World leaders gathered at the United Nations on Tuesday for the opening sessions of the organization’s annual General Assembly, which was held in person for the first time in three years, but with twin crises of war in Ukraine and famine in Africa weighing on the gathering.
President Biden, who is addressing the assembly on Wednesday, and his diplomatic team are working to foster unity among allies to continue arming and supporting Ukraine in its war against the Russian invasion. With the onset of winter and rising fuel prices, US officials fear that some European countries may be tempted to scale back their subsidies.
The war damaged gas supplies but further damaged the export of millions of tons of grain, fertilizer and cooking oil, exacerbating famine and food shortages in many parts of the world, especially in Africa. As a result, some African governments have refused to join Western efforts to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Biden administration hopes to offer them reassurances.
But these options are out of reach. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas Greenfield, insisted that the sessions, to be held over two weeks, would not be dominated by Ukraine, but also acknowledged that the war had caused a “crisis of confidence” for the United Nations.
“Sure, other countries have expressed concern that we haven’t — because we’re focused on Ukraine, we’re not paying attention to what’s happening in other crises around the world,” she said. “We know that with this horrific war raging across Ukraine, we cannot ignore the rest of the world.”
Another senior State Department official later said that the countries of the Global South were in fact receptive to US efforts, especially in renewing grain exports from Ukraine.
“They see us meeting them wherever they are,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss internal talks. “Everyone, not just Europe and Ukraine, is paying the price for this war, especially the Global South.”
However, the goal of shifting focus beyond Ukraine became more difficult on Tuesday when Russian-backed separatists announced plans to move forward with referendums in the regions they occupy in Ukraine. Western officials described the vote as a ploy that separatists would use to falsely claim that the regions — Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhia — should be part of Russia and that the population supported the idea.
Biden is expected to be highly critical of this and other aspects of what the administration calls Putin’s escalation. There are fears that Putin could trigger a large-scale mobilization of Russian forces that would intensify fighting significantly, just as Ukrainian forces have made important gains in retaking some of their territory.
“The United States will never acknowledge Russia’s claims to annex any parts of Ukraine,” said Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser. We will not recognize this region as anything other than part of Ukraine. We categorically reject Russia’s actions.”
Other world leaders who attended the General Assembly meetings, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, joined in the condemnation. Putin is not present and only Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will be allowed to address the assembly via video link. The last two public assemblies were hypothetical or partially hypothetical due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic, along with climate change, has depleted agricultural production and food supplies in many parts of the world. Then the Russian invasion on February 24 cut off shipping to Ukraine’s ports on the Black Sea, sinking more areas into severe food insecurity. The World Food Program estimates that at least 160 million people face potential famine, especially in the Global South.
The United Nations brokered an agreement with Russia that freed up grain shipments, and senior State Department officials said the volume of exports was approaching pre-invasion levels. Officials said about half of the exports go to the global south.
“It was a real life-saving mechanism,” said one of the officials.
Meanwhile, US efforts to rally support for Ukraine received some good news from Britain. Prime Minister Liz Truss said her government will match or exceed the record amount of military aid it committed to Ukraine this year, about $2.6 billion.
But the mood at this year’s General Assembly was bleak.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres summed it up, pointing to myriad conflicts outside of Ukraine alone – the financial crisis, poverty in much of the world, a lack of children’s education, along with climate and health emergencies and the prospect of famine. The basis of it all is the inability of world leaders, including the United Nations, to solve problems.
“The difference between developed and developing countries, between North and South, between the privileged and the rest, is becoming more and more serious by the day,” Guterres said. “It is the roots of geopolitical tensions and mistrust that poison every area of global cooperation, from vaccines to sanctions to trade.”
Countries “suffer from massive global dysfunction,” he added. “Our world is in danger – and paralyzed.”