Voices: Biden sent a clear message to Putin — and to China — in his UN General Assembly speech

·5-min read

Russian president Vladimir Putin will not attend the UN General Assembly in New York this week, instead choosing to send a foreign minister. But he has managed to cast a long shadow over the proceedings nevertheless. In an address to the nation earlier today, Putin told Russian citizens that he would be “partially mobilizing” people on reserve lists and with prior military experience to help with the war in Ukraine. Considering this was supposed to be a two-week venture with few military losses, it’s hard to read this as anything less than an admission of failure. Putin also ramped up the rhetoric on nuclear weapons, saying that he would use “all means” to defend his citizens and adding that “those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction”.

President Biden’s address to the 77th Session today was expected to focus on those strong words — and he delivered. Just after 10.45am local time, the US president spoke to the gathered world leaders, plus that Russian foreign minister and the minister sent in place of Chinese president Xi Jinping. (Although Xi’s absence could signal China’s allegiance with Russia over the war in Ukraine, Putin admitted just this week that China had “questions and concerns” about how long it was dragging on.)

“Putin’s own words make his aims unmistakable,” the US president said, before quoting Putin’s claims about Ukraine belonging historically to Russia.

“This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, pure and simple,” Biden added later. “Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe, that should make your blood run cold.”

The president didn’t shy away from details: There is “horrifying evidence of Russia’s atrocities and war crimes” in Ukraine, he said, adding that that includes “bodies showing signs of torture”.

“You cannot seize a nation’s territory by force,” he reiterated, before adding that “the only country standing in the way of [peace] is Russia.”

Biden had some specific asks — and they were pretty big asks — including that UN members “should refrain from the use of the veto” except in exceptional circumstances in the future. Perhaps this is a reference to Russia’s veto which it exercised earlier this year to block Security Council action on Ukraine. It could also be a plea to China to refrain from using its veto if further motions are tabled about Ukraine (although so far China has abstained on the issue, and it is not a veto-happy member.)

It would certainly change the flavor of the UN if permanent members had their veto capacities restricted. But, as JTA’s Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas pointed out, Israel has significantly benefited from the US using its own veto in the past. A world wherein such vetoes are not freely used could look very different for that nation in particular.

Biden also called for expanding the number of permanent seats (and non-permanent members) of the UN. Presumably, this is about shoring up even more US-friendly support. Most countries in the world are not on Russia’s side in the Ukrainian conflict — that much is obvious — and increasing the number of permanent members at the UN would increase vocal opposition to Moscow. It’s also a failsafe if Russia makes a land-grab again.

Biden spoke of ambitious plans to tackle climate change around the world by investing in energy infrastructure in places like Angola and Haiti. Although this was very much couched in terms of mitigating climate change and doing a moral duty to the world’s citizens, the comments came with a sting in the tail for Russia: These investments are necessary so that “no country can use energy as a weapon,” he said.

Considering the uneasy position of China and the absence of Xi Jinping, it was clearly also vital to talk about America’s relationship with the country. Biden addressed concerns head-on: “Let me direct about the competition between the United States and China,” he said. “We do not seek conflict, do not seek a cold war. We do not ask any nation to choose between the United States or any other partner.”

What we “have to offer,” he continued, are “investments designed not to foster dependency but to create self-sufficiency”. And, he added, he opposes any change in the Taiwan-China situation, urging restraint “from both sides”. This all sounded very much like an olive branch to China and a temptation away from legitimizing Russia’s war. Essentially: Don’t feel you have to stay out there in time-out with Moscow when you’re missing out on all the fun over here.

As he rounded out his speech — which, long-time reporters of UN speeches know, was mercifully much shorter and to-the-point than anything offered up during the days of Donald Trump — Biden also took a direct jab at Iran. “We stand with the women in Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights,” he said, in reference to the anti-hijab protests currently engulfing the country. He spoke about women’s rights around the world, including “women’s basic reproductive rights” — somewhat ironic considering the US Supreme Court’s recent overturn of Roe v Wade, but nonetheless a reassuring position for him to take.

Biden finished by calling the UN’s mere existence “an act of dauntless hope,” a phrase he deliberately stopped to repeat. “While the world was still smoldering” after the Second World War, the first delegates came together despite “how divided the people of the world must have felt,” he continued. “They had every right to only believe the worst of humanity,” but they “strived to build something better”.

“We are not passive witnesses to history, we are the authors of history,” he concluded, before thanking the delegates “for your tolerance in listening to me” in a gesture of humbleness which must surely be designed to draw a stark contrast with Trump’s bombast. The message of the speech was clear: Biden’s United States is not isolationist, is not opposed to open dialogue with China, and is indeed actively inviting further participation from allies around the world. So Russia best choose its options carefully, lest it be left out in the cold.