Zelensky, in UN showdown, says strip 'criminal' Russia of veto power

Maria Danilova, Shaun Tandon - Agence France-Presse
Zelensky, in UN showdown, says strip 'criminal' Russia of veto power
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the U.N. Security Council on the war his country in a meeting during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 20, 2023 in New York City.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images / AFP

UNITED STATES, United Nations — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday confronted Russia directly at the UN Security Council, denouncing the Kremlin's invasion of his country as "criminal" and urging the United Nations to strip Moscow of its veto power.

Clad in his trademark military fatigues, Zelensky for the first time since the February 2022 invasion sat in the same room as a Russian official, who responded by scrolling through his smartphone with a look of conspicuous disinterest.

"Most of the world recognizes the truth about this war," Zelensky said. "It is a criminal and unprovoked aggression by Russia against our nation aimed at seizing Ukraine's territory and resources."

Zelensky called on the United Nations to vote to end Russia's veto power on the Security Council, where Moscow joins only Britain, China, France, and the United States in being able to block any resolution.

The Ukrainian leader said this move could be among wide-ranging reforms at the Security Council that would include giving permanent representation on the top decision making body to nations in the developing world, where support for Ukraine's cause has been lukewarm.

"Veto power in the hands of the aggressor is what has pushed the UN into a deadlock," Zelensky said.

"It is impossible to stop the war because all efforts are vetoed by the aggressor or those who condone the aggressor," he said.

Zelensky repeated the Ukrainian stance that Moscow's veto power belonged to the former Soviet Union -- one of the victors of World War II after which the United Nations was created -- and not to President Vladimir Putin's Russia.

"Unfortunately, this seat in the Security Council, which Russia occupies illegally through backstage manipulations following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been taken by liars whose job it is to whitewash the aggression and the genocide," Zelensky said.


- Russia scoffs -


Taking away Russia's veto power would be exceedingly difficult, with Zelensky acknowledging that Moscow will not "give up this stolen privilege voluntarily."

There is, however, precedent: the General Assembly in 1971 transferred China's veto-wielding seat from Taiwan, then considered the country's representative, to the communist government on the mainland.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, showing up at the Security Council after Zelensky left, scoffed at the idea of ending Russia's veto and described it as a way to check Western power.

"The use of the veto is an absolutely legitimate tool laid out in the (UN) Charter," Lavrov said.

Lavrov denounced Zelensky, who is seeking to win back all territory occupied by Russia, for not negotiating.

The Russian top diplomat then turned to the onlooking US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and suggested the United States could "give a command for Zelensky to lift the decree" against negotiations.

Blinken, who had met Lavrov before the war to warn against an invasion, has largely avoided meeting him since the war and no talks were planned in New York.

In his own remarks as Lavrov entered the room, Blinken recalled a recent visit to Ukraine where he visited a town where bodies of Ukrainian civilians were stacked among the living in a school basement.

"Russia is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine on an almost daily basis," Blinken said.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said the entire world is urging Russia to stop the war.

"Russia must understand that here, at the General Assembly, almost all States are calling on it to immediately cease its aggression against Ukraine," Colonna told AFP in an interview.

Later Wednesday, Zelensky met with his Brazilian counterpart, a meeting the Ukrainian had long sought as he seeks to persuade Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to take a stance against Russia during the war. 

Lula has refused to join Western nations in imposing sanctions on Russia or supplying munitions to Ukraine, and implied that Zelensky was as responsible for the war as Putin. 

On Tuesday, at the UN he reiterated that "no solution will be lasting if it is not based on dialogue."

On Twitter, rebranded X, Lula described their meeting as a "good conversation about the importance of peace-building paths and of always maintaining open dialogue between our countries."

- Tensions from start -


Tensions erupted even before Zelensky took the floor, with the Russian side questioning the decision by current Security Council president Albania, represented by Prime Minister Edi Rama, to allow the Ukrainian to go first.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, repeatedly asking to speak, told Rama that letting Zelensky, a former comedian, appear first risked "undermining the authority of the Security Council" and turning it into "a one-man stand-up show."

Rama responded calmly but with growing annoyance, telling the Russian envoy, "There is a solution here -- you stop the war, and President Zelensky will not take the floor."

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz rejected calls by other nations for an immediate ceasefire.

"I acknowledge their good intentions. We all want an end to the killing  -- today rather than tomorrow," Scholz said.

But he rejected imposing a "diktat," saying that peace "means respecting the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine."

Putin, who rarely travels to the United Nations, did not come. He has skipped other high-profile diplomatic gatherings as Western nations seek to isolate him and as he faces an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court.

Zelensky addressed the UN General Assembly on Tuesday and will head Thursday to Washington to meet President Joe Biden.

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