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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Moment that Putin thundered to war, drowning out last entreaties for peace | United Nations

It will go down as one of the most surreal sessions the United Nations chamber has ever witnessed, as the very war it was supposed to prevent broke out while it was sitting.

Vladimir Putin, with brutal timing, delivered a speech announcing that Russia would start a “special military operation” in Ukraine – while an emergency session of the UN security council was under way.

The secretary general, Antonio Guterres, was the first to speak, and at that time Putin’s intentions were not entirely clear. But Guterres pointed to the reports of troops moving into position, and did something notable and rare for a UN secretary general: he publicly called out the head of a security council permanent member.

“If indeed an operation is being prepared, I have only one thing to say, from the bottom of my heart,” Guterres said. “President Putin: stop your troops from attacking Ukraine. Give peace a chance. Too many people have already died.”

By the time it was the turn of the Russian representative, Vasily Nebenzya, to speak, Putin had given his address, and there was no more mystery. Peace was not to be given a chance after all. Nebenzya, who had spent weeks deriding western states for their “hysterical” warnings of impending invasion, pivoted to argue it was not actually a war that was getting under way, but a “special military operation” to protect the people of the Donbass.

The Ukrainian ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, had been waiting for his turn to speak while receiving constant updates from Kyiv. When his time came, he had to dispense with his prepared speech because, he said, “most of it is already useless”. Instead he held up a copy of the UN charter and read the clause that said UN membership was open to all peace-loving states that accepted the obligations contained in the small sky-blue booklet.

Tense exchanges between Ukraine and Russia at UN security council – video
Tense exchanges between Ukraine and Russia at UN security council – video

“Russia is not able to carry out any of those obligations,” Kyslytsya declared.

He challenged Nebenzya to deny that Ukraine was under attack.

“You have a smartphone,” he said, taunting the Russian to check with his boss, the foreign minister, on what was really going on. “You can call Lavrov right now. We can make a pause to let you go out and call him.”

Nebenzya declined. “I have already said all I know at this point,” he said. “Waking up minister Lavrov at this time is not something I plan to do.”

An hour or so into the meeting, the multiplying reports of bombardment of Ukrainian cities had reached the chamber, and if the futility of the council’s calls for peace and dialogue had not been clear before, they were now agonisingly obvious.

Some ambassadors demanded to speak for a second time to express their sense of betrayal.

“At the exact time as we were gathered in the council seeking peace, Putin delivered a message of war in total disdain for the responsibility of this council,” said the US permanent representative, Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “This is a grave emergency.”

Her British counterpart, Barbara Woodward, declared it “a grave day for Ukraine and for the principles of the United Nations”.

Kyslytsya himself was trembling with emotion. He stared at Nebenzya and demanded the Russian relinquish his duties as chair of the council.

“There is no purgatory for war criminals,” he warned him. “They go straight to hell.”

At that point, Nebenzya quickly closed the meeting, claiming that Russia’s aggression was not directed at the Ukrainian people, but against what he called “the junta that is in power in Kiev”. Then he adjourned and left. A security council that had begun, just about, in peacetime, had broken up in a time of war, and perhaps at the start of a major conflict.

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