Capitalizing on heightened media interest in Ukraine in the wake of an impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump’s dealings with Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy used his September 25 speech to the United Nations to appeal for increased international aid in resisting Russia’s territorial encroachments.
The newly elected, 41-year-old leader, a novice in international affairs, delivered his first speech before the United Nations one day after the start of an official impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump amidst allegations that he withheld aid money from Ukraine to pressure Zelenskiy into investigating the Ukrainian business activities of Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic frontrunner presidential candidate Joe Biden.
President Trump has denied any wrongdoing.
The scandal has compelled Zelenskiy to walk a delicate diplomatic line during his UN trip, but, in a September 24 video, he appeared to view his speech as an opportunity rather than a challenge.
“The most important thing,” he commented, is that “they speak about Ukraine, that nobody forgets about Ukraine.”
In his roughly 15-minute-long address, the Ukrainian leader, a former TV comedian, did not address Kyiv’s relations with Washington. Instead, with an actor’s sense of timing, he pushed for greater international assistance in restoring Ukrainian control over the Russia-annexed Crimean peninsula and the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donbas and Luhansk, controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
“We can’t sit quietly while Russia conducts war in the center of Europe. You can’t think that this doesn’t concern you,” he said, speaking in Ukrainian. “That’s exactly how two world wars started. As a result, millions of human lives became the payment for negligence, silence, and inaction.”
He called on international leaders to recognize their own responsibility for collective security, and not only for that of their own countries.
“Today, any war in any country, whether Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Yemen or any other war, is a threat to human civilization overall. As in the past, conflicts between states are resolved by missiles and not by words.”
Current Time's live broadcast of President Zelenskiy's UN speech (In Russian)
To connect with listeners “through emotions and not politics,” commented Ukrainian political analyst Vladimir Fisenko, Zelenskiy cited the example of Vasiliy Slipak, a Paris-based Ukrainian opera singer who was killed in Donetsk in 2016 while fighting as a volunteer against separatist forces.
“A bullet costs $10,” Zelenskiy said, holding one for emphasis. “Unfortunately, that’s the price of a human life," he said.
He did not specify the type of enhanced international support he seeks to help end the fighting in Ukraine.
At the September 24 UN Sustainable Development Summit, however, Zelenskiy presented figures to support his appeal.
Russia’s Crimea annexation and the conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have cost the country “over 13,000 citizens” as well as more than 15 percent of its GDP, he stated. The country has also lost control of 80 percent of its coal mines (Donetsk is Ukraine’s primary coal-mining region) and some $5 billion in bank assets, he said.
He cited the conflict with Russia as well as domestic "resistance" to reforms as the barriers to Ukraine's economic recovery.
“However, I believe that together with our international partners, we will be able to bring back our territories, end the war and ensure peace politically and diplomatically," the Ukrainian presidential press service reported him as saying. "And that is our major goal."
Currently, 18 different UN operations exist in Ukraine, focusing on, among other initiatives, providing humanitarian assistance to displaced persons and encouraging rule of law.
Zelenskiy’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, had called for the UN to deploy peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine, but Zelenskiy has described himself as “very cautious” about the idea.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which plays a role in facilitating communication between Ukraine and Russia, has deployed approximately 600 civilian monitors throughout eastern Ukraine, but they can take no active role in stopping combat.
-With additional reporting by UNIAN