The session was a prominent appearance for Lavrov, who appeared at U.N. headquarters in New York, his first visit to the United States since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began 14 months ago. In an appeal to Western journalists for “objective” reporting on the meeting, he noted that Russian reporters were not given U.S. visas to travel to New York with him until the last minute, and he claimed that travel documents were only “mockingly” issued as his plane was taking off.
The State Department cited privacy concerns in declining to comment on charges the visas were intentionally withheld, first made by Moscow over the weekend. A department spokesperson, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that “to ensure timely processing, we repeatedly remind the Russian Mission to the U.N., as we do all other U.N. Missions, that the United States needs applications as early as possible.” A limited consulate staff in Moscow, which the spokesperson blamed on recent Kremlin bans on Russian nationals working there, has “severely limited” visa capabilities.
The journalist controversy came as Russia has continued to detain Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich on what the Biden administration has said are bogus charges of espionage.
In a lengthy, impassioned speech, Lavrov appealed to nations in the global south to see Western criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine as part of a larger U.S. plot to prevent the rise of other world powers. He outlined “U.S. plans to leverage the openly racist regime [in Kyiv] in the hope of weakening the Russian Federation in a strategic focus on eliminating competitors. It’s clear to all,” he said, “even though not everybody talks about this. It’s not at all about Ukraine.”
But the United States, its allies and other representatives on the council insisted it was, in fact, all about Ukraine.
“This is a serious topic, even if it was convened by a council member whose actions demonstrate a blatant disregard for the U.N. Charter,” U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the council. Reading from a copy of the charter, she noted that, among statements about the need to “develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights,” and “encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms,” it also “states quite clearly: ‘All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.’”
“Our hypocritical convener today, Russia, invaded its neighbor in Ukraine and struck at the heart of … all the values that we hold dear,” she said.
Britain was even more direct in its comments. Lavrov “has called this meeting to share the Russian vision for the future of multilateralism,” Ambassador Barbara Woodward said. “We’ve seen what Russia’s idea of multilateralism means for the future of the world … unimaginable suffering … thousands of Ukrainians killed, millions displaced, and across the world billions have faced … food insecurity.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin “can count the supporters of his war on one hand,” she said. “Russia has severely damaged its reputation in the international community.”
But Lavrov’s appeal against Western dominance resonates with African, Asian and Latin American nations that have long argued for reform of international institutions to give them a more prominent seat at the table. The countries that made the rules after World War II, when the United Nations was formed, still hold sway there. The United States, Britain, France and Russia (then the Soviet Union), along with China, are the only permanent members and hold veto power over all Security Council resolutions.
The 193-member U.N. General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly three times to condemn the invasion of Ukraine and call for Russian troops to immediately withdraw. The last vote, in February, was 141 in favor, 7 opposed and 32 abstentions, nearly all of which were in the global south.
The African countries that hold the continent’s three rotating council seats — Gabon, Ghana and Mozambique — barely mentioned the war in Ukraine in their statements. But all called for action in expanding their presence and power on the council and in other international bodies.
Brazil and Mexico sharply criticized the invasion of Ukraine. But both called for more U.N. reform.
The United Arab Emirates, representing Arab states at the council, noted that “some member states have always had a disproportionate influence over the multilateral system, including how these systems were set up and whether or not they function in the interest of all. … Status quo structures will not move us beyond the status quo.”
Russia invited all U.N. member states to participate in the meeting. Of the handful of non-council members that showed up, most, including Cuba and Iran, avoided the topic of Ukraine but had much to say about what they viewed as U.S. bullying, the use of what they called illegal economic sanctions, and U.N. slowness in making promised reforms.
Thomas-Greenfield, Woodward and others who came to confront Russia over the war in Ukraine said change was coming.
“The United States believes in the United Nations and we believe in this charter” and the need for reform, Thomas-Greenfield said. But “our response to Russia’s flagrant violations cannot be to abandon this institution’s founding principles.”