The president’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly came against the backdrop of a rare national address by Putin, who authorized mobilizing up to 300,000 reserves to the war effort while also resurfacing his threat to use nuclear weapons if Russia is threatened. Putin also gave his blessing to what U.S. officials declared a sham referendum for Ukrainian territories seized by Moscow to vote to become part of Russia.
“The world should see these outrageous acts for what they are,” Biden said. “Putin claims he had to act because Russia was threatened. But no one threatened Russia.”
All along, Biden planned to use his speech to denounce Putin and urge the West to hold together in continued support of Kyiv. But Putin’s inflammatory rhetoric heightened his call’s urgency, with fears growing that the Russian president would use some sort of tactical nuclear device on the battlefield.
White House aides made changes to the draft of the speech Wednesday morning before Biden left his midtown Manhattan hotel for the short drive to the United Nations complex overlooking the East River. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan reviewed the speech with Biden in the morning, adjusting and emphasizing certain lines, aides said.
The president did not mince words evoking Russia’s alleged war crimes — another mass grave was found in recent days, some of the corpses showing signs of torture — as he declared that Putin had become a global pariah.
“A permanent member of the United Nations Security Council invaded its neighbor, attempted to erase a sovereign state from the map,” Biden said. “Russia has shamelessly violated the core tenants of the United Nations charter.”
Putin’s bellicose pronouncements set off alarms in global capitals, but U.S. officials quickly signaled they believed Moscow’s change in strategy came from a position of weakness.
Putin had long resisted any sort of military mobilization for fears that a widespread effort to recruit more fighters could lead to protests and other domestic turmoil. But the stunning strength of Ukraine’s recent counteroffensive forced his hand, revealing that the Russian military was still suffering from manpower and morale issues and was in danger of losing more of the territory it has seized since the late February invasion
Though the war has gone poorly for Putin, U.S. officials believe the most perilous moment of the conflict is on the horizon. The Western alliance’s resolve will be tested by what looms as a cold, dark winter for Europe — with the continent cut off from Russia’s energy supplies, its resolve tested by rising prices and plunging temperatures.
Biden aides believe Ukraine’s recent wins prove it remains worth it for Europe to stand with Kyiv. The president hammered that point home from the rostrum in Turtle Bay, calling for the continent to stiffen its resolve as the United States continues to funnel billions of dollars of weapons and supplies to the Ukrainian resistance. Once more, he framed the upcoming century as a rivalry between democracies and autocracies, but also pushed non-democracies to stand with the West against Moscow.
But key members of that audience weren’t in the room.
Though the United Nations was holding its full General Assembly for the first time since before the Covid-19 pandemic, bringing together more than a hundred leaders and snarling traffic across Manhattan, some of the globe’s most powerful heads of state skipped the gathering.
Beyond Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and India’s Narendra Modi have not made the trip to New York, depriving Biden of an ability to chastise the two powers face to face for the soft support of Russia. Though U.S. officials do not believe either has violated sanctions by sending military aid to Russia, they have continued to purchase its energy, providing a fiscal lifeline to Moscow and helping in part to fund Putin’s war machine. Another key player on the global energy market, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also skipped the General Assembly.
But despite Xi’s absences, China remained a focus. Biden chastised some of its economic practices and sharply criticized Beijing for a nuclear buildup without transparency.
“We do not seek conflict. We do not seek a Cold War,” Biden said. “But the United States will be unabashed in promoting our vision of a free, open, secure and prosperous world.”
The absence of the heavyweights from New York also, White House aides acknowledged, furthered the impression that the United Nations, though still a glitzy gathering of global diplomacy, has been relegated this year as an opening act of sorts for the G-20 summit.
That summit, to be held in November in Indonesia, is expected to attract all of those major players, setting up Biden’s first face-to-face meeting with Xi since taking office as well as potentially giving the chance for the West to confront Putin. Hushed conversations across New York this week also held the rumor that Volodymyr Zelenskyy might also appear in Bali, in what would be his first time leaving his war-torn country since Russia’s invasion.
Before Putin’s escalation, the White House also seemed to deemphasize the gathering in Turtle Bay.
The president’s visit was cut short by more than a day by the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, which he attended Monday. But rather than fly directly from London to New York, he returned to the White House for nearly 24 hours — and delivered a slightly off-topic speech about dark money in politics — before making his way to Manhattan on Tuesday evening.
He headed straight for a Democratic party fundraiser — one of at least two on his New York itinerary. He skipped one climate change gathering, along with a big food security meeting, but Biden did hammer home the dangers of global warming during his speech, as well as announce a U.S. commitment to combat global food insecurity. Biden also urged the United Nations to reform itself, declaring that the Security Council should be expanded with both new permanent and rotating seats to give Latin America and Africa a voice.
Kelly Hooper contributed to this report.