Russia’s war in Ukraine took on new urgency Wednesday at the gathering of the U.N. General Assembly, following a major escalation from President Vladimir Putin.
“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people – this is not a bluff,” Putin said in a televised address to the nation early Wednesday.
In New York, President Joe Biden said such “overt nuclear threats” show a “reckless disregard” for Moscow’s responsibilities under nonproliferation rules.
Biden also criticized Putin’s plans to mobilize 300,000 military reservists and to hold referenda in four Ukrainian regions where his troops hold some territory.
“This world should see these outrageous acts for what they are,” Biden told a packed assembly hall.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he was calling an urgent meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers Wednesday night in New York, following what he said was a “major escalation” by Putin.
“By the threat of using nuclear weapons, he is trying to intimidate Ukraine and all countries that support Ukraine,” Borrell told reporters on the sidelines of the General Assembly. “But he will fail, he has failed, and he will fail again.”
He said the international community cannot accept such a threat and that leaders gathered at the U.N. this week must react.
As for the European Union, he said the bloc would continue its military and economic support to Kyiv and would consider new sanctions on Russia, especially if it went ahead with the referenda.
Borrell said he had no plans to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who has arrived in New York. Lavrov will attend a ministerial meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Thursday, where he is likely to clash with his Western counterparts.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was allowed to address the assembly in a prerecorded video.
He told the international community that a crime has been committed against his nation and Russia must be punished for it. He laid out five preconditions for peace, which include financial reparations from Moscow.
“Punishment for aggression, protection of life, restoration of security and territorial integrity, security guarantees and determination to defend oneself,” he said in English. “This is the formula of crime and punishment.”
His wife, first lady Olena Zelenska, was at Ukraine’s table in the General Assembly.
“We are ready for peace, but true, honest and fair peace,” he emphasized.
Zelenskyy’s speech was met with lengthy applause, with some delegates rising to their feet.
Meanwhile, international concerns continue around nuclear safety in Ukraine. There was fresh shelling around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on Wednesday and a few days earlier around another nuclear station, the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant.
International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi said he has met separately in New York with both the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia to discuss the parameters for a safety and security protection zone around the Zaporizhzhia plant.
“There is, I would say above differences that do exist, there is a conviction that the establishment of this zone is indispensable,” Grossi told reporters. “Let’s be clear: This nuclear power plant is being shelled, so you need to protect it in some way. We have the means, the technical knowledge as the IAEA, to know what needs to be done and how to do it.”
He said he is working with Ukraine and Russia on the “very concrete aspects” of what is required to establish the zone, and each side will focus on what is feasible for them.
The nuclear watchdog chief said he hopes to travel to both countries soon to continue discussions.
“Given the urgency of the situation, and the gravity of what’s going on in the field, we have to move fast,” he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the exchange of more than 250 prisoners of war between Ukraine and Russia on Wednesday.
“This is no small feat, but much more remains to be done to ease the suffering caused by the war in Ukraine,” his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said. He added that Guterres will continue to support any additional efforts that may be undertaken, “including further exchanges under an ‘all for all formula’ approach.”