A Russia deeply enmeshed in the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II dispatched its foreign minister to the United Nations Security Council on Monday to extol the virtues of peace and diplomacy. But Western diplomats instantly accused Moscow of hypocrisy.
The spectacle occurred as Russia nears the end of its one-month presidency of the Council. Intent on using the platform to full advantage, its foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, led an all-day session described as focused on the maintenance of the U.N. charter, international rules and multilateralism.
But the gathering also offered Russia a chance to denounce its adversaries and to try to flip the narrative of its invasion of Ukraine, casting the West as the true aggressor.
“Nobody allowed the Western minority to speak for all of humankind,” Mr. Lavrov said at the Council. “They need to be polite and respect all members of the international community.”
For all the theater — the United States and European members of the Council pointedly did not send their own foreign ministers — the session made clear the dangers facing the world.
António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, warned that the multilateral global system was “under greater strain than at any time since the creation of the United Nations” and cautioned that the tensions between major powers increased the risk of conflict. And Mr. Lavrov himself spoke of the world being at a “possibly even more dangerous threshold” than it was during the Cold War.
Even as Russian forces maintained their brutal campaign to subdue Ukraine, Mr. Lavrov offered the Council a long, wide-ranging speech that touched on the aggressions of the West over the decades, from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the invasion of Iraq.
But Western diplomats said the aggressor today is clearly Russia.
“This illegal, unprovoked and unnecessary war runs directly counter to our most sacred principle: that a war of aggression and territorial conquest is never, ever acceptable,” said the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
Ms. Thomas-Greenfield brought to the United Nations Elizabeth Whelan, an American whose brother, Paul Whelan, is imprisoned in Russia. And she demanded the release of another imprisoned American, the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.
Richard Gowan, the U.N. director at the International Crisis Group, a foreign policy think tank based in Brussels, said: “In a sense everybody got what they wanted today. Lavrov got to show that Russia’s position in the Security Council is assured. Western diplomats got to be rude to Lavrov. So that was a win-win situation for both sides.”
But the real audience Mr. Lavrov was trying to reach — and the opportunity offered by the one-month Security Council presidency — may well have lain elsewhere.
The West’s attempts to punish Russia over the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine have been only partially successful. Many countries in Asia and Africa, still paying the price of Western colonialism, have refrained from condemning the war. And often trapped between competing superpowers, they find great appeal in the subject of the day’s Security Council session: multilateralism.
In addition to the Council’s 15-members, more than a dozen Asian and African countries also participated in the debate, calling for a more balanced, less polarized global order that better upholds the goals of the United Nations.
Nepal’s ambassador, Amrit Bahadur Rai, said that for small countries, the topic was urgent. “We expect the Council members, especially the permanent members, to work harder to reach a consensus to address the problems facing the world today,” he said.
In welcoming Mr. Lavrov as leader of the meeting, the Chinese ambassador appeared to send a message to the West.
“We are against the distortion by some countries of the meaning of international law and the imposition of their own will on the international community,” said Ambassador Zhang Jun.
In a long speech that came before Mr. Lavrov’s comments, Mr. Guterres mentioned the war only once.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in violation of the United Nations Charter and international law, is causing massive suffering and devastation to the country and its people, and adding to the global economic dislocation triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic,” the secretary general said.
Mr. Guterres’s apparent circumspection suggested that he did not want to risk alienating Mr. Lavrov ahead of critical negotiations to extend a deal that allowed badly needed Ukrainian grain trapped by the war to be shipped again. The grain deal is set to expire on May 18, and the United Nations is concerned that its collapses would have dire consequences on global food security.
Mr. Lavrov held a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Guterres on Monday afternoon where the two men discussed the war in Ukraine, the grain deal, and the situations in Afghanistan and Syria, according to a U.N. readout of the meeting.
The presidency of the Security Council rotates between its members. Russia’s is over at the end of the month,
The Kremlin’s adversaries could not stop Russia from holding the presidency, or prevent Mr. Lavrov from presiding over Monday’s session. They could only try to counter Moscow’s narrative.
Before the meeting, the European Union’s ambassador to the United Nations, Olof Skoog, delivered a statement on behalf of the bloc as all its 27 ambassadors stood next to him. “By organizing this debate, Russia is trying to portray itself as a defender of the U.N. Charter and multilateralism,” he said. But, he said, “Everywhere you look, Russia is in contempt.”
Mr. Lavrov on Tuesday will chair a Council meeting on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
For all the outrage over Russia holding the presidency, the Security Council has conducted business largely as normal over the past weeks, with backdoor diplomacy and scheduled events taking place as ever.
The Council addressed two crises this month: the abrupt war in Sudan and the Taliban banning women from working, including for U.N. agencies.
“In both cases, Russia is not an outright spoiler,” said Mr. Gowan, the Crisis Group analyst. “Maybe those crises have helped keep Council members in line.”
In a rare show of unity, Security Council members issued an official statement condemning the fighting in Sudan and calling for an immediate cease-fire and return to political dialogue.