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A Near-Confrontation Between Ukraine and Russia at the UN That Ultimately Did Not Occur

by Joshua Brown
5 comments
Ukraine-Russia UN Diplomatic Tensions

The anticipated face-off in the diplomatic sphere was notably absent, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov evaded a direct encounter at the U.N. Security Council’s iconic horseshoe-shaped table on Wednesday. Zelenskyy vacated the premises before Lavrov made his entrance.

Though the lack of confrontation was not entirely unforeseen, the occurrence highlighted the United Nations as a platform where countries in conflict can articulate their grievances verbally rather than militarily. The situation further emphasized the UN’s status as a setting where political adversaries may find themselves talking at cross-purposes.

President Zelenskyy took the opportunity to label Russia as a “terrorist state,” while Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia was seated across from him at the opposite end of the table. Nebenzia occupied himself with his phone as Zelenskyy began his address, later putting the device away.

Zelenskyy’s exit coincided with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s accusation that Russia had violated critical components of the U.N. Charter. Lavrov, for his part, reasserted Russia’s stance that Ukraine has mistreated Russian-speaking residents in its eastern regions, a move that he argued violated the U.N. Charter. During Lavrov’s speech, Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya was partially focused on his phone. Blinken was observed jotting down handwritten notes.

While the atmosphere was distinctly tense, no direct confrontations took place. Before Zelenskyy took the podium, Nebenzia voiced objections to the speaking sequence that positioned the Ukrainian President ahead of the Council’s members, including Russia. In response, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who chaired the meeting, retorted, “You stop the war, and President Zelenskyy will not take the floor.”

In a preceding event at the U.N. General Assembly’s annual meeting, Zelenskyy shared the room but not eye contact with a Russian diplomat. Russian Deputy Ambassador Dmitry Polyansky later commented that he had been preoccupied with his phone and “didn’t notice” Zelenskyy’s speech.

Protocol related to speaking and seating arrangements has historically generated tension among delegates. Walkouts during speeches by rival nations are not uncommon. This year, the seating arrangement had been predetermined to keep Ukraine and Russia apart, unlike last year when a placard had to be moved following an objection by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

Prior to the meeting, Zelenskyy had questioned why Russia still occupies a seat on a council designed to preserve international peace and security. Diplomatic flare-ups have been relatively frequent in numerous meetings concerning the ongoing conflict, and the intricate details, such as the seating chart, have occasionally become points of contention.


Contributions to this report were made by Big Big News journalists Mary Altaffer at the United Nations and Emma Burrows in London.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Ukraine-Russia UN Diplomatic Tensions

What was the anticipated diplomatic event involving Ukraine and Russia at the U.N. Security Council?

The diplomatic world was expecting a direct face-off between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the U.N. Security Council’s horseshoe-shaped table. However, this anticipated confrontation did not occur as Zelenskyy left before Lavrov arrived.

Why did President Zelenskyy leave before Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov arrived?

The article does not provide explicit information on why President Zelenskyy chose to leave before Sergey Lavrov’s arrival. However, it mentions that such a near-miss was somewhat expected, suggesting underlying tensions and possibly strategic decisions.

What was U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s role during the meeting?

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia of having violated critical components of the U.N. Charter. He was observed jotting down handwritten notes during the proceedings.

How did the U.N. serve as a platform for the countries involved?

The U.N. acted as a venue where conflicting nations could articulate their grievances verbally rather than militarily. It highlighted its role as a diplomatic forum where nations can address their issues, even if they sometimes talk at cross-purposes.

Was there a previous instance where Ukrainian and Russian officials shared the same diplomatic space?

Yes, before this event, Zelenskyy had last encountered a Russian official at a 2019 meeting with President Vladimir Putin. Also, during this year’s annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, Zelenskyy was in the same room but did not make eye contact with a Russian diplomat.

What issues did President Zelenskyy raise during his speech?

President Zelenskyy labeled Russia as a “terrorist state” during his address. He also questioned why Russia still occupies a seat on a council designed to preserve international peace and security.

What did Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov assert during his time at the meeting?

Lavrov reiterated Russia’s claims that Ukraine has mistreated Russian-speaking residents in its eastern regions. He argued that this move violated the U.N. Charter and criticized the U.S. and other Western countries for giving Ukraine a pass on this issue.

Were there any disagreements over the speaking and seating arrangements?

Yes, there were disagreements over both speaking and seating arrangements. Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia objected to the speaking sequence that positioned Zelenskyy ahead of the Council’s members, including Russia. Additionally, there was a premeditated effort this year to separate the seats of Ukraine and Russia, unlike the previous year when a placard had to be moved following an objection by the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

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5 comments

Mike Johnson September 21, 2023 - 3:45 am

Wow, talk about diplomatic chess game. Zelenskyy and Lavrov never met eye-to-eye but still the tension was palpable. UN sure is a strange playground for politics.

Reply
Laura K September 21, 2023 - 4:21 am

didn’t know the seating arrangement was such a big deal. Its kinda sad that they argue over placards and not on solving real issues. What’s the UN for again?

Reply
David W September 21, 2023 - 5:14 am

Honestly feels like a missed opp for real dialogue. They could’ve aired out their grievances but instead we got a bit of a diplomatic dance around. So much for international “peace.”

Reply
Sarah D. September 21, 2023 - 12:00 pm

Interesting read, but honestly, why does Russia still get a seat at the big boy’s table? Zelenskyy’s got a point questioning Russia’s place on the council.

Reply
Tim R September 21, 2023 - 3:31 pm

That Albanian PM’s response was a zinger! “You stop the war, and President Zelenskyy will not take the floor.” Talk about saying it like it is.

Reply

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