Over 100 world leaders assembled in New York earlier this week for the United Nation’s annual General Assembly (UNGA). Traditionally, the UNGA is the biggest diplomatic occasion of the year. It provides an opportunity for heads of governments and states to gather and discuss the global issues of the day. This year, the UNGA is different. Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is in the midst of fully fledged military invasion of another sovereign state, Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin did not attend the UNGA this week, sending instead his Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on the other hand, attended virtually, giving an online address to the Assembly from Kyiv on Wednesday, 22 September. While the war in Ukraine has consumed most of the debate, other global issues like the ongoing energy crisis and rise in energy costs, food security and climate change called for substantial discussion and debate between leaders.
The European Union, through the presence of its institutional leaders and Member States, played a crucial role at this year’s UNGA. European Council President Charles Michel, European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen and the EU High Representative, Josep Borrell were all in attendance.
The significant role of the EU as a global player came to the fore in particular on Wednesday following Putin’s claim that the west is trying to “weaken, divide and destroy Russia”. In a nationwide TV address, Putin announced that accession referendums would soon take place in the Russian controlled areas of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporinzhzhia and ordered the mobilisation of army reservists to support Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine. Putin also warned that he would use Russia’s nuclear arsenal if its “territorial integrity” was “threatened”, causing great alarm and concern in Washington, Brussels and beyond.
Speaking before the UNGA, US President Biden condemned Putin’s referendum and mobilisation plans describing them as “outrageous”, while German Chancellor Scholz described Putin’s plan as a sign of desperation. Together, the EU responded rapidly by organising an extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council meeting on Wednesday night on the margins of the UNGA. Led by the EU’s High Representative Borrell, EU Foreign Ministers condemned “in the strongest possible terms the latest escalation by Russia of its illegal, unprovoked and unjustified aggression against Ukraine”. EU Ministers described the “illegal ‘referenda’” announced by Putin as “another blatant violation of the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and a serious violation of the UN Charter” and noted that the EU and its Member States would “never recognise these areas as anything but a part of Ukraine”.
Speaking about Russian developments with the CNN, Commission President von der Leyen said she believed it time the EU introduce additional sanctions. Discussions have already begun between the Commission President’s team and EU capitals to gage how far Member States are willing to go with the next round of measures. The EU’s High Representative Borrell has said there is unanimity between Member States on the need for additional measures against Russian sectors and persons. Measures under discussion include the introduction of a cap on the price of Russian oil and a new crackdown on the trade of luxury goods with Russia. The Commission could publish a draft text outlining possible measures as soon as today, Friday, 23 September.