The severe divisions between Western nations and Russia over its invasion of Ukraine overshadowed a U.N. Security Council meeting presided over by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday.
Russia holds the rotating presidency of the 15-nation council this month. Before even entering the chamber to discuss Moscow’s chosen theme of “effective multilateralism through the defense of the principles of the U.N. Charter,” Western nations denounced the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine and its hypocrisy in choice of meeting topic.
“By organizing this debate, Russia is trying to portray itself as a defender of the U.N. Charter and multilateralism,” European Union Ambassador Olaf Skoog said, surrounded by envoys from all 27 EU nations. “Nothing can be further from the truth. It is cynical. We all know that while Russia is destroying, we are building. While they violate, we protect. The U.N. Charter, the U.N. General Assembly, the ICJ [International Court of Justice], the ICC [International Criminal Court]—everywhere you look, Russia is in contempt.”
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, flanked by her Canadian and Irish counterparts, told reporters that Russia has repeatedly violated universal human rights and fundamental freedoms both domestically and abroad.
She was accompanied by the sister of American Paul Whelan, who was arrested on espionage charges while on a visit to Moscow. He has been in detention in Russia since December 2018 and is currently being held at a remote penal colony.
“Paul has not committed a crime, but a crime has been committed against him,” Elizabeth Whelan told reporters.
She said her brother is a “pawn and victim” of Russia and its strategy to detain American citizens to extract concessions from Washington.
“This is not the work of a mature and responsible nation; it is the action of a terrorist state,” Elizabeth Whelan said. “Paul was first in what has been an escalating series of wrongful detentions by Russia. First, my brother Paul Whelan, then Trevor Reed, both tourists. The sports star Brittney Griner. And now the journalist Evan Gershkovich.”
Reed was released in April 2022 and Griner in December. Both were part of prisoner exchanges between Moscow and Washington. Gershkovich was in Russia as the Moscow correspondent for the U.S. newspaper the Wall Street Journal when he was arrested on March 29 during a reporting trip and accused of spying.
Inside the Security Council chamber, the Russian foreign minister, with no hint of irony, complained that Russian reporters who had applied to cover his New York trip only received their U.S. visas as his plane took off, and he directly appealed to the reporters covering the meeting.
“So, I request, insist, that you compensate for the loss of the presence of Russian journalists,” Lavrov said. “Try to make your reporting objective so that the international community has a genuinely multilateral objective overview in your assessments and the facts provided.”
Lavrov sat next to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as the U.N. chief condemned the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in violation of the United Nations Charter and international law, is causing massive suffering and devastation to the country and its people and adding to the global economic dislocation triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Guterres said.
Turning to the topic of the debate—effective multilateralism—the U.N. chief said there must be better cooperation to strengthen multilateral institutions.
“Members of this council, particularly those that enjoy the privilege of serving permanently, have a particular responsibility to make multilateralism work, rather than contribute to its dismemberment,” Guterres said. Russia is among the five permanent members of the 15-nation Security Council, along with Britain, China, France and the United States.
Lavrov’s remarks went on for nearly 25 minutes in a sometimes-incoherent ramble of familiar themes—Russia is fighting Nazis in Ukraine; NATO is a threat to Russia; sanctions are illegitimate; the West never intended to implement the Minsk Agreements but only wanted to buy time to arm Ukraine.
He added that the United States wanted “to leverage the openly racist regime” in Kyiv in the hope of weakening Russia and eliminating its competitors.
“It is clear to all, even though not everybody talks about this, it is not at all about Ukraine,” Lavrov said. “It is about how international relations will continue to be shaped through the establishment of a sound consensus on the basis of balance of interests or through the aggressive and volatile advancement of Washington’s hegemony.”
The council meeting was held at the ministerial level, but of the 15 council members, only Gabon and Ghana sent their deputy foreign ministers, and the United Arab Emirates sent a minister of state. Most of the other members were represented at the ambassador level.
Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary-General Guterres met Monday afternoon for private discussions that lasted nearly one and half hours.
Their meeting comes just weeks before the May 18 deadline Russia has set for the U.N. to meet its conditions to extend a deal that facilitates the exports of Ukrainian grain and Russian grain and fertilizer through the Black Sea. Moscow has complained for months that it is not benefiting from the nine-month-old deal.
The U.N. said in a readout of the meeting that the secretary-general gave Lavrov a letter for President Vladimir Putin, “outlining a proposed way forward aimed at the improvement, extension and expansion” of the deal, known as the Black Sea Grain Initiative. The U.N. said the proposal takes into account positions expressed by the parties and the risks posed by global food insecurity, as well as a “detailed report” on the progress already achieved in addressing Moscow’s concerns about its food and fertilizer shipments.
A similar letter is being sent to Ukrainian and Turkish officials. Turkey is one of the signatories to the grain deal, and ships traveling to and from Ukraine pass through the Bosphorus Strait and are inspected by a joint team in Istanbul.