THE UNITED NATIONS — Ukraine’s president implored the world on Wednesday to punish Russia for its invasion, even as the leader vowed his forces would reclaim every inch of territory despite Moscow’s decision to redouble its war effort.
In a much-anticipated video address to the UN General Assembly hours after Russia announced it would mobilize reservists, Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the statement as proof that the Kremlin was not ready to negotiate an end of the war – but insisted that his country would prevail anyway.
“We can return the Ukrainian flag throughout our territory. We can do it by force of arms,” the president said. “But we need time.”
Putin’s Wednesday decree on mobilization was sparse on specifics. Officials said up to 300,000 reservists could be exploited. It was apparently an effort to gain momentum after a Ukrainian counteroffensive this month recaptured swathes of territory the Russians had held.
But Russia’s first such call since World War II also brought the fighting home in a new way for Russians and risked stoking domestic anxiety and antipathy towards the war. Shortly after Putin’s announcement, flights out of the country quickly filled up and more than 1,000 people were arrested in rare anti-war protests across the country.
A day earlier, Russian-controlled parts of eastern and southern Ukraine announced plans for referendums on Russian integration. Ukrainian leaders and their Western allies view the votes as illegitimate.
Zelenskyy did not discuss the developments in detail. But he implied that any Russian talk about the negotiations was just a delaying tactic and that Moscow’s actions spoke louder than its words.
“They talk about the talks but announce a military mobilization. They talk about the talks but announce pseudo-referendums in the occupied territories of Ukraine,” he said.
Russia has not yet had its turn to speak at the rally.
Putin, who is not attending the event, said he sent his armed forces to Ukraine because of security risks to his country from what he sees as a hostile government in Kyiv; liberate Russians living in Ukraine – particularly in the eastern region of Donbass – from what he sees as the oppression of the Ukrainian government; and restore what he sees as Russia’s historic territorial claims to the country.
Zelenskyy’s speech was striking not only in content but also in context. It took place after the extraordinary announcement of the mobilization. It was the first time he had addressed the assembled world leaders since the invasion of Russia in February.
It was not delivered from the august rostrum where other presidents, prime ministers and monarchs speak – but rather via video from a nation at war after Zelenskyy was given special permission not to come in person .
He appeared as he has in many previous video appearances – in an olive green T-shirt. He was seated at a table with a Ukrainian flag behind his right shoulder and a large image of the UN and Ukrainian flag behind his left shoulder.
Zelenskyy’s speech was one of the most anticipated at the most important annual gathering of international diplomacy, which this year focused on the war in his country. Officials in many countries are trying to prevent the conflict from spreading and restore peace in Europe – although diplomats expect no breakthrough this week.
Yet the subject has cropped up in the speeches of leaders around the world. Overall, the sentiment was similar: Russia’s invasion was inconsistent with fundamental UN principles, including peace, dialogue and respect for sovereignty.
“This is an attack on this very institution where we find ourselves today,” said Moldovan President Maia Sandu, whose country borders Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden’s speech also focused on the war in Ukraine.
“This war aims to extinguish Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, plain and simple, and Ukraine’s right to exist as a people. Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe, it should chill your blood,” he said. “If nations can pursue their imperial ambitions without consequences, then we are jeopardizing everything that this very institution stands for. All.”
Zelenskky felt that Moscow wanted to spend the winter preparing its forces in Ukraine for a new offensive, or at least preparing fortifications while mobilizing more troops in Europe’s biggest military conflict since World War II.
“Russia wants war. It’s true. But Russia will not be able to stop the course of history,” he said, declaring that “humanity and international law are stronger” than what he called a “terrorist state.”
Presenting various “preconditions for peace” in Ukraine that sometimes reached broader prescriptions for improving the world order, he urged world leaders to strip Russia of its vote in international institutions and its veto in the Council. UN security forces, saying the aggressors must be punished and isolated. .
The fighting has already sparked moves against Russia in UN bodies, particularly after Moscow vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have demanded an end to its attack on the Ukraine a few days after its start.
The veto has offended a number of other countries and led to action in the expanded General Assembly, where resolutions are non-binding but there is no veto.
The assembly voted overwhelmingly in March to deplore Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, call for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of all Russian forces, and urge the protection of millions of civilians. The following month, members agreed by a smaller margin to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.
Despite the attention he drew, Zelenskyy was just one of dozens of leaders who spoke on Wednesday, including Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Kenya’s newly elected President William Ruto. Nearly 150 heads of state and government are due to appear for six days of speeches.
It was also not the first time that the Ukrainian leader was in the spotlight at the assembly’s annual meeting.
His first speech in 2019 came as Zelenskyy suddenly found himself embroiled in a political scandal that was engulfing the United States – then-President Donald Trump’s efforts to get the Ukrainian to investigate his possible rival Biden and his son Hunter.
Zelenskyy dodged the case in his speech that year, but was bombarded with questions about it during a press conference with Trump. The episode ultimately led to Trump’s first impeachment.
At last year’s General Assembly, Zelenskyy memorably compared the UN to “a retired superhero who has long since forgotten how great they were” as he repeated calls for action to confront Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and its support for separatists.
Associated Press reporter Andrew Katell contributed from New York.
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