep up.
Lavrov didn’t delve into anecdotes like Blinken. He relayed a medley of justifications, cases of Western hypocrisy and wrongs against Russia.
In his telling, Russia had a right to invade.
Russia’s retort: The West are hypocrites
He accused the West of backing unconstitutional elections in Ukraine in 2004 and the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in 2014; fumed about discriminatory laws against Ukraine’s Russian speakers; and of acts he called violations of UN articles.
“We hear slogans: ‘Invasion.’ ‘Aggression.’ Not a word about the root causes,” Lavrov said.
“The West now bears full responsibility for the collapse of Ukraine and civil war there.… Russia had not been listened to, or was deceived, for decades.”
In accusing rivals of hypocrisy, he asked: When will the British leave the territory they invaded in Argentina (referring to the Falkland Islands)?
He drove another wedge, this time not within the U.S. but in Europe: He called it unfair to Turkey and Serbia that they’ve been waiting in vain for years for European Union membership, yet now there’s talk about including Ukraine.
Blinken sat quietly a few seats away. Lavrov got up and left after his speech. Blinken stayed to listen to France’s foreign minister, then left too.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke later in the day, along with the leader of Germany and a minister from Italy.
Zelenskyy? He was already gone. Next stop: Washington.