Once again, Vladimir Putin pulled a fast one on Joe Biden and the world. Thousands of miles from the marbled corridors of the United Nations, where leaders from more than a hundred and fifty countries had gathered for the General Assembly, the Russian President preëmpted the annual summit by announcing the mobilization of three hundred thousand reservists for his war in Ukraine. It’s the first Russian mobilization since the Second World War, and twice the number of Russian forces dispatched to invade Ukraine seven months ago. Putin justified expanding his war effort by claiming that Russia is fighting “virtually the entire military machine of the collective West,” which intends to move the fight onto Russian territory to “weaken, divide, and ultimately destroy” the motherland.
In his seven-minute televised address, Putin also threatened, in thinly veiled terms, to deploy nuclear weapons on the battlefield, where he has begun to suffer serious losses in manpower and territory. Addressing NATO specifically, he warned, “I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction. We will certainly use all the means at our disposal.” It was, he added, just hours before Biden took the U.N. stage, “not a bluff.”
NATO’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, called Putin’s invocation of the world’s deadliest weapon “dangerous and reckless.” The use of nuclear weapons—whether a big, Hiroshima-style strategic bomb or a smaller-range tactical device—would effectively escalate the conflict into a world war. In practice, it already is, given the sweeping array of equipment, intelligence, and planning provided by major Western powers.
Biden shot back at Putin from the U.N. lectern in the General Assembly’s cavernous hall. “This world should see these outrageous acts for what they are,” he said. “Putin claims he had to act because Russia was threatened, but no one threatened Russia and no one other than Russia sought conflict.” Our “blood should run cold” over the “horrifying evidence” of war crimes and other atrocities committed by Putin’s army, Biden said. “If nations can pursue their imperial ambitions without consequences,” then the international order will crumble.
Biden also condemned the “sham” referenda scheduled to begin on Friday in four occupied areas in southern and eastern Ukraine. The referenda ask voters to approve formal Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory. The United States and European Union both announced this week that they will never recognize Russia’s absorption of any part of Ukraine.
The timing of Putin’s speech was no coincidence. Despite his recent military setbacks, the Russian President knows that resource-rich countries and major players on the world stage—among them Brazil, South Africa, and India—are still balking at joining U.S. sanctions against Russia to magnify the economic costs of the war. In a globalized world, even sanctions by a collection of Western nations can’t squeeze Moscow into backing down—at least not quickly. David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary who now heads the International Rescue Committee, told me that the decision by forty nations representing more than half the world’s population not to vote for the March U.N. resolution condemning the Russian invasion “shows the skepticism about the West that the U.S. and its allies need to address.” Russia also wields a veto—one of only five—over any Security Council action. It has virtual immunity.
Biden’s surprisingly brief retort to Putin’s declaration that he is expanding the war—on the military and political fronts—reflects the weakness, even dysfunction, of the U.N. “It is essentially sidelined on most issues, certainly on the major issues of war and peace,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former staffer in two U.S. Administrations, told me. “It’s irrelevant for the most part for this war, not simply by the way that Russia has a veto but also the Secretary-General seems unwilling to confront Russia.”
The U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterres, acknowledged the sense of morass about solving Earth’s major challenges. In remarks opening the General Assembly, he described a world threatened by existential crises—wars raging on three continents, economic calamities and food insecurity on six, and cataclysmic climate change on all seven. “We cannot go on like this,” he said on Tuesday. “We have a duty to act. And yet we are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction.”
His remarks went beyond the usual report-card rhetoric that dominates the annual assembly in New York. Today’s problems are historic, the consequences potentially more enduring. Guterres cited the megadroughts in China and the United States, the worst heat wave in Europe since the Middle Ages, famine stalking the Horn of Africa, a “monsoon on steroids” that put a third of Pakistan underwater, a million species at risk of extinction, and more. “Our world is in big trouble,” he warned. “Divides are growing deeper. Inequalities are growing wider. Challenges are spreading farther.” The interconnecting crises show that the world “is not ready or willing to tackle the big dramatic challenges of our age.”
This year, the world’s largest annual gathering of heads of state lacked the lustre, leverage, and energy—and even attendance—that usually accompanies it. Western leaders were all there. In an unusual exception, Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, was allowed to speak by video, from Kyiv. But two of the three most powerful leaders in the world—Putin and China’s Xi Jinping—skipped out. So did India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, the head of the world’s largest democracy. In the U.S., only forty-seven per cent of Americans have a favorable view of the U.N., according to a poll issued on Tuesday by Morning Consult. (Republicans have less positive views than Democrats.)
The U.N. has lost most of its relevance, purpose, and effectiveness for two reasons, Haass told me. The revival of the great-power rivalry between the U.S. and Russia has “essentially gridlocked” the fifteen-member Security Council. In his view, the rest of the U.N.—the General Assembly, the various agencies, the World Health Organization, the climate initiative—involves scores of nations and often ends up accommodating the lowest common denominator and accomplishing little. Miliband added that the U.N. was founded, in 1945, when much of Europe was still in ruins, on the twin principles of national sovereignty and responsibility, and international law and rules. Over the decades, however, sovereignty has increasingly been used as a shield against accountability, not only by Russia. The summit has been turned into a gabfest. The U.N. faces “a real geopolitical imperative” to break this cycle, he said.
Despite the global divisions over Russia, Putin’s nuclear bluster and mobilization bravado are a huge gamble for his nation and himself. He needs more troops to take and hold Ukrainian territory after losing tens of thousands to death or injuries. On Wednesday, Zelensky said that he was not surprised by Putin’s announcement—because of all the Russian desertions on the battlefield. (Russia has already been forced to deploy mercenaries and released prisoners.) Inside Russia, the mobilization will accentuate the war’s growing costs. After Putin’s speech, flights out of the country were reportedly rocketing in price and selling out fast. The most popular destinations were Istanbul and Yerevan; neither Turkey nor Armenia requires Russians to acquire a visa. More than a thousand people were reportedly detained during protests in more than thirty cities, and as far away as Siberia. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “Putin’s call to partially mobilize Russian citizens, directing them to fight in Ukraine, reflects the Kremlin’s struggles on the battlefield, the unpopularity of the war, and Russians’ unwillingness to fight in it.” The problems for Putin are far from over. And so, alas, is the war in Ukraine. ♦