“President Putin, stop your troops from attacking Ukraine, give peace a chance,” Secretary-General António Guterres urged Wednesday evening at the start of an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, the body's second late night session this week.
Hours after speakers took the floor in the 193-member General Assembly to denounce Russia’s actions towards Ukraine and appeal for diplomacy, Mr. Guterres said that instead of repeating what he’d stated there, his political chief would update the Council on “a number of events” that had taken place during the day.
But before handing the microphone to her, he drew attention to rumours that were circulating that an offensive against Ukraine was imminent.
About an hour into the Council meeting, President Putin announced in Moscow that a 'special military operation' in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region had commenced, and that he had asked Ukrainian troops to put down their arms.
Guterres 'saddest moment'
In light of this development, the UN chief said, “I must change my address and say: In the name of humanity bring your troops back to Russia. In the name of humanity to not start what may be the most devastating war since the start of the century.”
Rapidly unfolding events
Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary A. DiCarlo told the Council that earlier in the day, the “so-called authorities of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics” had requested military assistance from Russia.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian authorities declared a nationwide state of emergency and announced other related defence and security measures, including the mobilization of reservists.
Under the present circumstances, I must change my appeal:— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) February 24, 2022
President Putin, in the name of humanity, bring your troops back to Russia.
This conflict must stop now.
“Throughout the day we have seen disturbing reports of continued heavy shelling across the contact line and civilian and military casualties…the repeated targeting of civilian infrastructure…[and] an ongoing large-scale military build-up and military columns moving towards Ukraine,” she said.
Moreover, Russia has also reportedly shut airspace to civilian aircraft near the border with Ukraine.
“The United Nations cannot verify any of these reports, but if these developments were confirmed, they would greatly aggravate an already extremely dangerous situation,” she said.
The Ukrainian authorities are also reporting a new large-scale cyber-attack targeting several State and financial institutions.
Staying and delivering
UN staff remain on the ground to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Ukraine, Ms. DiCarlo said, adding, “we are committed to staying and delivering”.
“All parties must ensure the safety and security. Respect for international humanitarian law and international human rights law is also paramount”, she stated.
While the world cannot predict what will happen in the coming hours and days ahead, Ms. DiCarlo said that “what is clear is the unacceptably high cost – in human suffering and destruction – of an escalation," concluded the senior UN official.
US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that the meeting was being held tonight because, along with Ukraine, “we believe that a full-scale further invasion is imminent”.
She pointed to the closing of airspace by the Russian authorities, as well as moving troops into Donbas and moving other forces into combat-ready positions.
“This is a perilous moment and we’re here for one reason, and one reason only: to ask Russia to stop. Return to your borders. Send your troops, your tanks, and your planes back to their barracks and hangars. And send your diplomats to the negotiating table. Back away from the brink, before it is too late.”
Ms. Thomas-Greenfield reminded the Council that Russia had called previous predictions “hysterical”, saying that US was "lying and supplying the world with misinformation."
“But what we said would happen has come to pass, for all the world to see,” the US Ambassador spelled out. “We must confront this threat head-on”.
‘Unjustifiable blow’ to peace
French Ambassador Nicolas de Rivière said that Russia was on the verge of provoking chaos in Ukraine and striking “an unjustifiable blow to peace and security in the heart of Europe”.
He said that President Putin had been planning this assault for months and had consistently and patiently undermined Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“Throughout all this, Ukraine has shown remarkable restraint, including restraining from violence,” Mr. de Rivière said.
He reminded that European allies and the United States had consistently expressed commitment to work together with Russia to seek a diplomatic solution and “the international community had made its united voice heard earlier today in the General Assembly, calling for respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty.
The French Ambassador said that “if Russia confirms that its choice is war it will have to take all the responsibility and pay the price.”
‘A gun to Ukraine’s head’
UK Ambassador Dame Barbara Woodward noted that for months, Russia has been holding “a gun to Ukraine’s head”.
Members of the Security Council, General Assembly, and the Secretary-General himself had been calling for an end to Russia’s aggression.
“The world is calling for peace, but Russia is not listening,” she said.
As such, the United Kingdom, she said, will not compromise its commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“We will not compromise our commitment to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter…most of all the founding principle that we live together as good neighbors,” concluded Ms. Woodward.
Root of the crisis
Russian Ambassador Vasily Alekseevich Nebenzya, who is serving as the President of the Council for February, said that after listening to the statements tonight and in recent days, it was difficult to explain intensification of shelling by the Ukrainian regime of civilians by in Donetsk and Luhansk.
All the speakers seemed not to care for those people “who are living in basements. They seemed not to care about the refugees that are fleeing to Russia,” he said, as if "those four million people simply don’t exist.”
“We tried yesterday and the day before to explain the logic by which Russia recognized the regions in the Donbas, but you just didn’t want to hear it; then or now. The people of the Donbas have been living in fear for the past eight years under Ukraine’s shelling and aggressions,” he said.
The Russian Ambassador stated that “the root of today’s crisis around Ukraine is Ukraine itself, which has for years been undermining the Minsk Agreements and calls for de-escalation”.
He told Council members that he had just learned that President Putin had announced a special military operation in the region, but that was all he knew and would need more time to gather specific information.
“I will keep you appraised of the situation,” he said and added that “occupation of Ukraine is not in our plan, our plan is to protect the people [in the Donbas] from the genocide perpetrated by the regime in Kyiv.”
Too late for de-escalation
Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya said that most of his statement was “useless now” after the Russian Ambassador had stated openly from the floor of the Council that President Putin had “declared war on my country”.
He welcomed the intention of some Council members to submit a resolution condemning aggression against Ukraine, saying “there is no purgatory for war criminals. They go straight to hell.”
Mr. Kyslytsya asked the Russian Ambassador to clarify whether Ukraine was being bombed “at this very moment.”
“It's too late, dear collagues, to speak about de-escalation. Too late. The Russian President declared a war. Should I play the video of your President? You declared a war. It’s responsibility of this body to stop the war”, Mr. Kyslytsya said, directing his comments to Russian Ambassador Nebenzya. “You have a smartphone. You can call” officials in Moscow.
Considering this “declaration of war”, the Ukrainian Ambassador said that the Russian Federation should “relinquish the responsibilities of Council President and transfer them to a responsible member of the Council who... respects the UN Charter."
He also requested that the Secretary-General distribute legal UN memorandums from December 1991, particularly 19 December of that year, including a decision by the Security Council recommending that the Russian Federation be a Member State of the Organization. “It would be a miracle if the Secretariat is able to produce such decisions,” he said.
In the meantime, the Security Council should pause tonight's session to consider all resolutions and recommendations to stop the war.
“I call on every one of you to do everything possible to stop the war,” he concluded.
Before the end of the meeting, several members of the Council took the floor a second time to condemn President Putin's announcement of Russia's so-called “special military operation” in areas of eastern Ukraine.