Joe Biden will use his speech at the United Nations on Wednesday to rally the world to stand firm in the face of Russian plans to hold referendums in occupied parts of Ukraine and possibly introduce widespread conscription, which the US described as signs of desperation unlikely to halt Ukrainian military gains.
Biden will seek the broadest possible support for Ukrainian resistance at the UN general assembly (UNGA) by depicting it as a direct violation of the UN’s founding charter, and will make new announcements about the US funding of measures to address global food insecurity, caused in part by the Russian invasion, which has threatened developing countries with famine.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said: “Hey [Biden] will underscore the importance of strengthening the United Nations and reaffirm core tenets of its charter at a time when a permanent member of the security council has struck at the very heart of the charter by challenging the principle of territorial integrity and sovereignty.”
Speaking in New York, on the margins of the UNGA summit, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken said: “None of this – the sham referenda, the potential mobilization of additional forces – is a sign of strength. On the contrary, it’s a sign of weakness. It’s the sign of Russian failure.”
Biden’s speech on Wednesday morning will be followed a few hours later by a video address delivered by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, an address that Russia tried to stop but which was overwhelmingly supported by the general assembly membership.
Biden and Zelensky will seek to present the Russian invasion as a direct affront to everything the UN stands for. They will make their speeches as reports of mass graves filter in from the formerly Russian-occupied town of Izium, and after the Russian state Duma passed new amendments to the legal code that directly refer to “mobilization” and “martial law”, and introduce criminal liability for desertion or willful surrender during that period.
Four Russian-occupied regions in Ukraine have said they are planning to hold “referenda” on joining the Russian Federation in a series of coordinated announcements that could indicate the Kremlin has made a decision to formally annex the territories.
Sullivan said that the US would never accept the claimed results of such “sham referenda”. On possible conscription plans, he said Vladimir Putin “may be resorting to partial mobilization, forcing even more Russians to go fight his brutal war in Ukraine”. However, he did not think it would turn the military tide, which has shifted in Kyiv’s favor in recent days.
“In terms of Russia being able to put more troops onto the battlefield, obviously, that will have an impact on the battlefield equation, but we do not believe at this point that it will undermine Ukraine’s ability to effectively repel Russian aggression and to continue making gains,” Sullivan said.
In his address to the general assembly, French president Emmanuel Macron described the Russian attempt to occupy Ukraine as “a return to the age of imperialism”. Macron castigated those member states who presented themselves as being neutral in the conflict, saying they were making “a historic mistake”.
“Those who are keeping silent today are, in a way, complicit with the cause of a new imperialism,” the French president said.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Tuesday in his first address to the general assembly that Putin will give up his “imperial ambitions” that risk destroying Ukraine and Russia only if he recognizes he cannot win the war. “This is why we will not accept any peace dictated by Russia and this is why Ukraine must be able to fend off Russia’s attack,” Scholz said.
Finland’s president, Sauli Niinistö, portrayed the news out of Moscow as Putin raising the stakes in an ever more desperate gamble.
“Now we are in a situation where Putin, using the poker term, has gone all-in, and it is extremely risky to play this way. By all-in, I mean, for example, the political and economic future of Russia,” Niinistö said in his address to the assembly.
The Kremlin has so far resisted a full mobilization, likely due to fear of a political backlash. Experts have also questioned whether a Russian mobilization would have any immediate effect in terms of stopping a Ukrainian advance that has reclaimed more than 3,000 square miles in the past month.
“There’s one problem,” wrote Ekaterina Schulmann, a political analyst. “The administrative side of adding new territory takes time, mobilizing and integrating mobilized troops takes time, and they’re assuming the opposing side is going to stop and wait – evidently, out of respect for the Russian legislative process.”
The occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions have said they are ready to hold “polls”, which will be universally viewed as rigged, as soon as this week, with announcements also made in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Some Russian media have reported that Putin may deliver a speech shortly on a potential annexation.
As Ukrainian troops begin making advances in the Luhansk region, Russia may be worried that it can’t win on the battlefield and threaten a potential escalation, including a formal declaration of war or even a nuclear attack, by claiming to defend its own territory.
“Everything that’s happening today is an absolutely unequivocal ultimatum to Ukraine and the west,” wrote Tatiana Stanovaya, an expert on Kremlin politics and founder of R.Politik. “Either Ukraine retreats or there will be nuclear war.”
“To guarantee ‘victory’, Putin is ready to hold referendums immediately in order to obtain the right (in his understanding) to use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory.”