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US, Russia clash over Ukraine at UN Security Council debate

In a public showdown Monday at the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. accused Russia of undermining international peace and security by massing troops on the Ukrainian border.

But Russia slapped back, arguing Washington was fear-mongering and forcing an unnecessary debate — allegations China later echoed.

The heated, at times angry, rhetoric at U.N. headquarters in New York came as some 100,000 Russian troops are positioned along Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia as well as its northern border with Belarus. The U.S. called the Security Council meeting to confront Russia over fears that an invasion is imminent.

“Russia’s actions strike at the very heart of the U.N. Charter,” said U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “This is as clear and consequential a threat to peace and security as anyone can imagine.”

She added: “Russia’s aggression today not only threatens Ukraine. It also threatens Europe. It threatens the international order.”

Russia objected to the open meeting from the outset, immediately demanding a procedural vote seeking to prevent it, which failed.

“This is not only unacceptable interference in the domestic affairs of our state, but also an attempt to mislead the international community on the situation in the region, and also the reason for the current global tensions,” said Russian U.N. Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya. “We are being asked to convene a Security Council meeting on unfounded accusations that we have refuted frequently.”

U.S. President Joe Biden and other Western leaders have warned that a Russian attack on Ukraine could come at any moment. Russia has repeatedly denied any hostile intent while insisting the troops are simply conducting exercises.

The U.S. decided to push for the public U.N. debate before Russia takes over the Security Council presidency on February 1.

“This body is charged with upholding an order that if it stands for anything it stands for the principle that one country cannot simply redraw another country’s borders by force,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “We continue to hope Russia chooses the path of diplomacy over the path of conflict in Ukraine. But we cannot just wait and see.”

The U.S. ambassador argued the international community would be naïve not to recognize the risk in Russia’s troop buildup.

“These are combat forces and special forces prepared to conduct offensive actions into Ukraine,” she said. “This is the largest, this is the largest — hear me clearly — mobilization of troops in Europe in decades. And, as we speak, Russia is sending even more forces and arms to join them.” 

Nebenzya, however, hit back, disputing even the number of troops stationed on the border.

“They themselves are whipping up tensions and rhetoric and provoking escalation,” he said. “You’re waiting for it to happen as if you want to make your words become a reality. This despite the fact that we are constantly rejecting these allegations.”

Nebenzya continued: “Where did you get the figure of 100,000 troops that are deployed as you said on the Russian Ukrainian border, although that is not the case? We have never cited that figure, we’ve never confirmed that figure.”

China agreed that the meeting should not have been called.

“The reason why the U.S. was asking the council to hold this open meeting was that Russia’s deployment of troops along the Ukrainian border posed a threat to international peace and security,” said Chinese U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun. “China cannot align itself with this point of view.”

Zhang explained China’s position: “Russia has repeatedly stated that it has no plans to launch any military action. And Ukraine has made it clear that it does not need a war. Under such circumstances, what is the basis for the country’s concern to insist that there may be a war?”

The Russian and Chinese remarks quickly made their way to Washington, where White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked to respond.

She pushed back against the Russian claims that the U.S. was simply fabricating its troop figures, noting the information was culled from “substantive reports out there, our own assessments, our own coordinated intelligence-gathering with our partners on the ground.”

Psaki refused, however, to speculate about why China didn’t perceive Russia as a threat to Ukraine.

“I can’t speak for the motivation of the Chinese,” she said. “They can speak for that themselves. Obviously, we would encourage any country in the world to be part of an effort to de-escalate, to protect and respect the sovereignty of Ukraine.”

Back in New York, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N., Sergiy Kyslytsya, also rebuked Russia and other diplomats for trying to speak on Kyiv’s behalf. He accused them of acting like Humpty-Dumpty, the wall-sitting egg in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” who gave his own meaning to words.

“Lewis Carroll appears to be a favorite writer of the Russian top diplomats,” Kyslytsya said dryly. 

He insisted Ukraine would do nothing to justify any military action by Russia.

“Ukraine is not going to launch a military offensive, neither in Donbass, nor in Crimea, nor anywhere else,” Kyslytsya said. “Ukraine sees no alternative to peaceful resolution of the ongoing conflict and restoration of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

He added, “We are well aware of Russia’s history of ploys and provocations.” 

Kyslytsya also challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in person.

“If Russia has any questions to Ukraine, it is better to meet and talk not to bring troops to the Ukrainian borders and intimidate Ukrainian people,” he said, adding that Ukraine would only trust Russia’s actions, not its words. 

“If Russian officials are serious when they say they don’t want a new war,” he said. “Russia must continue diplomatic engagement and pull back military forces.” 

Kenya entered the conversation to call on the big powers at the circular table to work out their issues and not cause problems for others.

“When elephants fight,” said Kenyan U.N. Ambassador Martin Kimani, “it is the grass that suffers.”

Quint Forgey contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.

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