U.S. and Russia Battle for World Opinion at U.N. Over Ukraine

Blinken is still looking for a diplomatic offramp.

By , , and
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the U.N.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the U.N.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses a United Nations Security Council meeting on Ukraine in New York on Feb. 17. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

The United States and Russia faced off in a high-stakes war of words at the United Nations Security Council on Thursday amid U.S. warnings that the Kremlin is prepared to launch an imminent invasion of Ukraine, involving air, sea, and ground forces aimed at seizing the capital, Kyiv.

In a sign of the urgency, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken briefly delayed his visit to Berlin for the Munich Security Conference to address a U.N. Security Council meeting hosted by Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergey Vershinin.

“As we meet today, the most immediate threat to peace and security is Russia’s looming aggression against Ukraine,” Blinken told the 15-nation council. He said U.S. information indicates an attack against Ukraine “in the coming days. … This is a moment of peril for the lives and safety of millions of people, as well as for the foundation of the United Nations Charter and the rules-based international order.”

The United States and Russia faced off in a high-stakes war of words at the United Nations Security Council on Thursday amid U.S. warnings that the Kremlin is prepared to launch an imminent invasion of Ukraine, involving air, sea, and ground forces aimed at seizing the capital, Kyiv.

In a sign of the urgency, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken briefly delayed his visit to Berlin for the Munich Security Conference to address a U.N. Security Council meeting hosted by Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergey Vershinin.

“As we meet today, the most immediate threat to peace and security is Russia’s looming aggression against Ukraine,” Blinken told the 15-nation council. He said U.S. information indicates an attack against Ukraine “in the coming days. … This is a moment of peril for the lives and safety of millions of people, as well as for the foundation of the United Nations Charter and the rules-based international order.”

Blinken’s appearance is part of the U.S. strategy to use the U.N. Security Council—which has little power to compel Russia to respect Ukraine’s borders—as a global theater to rally international opinion against Russia and dramatize its diplomatic isolation. Blinken dismissed Russian claims that it is withdrawing its forces from the Ukrainian border, and he provided a detailed account of what the United States believes is Russia’s strategy for war, including signs that the Russian media is engaging in a massive disinformation campaign to “maximize public outrage” and “lay the groundwork for an invented justification for war.”

“The government will issue proclamations declaring that Russia must respond to defend Russian citizens or ethnic Russians in Ukraine,” he predicted. “Russian missiles and bombs will drop across Ukraine. Communications will be jammed. Cyberattacks will shut down key Ukrainian institutions. After that, Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans. We believe these targets include … Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million people.”

The Biden administration has expressed hope that by publicly exposing Russia’s military planning, it can deny Moscow a credible pretext for war and persuade President Vladimir Putin to take a diplomatic offramp. Blinken proposed a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov next week in Europe. He also proposed a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), with a view to paving the way for a summit of key leaders.

Russia’s envoy, Vershinin, hit back, citing the West’s “baseless accusation that Russia was allegedly going to attack Ukraine.” He urged his colleagues to “resist the temptation to play to the cameras” or to “make this meeting of ours into a circus.”

He mocked leaked U.S. predictions that a Russian invasion would occur on Feb. 16: “The announced date of the so-called invasion is behind us, so therefore my advice to you is not to present yourself in an awkward situation.”

Russia, which holds the presidency of the U.N. Security Council this month, convened Thursday’s meeting to highlight what it claims is Ukraine’s failure to abide by the Minsk agreement, which requires the government to engage in political talks with Russian-backed separatists controlling parts of eastern Ukraine. “I must say we are very disappointed by the ostrich-like position of our Western colleagues who are trying not to see obvious things,” Vershinin said.

But the OSCE’s special representative in Ukraine, Mikko Kinnunen, said that “it is not appropriate” to apportion blame on one party of the Minsk agreement, as all parties to the pact have failed to fully implement it.

Russia’s public diplomacy has benefited from past American intelligence failures, principally former U.S. President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq on the basis of false claims that Saddam Hussein had preserved weapons of mass destruction after the First Gulf War. Russian officials frequently invoke then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 2003 Security Council briefing, where he wielded a simulated vial of anthrax to demonstrate what he falsely claimed was Iraq’s capability to use large quantities of the biological agent as a weapon of terrorism.

Blinken directly confronted those concerns about the credibility of American intelligence, saying, “I am mindful that some have called into question our information, recalling previous instances where intelligence ultimately did not bear out. But let me be clear: I am here today not to start a war, but to prevent one.”

Ahead of the Thursday meeting, Russia filed a report with the U.N. claiming Ukrainian military forces committed “genocide” against Russian-speaking people in the Donbass region of Ukraine, currently controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Top Biden administration officials cast doubt on the claims and pointed to them as a potential pretext for a Russian invasion.

“Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing or a genocide, making a mockery of a concept that we in this chamber do not take lightly, nor do I take lightly, based on my family history,” Blinken said during his U.N. remarks. (Blinken’s stepfather was a Holocaust survivor.)

“Over the past several weeks, we’ve also seen Russian officials and Russian media plant numerous stories in the press, any one of which could be elevated to serve as a pretext for an invasion,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Wednesday, prior to the U.N. meeting. “These are false narratives that Russia is developing for use as a pretext for military action against Ukraine.”

Top U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, have voiced fears that diplomatic efforts to avert war are foundering and Putin will continue with invasion plans. “This is Putin 101, and unfortunately, I’m getting more and more concerned that the window for diplomacy is being shut by Putin, and his moving forward would be a tragic mistake for the Ukrainians but also a tragic mistake for Russia,” Sen. Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told MSNBC on Thursday.

Blinken’s speech came as warnings of war from the Biden administration and Western officials reached a fever pitch. Washington and its allies have for weeks sought to prevent a Russian assault on Ukraine by calling out possible Russian false-flag operations to start an invasion. But so far, Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine’s borders, including in neighboring Belarus close to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, have continued.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, said that Russia had moved more troops and helicopters into place, increased readiness in the Black Sea, and moved blood banks toward the front lines, a sign that military action may be imminent. That coincided with satellite imagery from private company Maxar showing Russian forces building up field hospitals in Belarus and adding attack helicopters within reach of the Ukrainian border over the last 48 hours.

On Thursday morning, the Ukrainian military counted at least 32 shells fired by pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which the Russian parliament is pushing to be recognized as independent. The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, which has relocated from Kyiv to the western city of Lviv near the Polish border, blamed Russia for the attacks, which struck a kindergarten and a high school, injured at least two teachers, and disrupted power in the village. “The aggressor in Donbass is clear—Russia,” the embassy tweeted. The embassy called the attacks “a heinous violation” of the Minsk agreement.

Others in Europe have echoed those sentiments. “This is straight out of the Kremlin playbook,” tweeted British Foreign Minister Liz Truss, who traveled to Kyiv on Thursday, after learning of the attacks as she hit the ground.

Relations between Washington and Moscow have steadily deteriorated since the Kremlin accelerated its buildup of forces near Ukraine’s border in recent months. Last week, Moscow expelled the second-highest-ranking diplomat at the U.S. Embassy from Russia. Bart Gorman, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy, was forced to leave the country before his tour ended. “Russia’s action against our [deputy chief of mission] was unprovoked and we consider this an escalatory step and are considering our response,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said.

Russia has in the past year cut back the number of U.S. diplomats allowed in the country, forcing Washington to close several consulates and leave the U.S. Embassy in Moscow manned by only a skeleton crew. The Biden administration hasn’t yet responded with retaliatory cuts to the number of Russian diplomats in the United States.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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