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Putin mobilizes. Biden chides. Zelenskyy offers a plan. What experts heard in their words


As U.S. President Joe Biden denounced Russian aggression, as Russian President Vladimir Putin decried Western aggression, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy came to the UN General Assembly with a five-point formula for peace — and a sly literary dig at the Russians.

To be fair, he also denounced Russian aggression.

All three leaders had their moment in the spotlight Wednesday, amid the latest escalation by Russia in its now nearly seven-month war against Ukraine.

In the morning, Putin announced, by way of pre-recorded video, the immediate call-up of as many as 300,000 reservists to bolster the flagging Russian army’s efforts. He framed the call-up of reservists — expected to be deeply unpopular domestically — as a response to the West’s continued backing of Ukraine, and attempts, he alleged, to destroy Russia.

Putin also dropped some not-so-veiled hints that he is prepared to use nuclear weapons.

“I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction … and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” said Putin.

“This is not a bluff.”

At the same time, Russia is preparing to hold referendums on annexation in four of the Ukrainian regions it now occupies, events the West dismissed as illegitimate.

Biden spoke later in the day, condemning Putin during a speech to the UN and attempting to finesse a wedge between Putin and the Russian people — as well as between Russia and other countries.

“Members of the United Nations must be clear, firm and unwavering in our resolve. Ukraine has the same rights that belong to every sovereign nation,” he said. “We will stand in solidarity with Ukraine. We will stand in solidarity against Russia’s aggression, period.”

Biden also called for some changes to the structure of the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member with veto power on all resolutions.

“Let us speak plainly,” he said. “A permanent member of the United Nations Security Council invaded its neighbour, attempted to erase a sovereign state from the map.

“Russia has shamelessly violated the core tenets of the United Nations Charter, none more important than the clear prohibition against countries taking the territory of their neighbour by force.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also rebuked the Russian leader. “Putin was wrong and he is right now failing and flailing in his response to the situation,” Trudeau told reporters in New York.

While Putin and Biden fenced with their rhetoric, Zelenskyy, in his pre-recorded speech, was much more blunt.

He used the word “peace” three times in his first three sentences, the phrase “crime has been committed” five times in the next five, and the word “punishment” four times in the following four sentences, before outlining his five-point formula for peace in Ukraine.

And then — as befits a former comedian — he thrust the sword home at the end.

“So, all five items of our formula: punishment for aggression, protection of life, restoration of security and territorial integrity, security guarantees and determination to defend oneself,” he said.

“This is the formula of Crime and Punishment — which is already well known to Russia.”

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Russian novel, the protagonist tries to convince himself that certain crimes are justifiable if they are committed to further the goals of “extraordinary” men, of which he fancies himself one. But he quickly finds himself regretting the philosophy.

The three leaders each brought a message to the table Wednesday. Some of those messages were nuanced, in some cases — Zelenskyy’s — less so. The Star spoke with some of the country’s experts on international relations for their analysis of what they said, what they did not say, and what it likely meant.

Vladimir Putin — Showing signs of desperation

Putin’s speech smacks of desperation, says Aurel Braun, professor of international relations at the University of Toronto. It’s an attempt to cast the West as villains, while managing domestic displeasure with a war that was supposed to be long over.

Seven months ago, Putin planned on a swift invasion, the prompt collapse of the Ukrainian government and the immediate annexation of its 44 million people and vast natural resources.

He would re-establish Russia in the eyes of the world as a global superpower and he would use his new-found clout to pressure NATO to abandon the idea of taking new members in the region.

“It all went wrong,” said Braun. “He failed to overthrow the Ukrainian government. He failed to take over most of the country. He then failed to even hold ground that he had taken. So now this was an act of desperation.”

The drawn-out war has contributed greatly to Putin’s growing lack of popularity at home, hence Putin’s attempt to characterize Wednesday’s call-up as a “partial mobilization” rather than a full one.

It seems that many people may not be buying it; the same morning, one-way flights out of Russia quickly sold out, according to local reports, amid suspicions that the draft could be broadened at any moment.

Journalists in Moscow witnessed at least a dozen arrests in the first 15 minutes of a nighttime protest in the capital, with police in heavy body armour tackling demonstrators in front of Moscow shops, hauling some away as they chanted, “No to war!” More than 1,000 arrests were reported around the country.

Domestic popularity has been a problem for Putin, so he has been trying to find successes elsewhere to bolster his approval and distract his populace from a rickety economy and a poor standard of living.

He had found that success in previous invasions of Georgia in 2008 and in Crimea in 2014, and the international consequences were minimal. So, it was inevitable that at some point he would try it again, Braun said.

“(But) it turns out that the 10-foot-tall Russian army has a glass jaw,” Braun said. “They can punch hard, but they can’t take a punch when somebody hits back.”

“So, he tried to turn failure into success. What he’s saying is: ‘I’m not giving up. I’m going to throw more troops at this. I’m going to deny energy to western Europe. And when they begin to freeze in the winter, they will start arguing amongst themselves, fall apart, and come and support whatever terms I dictate.’

“He believes that he can still reverse this defeat; snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat, to use a cliché.”

But in doing so, Putin has to placate a war-weary citizenry. Hence, the “sham referendums.”

In annexing those parts of Ukraine, Putin can frame any attempt to retake those regions as a direct attack on Russia, Braun said, a threat to “the territorial integrity of our country,” as Putin puts it.

“By saying that the West wants to destroy our country, he is reverting to the old Soviet lexicon,” said Braun.

Meaning that because of the Soviet ideology — liberating mankind from oppression and alienation — whatever the Soviet Union did, like invading Hungary in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, was an act of defence.

“What (Putin) is saying is that whatever Russia does is an act of self-defence. Russia is encircled by an evil West that is dissolute, that is corrupt, that has lost its way. And Russia is defending real civilization.”

Joe Biden — An attempt to further isolate Putin

In Biden’s morning speech to the General Assembly, one expert sees Biden trying to frame Putin as a pariah, both to his own people and to the nations of the UN.

“He really positioned this as Putin’s war,” says Alex Wilner, associate professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

“ And so, he’s trying — and he’s been doing this for a while — to dissociate Russians from Moscow, from political leadership.

“And that sets up an end state whereby, with hope and maybe a little shove, perhaps Putin in the long game, might be replaced.”

At the same time, Biden’s speech clearly spells out Putin’s actions as a violation of the UN charter, specifically the prohibition on taking another state by force. In doing so, he attempts to pit the rest of the UN against Putin and Russia.

“What he’s saying is it’s not just Ukraine’s problem. It’s not just the Americans’ and Europeans’ problem. It’s everybody sitting in this room. It’s your problem, too,” said Wilner.

Biden, who dedicated the first third of his speech to his denunciation of Russia, made one concrete suggestion; that the UN Security Council needed some restructuring. Currently there are 15 members of the council, five — including Russia and the U.S. — of which are permanent and have the power to veto resolutions made by the council.

Biden suggested that those members should refrain from using that veto power “except in rare, extraordinary situations.” He also pushed for more permanent seats for countries from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and more non-permanent seats on the council.

That, notes Wilner, is mostly posturing, though it does highlight a particular UN problem, one that has been talked about at the UN on a regular basis.

“Russia, in practice, is able to use the vetoes to stymie progress on the Security Council,” said Wilner. “I think Biden is speaking to that audience, and it’s important that he’s doing this amongst the General Assembly because that noise (for change) comes out of the General Assembly by emerging powers, lesser powers and so forth, who want a greater voice at the Security Council.”

Notably absent from Biden’s speech at the UN was any mention of Putin’s nuclear weapon threat.

That may be because the U.S. weapons experts do not believe Putin is making a serious threat, or it may be because they don’t want to escalate the sabre-rattling rhetoric, Wilner said.

But he does note that at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, western powers were releasing high-level intelligence on Russian plans — an unusual act. Wilner suggest if we start to see that behaviour again, it may be an indication that Putin’s nuclear threats are being taken a bit more seriously.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy — Speaking from a position of strength

In both content and presentation, Zelenskyy had the air of a man who had no appetite for conceding anything, says Lisa Sundstrom, professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.

That’s changed from the beginning of the war, when he was getting advice from within and without his country to concede what had been taken by Russia and find a peaceful settlement.

Seven months on, the situation has changed. Ukraine has battled back, taken some of the regions they earlier conceded, and, backed by western military aid, is looking as if it might entirely repel the intruders.

In his five-point plan, Zelenskyy is calling not only for all of Ukraine’s territory to be returned, but for Russia to be punished for its actions and for guarantees that such an invasion will never again take place.

“He’s coming from a position of strength, both in terms of moral high ground at this point but he’s also on a strategic high ground, in a way,” Sundstrom said.

“And I agree with those who argue that this call for partial mobilization and veiled threats about using nuclear weapons is a sign of weakness and desperation on the Russian side.

“They didn’t want to mobilize, but they were kind of forced into it. You’re either going to have to retreat or you’re going to have to mobilize the general military population.”

Zelenskyy also called for the UN to punish Russia by removing its veto powers in the Security Council; a logical step as far as that goes, but not realistically possible under current UN rules, says Sundstrom.

“There’s kind of a catch-22 in the entire fundamental UN structure that it didn’t seem to anticipate that a permanent Security Council member would fundamentally, repeatedly deeply violate the charter,” she says. “(But) there’s no real way to change that and get them out of there without breaking the entire institution.”

That said, Zelenskyy’s call to do exactly that might just be rhetoric, but it also serves the purpose of subtly shaming the rest of UN members into standing unified against Russia.

At the end of his address, Zelenskyy read out the names of the seven UN countries — Belarus, Cuba, North Korea, Eritrea, Nicaragua, Russia and Syria — that voted against his address to the General Assembly.

“What is not in our formula? Neutrality. Those who speak of neutrality when human values and peace are under attack mean something else,” he said. “In reality, they protect only their vested interests. This is what creates the conditions for war.”

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press

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