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Russia, Ukraine spar at UN with rival tributes to conflict dead

Russia and Ukraine have faced off at the UN Security Council [UNSC] on the first anniversary of their war, with their confrontation even extending to duelling moments of silence for the dead.

Friday’s showdown began before the session formally started, with Russia’s ambassador demanding to know why Ukraine was ahead of council members on the speakers list. 

Most dramatically, in the middle of the meeting, the two countries tussled over tributes to the victims of the war. And it culminated with rival views on how to achieve peace.

Near the beginning, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that, “finally, on this tragic day, when we mourn lives, and destinies broken by Russia, I kindly ask everyone to observe a minute of silence in memory of the victims of the aggression.”

He rose to his feet. Everyone in the council chamber stood in silence.

But even in a moment of respect for the war dead, Ukraine and Russia were at odds.

As soon as Kuleba sat down, Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia asked for the floor, saying: “We are getting to our feet to honour the memory of all victims of what has happened in Ukraine starting in 2014 — all of those who perished.”

READ MORE: Live blog: Zelenskyy keen to meet China’s Xi; Canada to send tanks to Kiev

‘All lives are priceless’

Nebenzia’s use of 2014 and double emphasis on the word “all,” were references to Russia’s claims that the conflict with Ukraine began that year after Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly president was driven from office by mass protests.

Russia responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and then threw its weight behind an insurgency in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine region known as Donbass that continues and which Putin has illegally annexed.

“All lives are priceless, and that is why we’re rising to honour the memory of them all,” Nebenzia said, referring to Russians, pro-Russian Ukrainians in the east as well as Ukrainians elsewhere in the country.

Nebenzia and Russian diplomats then rose to their feet, and slowly, apparently after some thought, other members in the council chamber rose until everyone in the chamber was standing silently for about a minute.

Although Moscow and Kiev keep precise numbers under wraps, Western estimates suggest hundreds of thousands of killed and wounded on both sides.

Nebenzia accused Malta, which holds the council’s rotating presidency, of giving Ukraine preference in choosing it to speak first just because it is “part of your geopolitical project.”

He also objected to foreign ministers of 14 European countries on the speakers list along with the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, saying they all have the same EU position “and will bring no added value” to the debate.

Malta’s Foreign Minister Ian Borg responded that the European ministers flew to New York and asked to speak because “they feel that their countries have been and are still being directly impacted by this war.”

Kuleba told the council that “Ukraine will resist as it has done so far, and Ukraine will win.” And he declared that Russian President Vladimir “Putin is going to lose much sooner than he thinks.”

READ MORE: Erdogan calls for ‘just peace’ in Ukraine in phone call with Putin

‘One man can end it’

Kuleba then delivered several messages to Russian officials and servicemen: You may think you will get away with what you did but “you will end up on trial.” 

And if you think Ukraine will get tired of defending itself, “the longer you will keep attacking Ukraine … the more humiliating your defeat will be.”

Kuleba urged countries everywhere to implement President Volodymry Zelenskyy’s peace plan and the General Assembly resolution adopted on Thursday with support from 141 countries demanding that his country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are upheld, as required by the UN Charter. The resolution also calls for a cessation of hostilities and withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukraine.

In that vote, 11 of the 15 council members supported the resolution, Russia opposed it, and China, Gabon and Mozambique abstained.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned council members that they “should not fall into the false equivalency of calling on both sides to stop fighting and calling on other nations to stop supporting Ukraine in the name of peace.”

“If Russia stops fighting and leaves Ukraine, the war ends. If Ukraine stops fighting, Ukraine ends,” Blinken said. “Vladimir Putin started this war. One man can end it.”

Russia’s Nebenzia countered that what Ukraine and the West want “is a capitulation of Russia and inflicting a strategic defeat of Russia, ideally followed by the disintegration of the country and redrawing the territories in includes.”

The goal of what Russia calls its special military operation has never been to destroy Ukraine, Nebenzia said, but to have “a friendly neighbour who doesn’t threaten us,” and it is ready to negotiate on how its goals could be implemented.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the many ministers backing Ukraine insisted at the council meeting that the UN Charter’s principles guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity and independence must be the basis of any peace.

“The guns are talking now,” Guterres said, “but in the end we all know that the path of diplomacy and accountability is the road to a just and sustainable peace — peace in line with the UN Charter and international law.”

READ MORE: Ukraine conflict: Analysing Türkiye’s mediation that yielded positives

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