American and British diplomats on Monday warned the UN Security Council that Russia could do grave damage to the international order that has underpinned global stability since the end of the Second World War if it does not take actions to deescalate the crisis it precipitated by deploying more than 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine.
The meeting of the 15-nation body, which was requested by the US last week, ended without any actions, but saw American and Russian diplomats trade barbs and accusations over the nature of the Russian troop build-up, which for months has threatened to expand a simmering conflict that began when Russian forces illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Almost immediately after the council convened at 10am, Russian ambassador Vasily Nebenzia failed to garner enough support from council members to end the session, and proceeded to accuse the United States of making “unfounded accusations” which he claimed to have had already “refuted”.
He also claimed that no Russian forces were in Ukraine and accused the US of calling the meeting for purposes of “megaphone diplomacy”.
In response, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the meeting had been called because of the “urgent and dangerous” situation posed by Russia’s menacing posture towards its neighbour, one of a number of former Soviet satellites that have turned to the West in the years since the end of the Cold War. She also noted that Ukraine has already faced invasion by Russian forces.
“You’ve heard from our Russian colleagues that we’re calling for this meeting to make you all feel uncomfortable. Imagine how uncomfortable you would be if you had 100,000 troops sitting on your border in the way that these troops are sitting on the border with Ukraine,” she said. She added later that the US had learned that Russia has recently moved 5,000 troops into Belarus and has 30,000 more moving towards the Ukrainian border.
Ms Thomas-Greenfield said Russia’s actions along its border with Ukraine “strike at the very heart” of the United Nations charter, and reflect “an escalation in a pattern of aggression that we’ve seen from Russia again and again”.
“This is as clear and consequential a threat to peace and security as anyone can imagine,” she said. She added that further Russian escalation put at risk UN member states’ right to self-determination and other principles enshrined in the United Nations charter.
“All countries have a stake in defending and preserving these principles. And nothing could be more fundamental. What would it mean for the world if former empires had licensed to start reclaiming territory by force?” she said. “This would set us down a dangerous path”.
The UK deputy permanent representative to the UN, James Kariuki, laid out in detail the extent of the Russian buildup of men and materiel along Ukraine’s border, which he said consists of at least 100,000 troops “equipped with tanks, armoured vehicles, rockets, artillery, and short-range ballistic missiles” and “supported by Russian air and maritime long range strike capabilities”.
“This is not a routine deployment, this is the largest military buildup in Europe in decades,” he said. “In the best case scenario, the scale of the Russian forces assembled on three sides of Ukraine is deeply destabilising. In the worst case, it is preparation for a military invasion of a sovereign country”.
Mr Kariuki noted that Russia has a previous history of lying about invasions of neighbouring states, and is currently carrying out actions that were also preludes to previous invasions.
“In 2008, Russia told this council that it was sending peacekeepers into Georgia. In reality, it was invading an independent democratic country. In 2014, Russia denied to this council the presence of its forces in Crimea. In reality, its soldiers were annexing part of an independent democratic Ukraine,” he said. “Today, Russia denies that its forces are posing a threat to Ukraine. But yes, again, we see disinformation, cyberattacks, and destabilising plots directed against an independent democratic country”.
A short time later, Mr Nebenzia responded by accusing the US of making a “hodgepodge of accusations” while offering “no specific facts,” and compared the current tensions to the 2003 US presentation of evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
“The discussions about a threat of war is provocative in and of itself. You are almost calling for this you want it to happen. You’re waiting for it to happen, as if you want to make your words become a reality. This is despite the fact that we are constantly rejecting these allegations. And this is despite the fact that no threat of a planned invasion into Ukraine, from the lips of any Russian politician or public figure over all of this period has been made,” he said.
Mr Nebenzia also accused the US and its allies of fomenting the 2014 Ukrainian revolution which ousted Russia-aligned president Viktor Yanukovych, which he called “bloody anti-constitutional coup” that brought to power “nationalist radicals, Russophobes,” and “Nazis”.
His remarks sought to frame the standoff as a manufactured crisis conjured by the United States and Nato, and quoted a statement by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky blaming the US for stirring up “panic” over a potential Russian invasion.
But Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, chastised Mr Nebenzia for mischaracterising Ukraine’s position while speaking Mr Zelensky’s words in Russian.
“My leadership speaks its own language, has its own ambassadors and spokespersons, so there is no need to interpret the words of Ukrainian officials in a foreign language,” he said.
“The fact is … about 112,000 Russian troops have been amassed around Ukraine’s borders and in Crimea. And together with the maritime and aviation components, they a number reaches about 130,000,” he said. “Once again, I have clear instructions from my government to reiterate today the absence of any aggressive intention as well as Ukraine’s strong commitment to peace,” he continued. “Today we have heard from the Russian side that they do not intend to launch a war against my country … as we still lack credible explanations by Russia of his actions and military movements. Based on experience we cannot believe Russian declarations but only practical moves on withdrawal of troops from the border”.
He added that Ukraine “strongly rejects any attempt to use the strength of force as an instrument of pressure” to make Kiev or its partners “accept illegitimate demands”.
“The most principal position for Ukraine is that we have an inherent sovereign right to choose our own security arrangements, including treaties of alliances which cannot be questioned by Russia,” he said. “Ukraine will not bow to threats aimed at weakening Ukraine, undermining its economic and financial stability and inciting public frustration. This will not happen and the Kremlin must remember that Ukraine is ready to defend itself”.
Speaking later on Monday at a State Department press briefing, spokesperson Ned Price told reporters the meeting had been a worthwhile exercise despite the lack of any action.
“This was not about a resolution. It was not about a vote. This was about an exposition of the facts,” he said.
Pressed on what the point of the meeting had been given it had been little more than an exchange of talking points, Mr Price said the US would not “apologise for engaging in robust diplomacy”.
Later on Monday the US State Department said it had received a written response from Moscow to its proposals to de-escalate the situation.
A spokesperson said: “It would be unproductive to negotiate in public, so we’ll leave it up to Russia if they want to discuss their response. We remain fully committed to dialogue to address these issues and will continue to consult closely with our Allies and partners, including Ukraine.”