A full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine would create one of the largest refugee crises in the world, with as many as five million people displaced, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said on Wednesday.
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the General Assembly that already, nearly three million Ukrainians — half of them older people or children — needed food, shelter and other lifesaving emergency assistance and that “the tidal waves of suffering this war will cause are unthinkable.”
Far from disagreeing, the Russian ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, warned that a war “might cost the whole of Ukraine very dearly.”
In a defiant speech, Mr. Nebenzya blamed Kyiv and its Western allies for the crisis and claimed — as Moscow has repeatedly, and without evidence — that Ukraine has been at war with its own Russian-speaking citizens in the Donbas region in the country’s east. Separatists there, backed by Moscow, have been fighting Ukrainian government forces since 2014, and Russia recognized their enclaves this week as independent republics.
“We did all we could to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Mr. Nebenzya said. He said countries that were criticizing Russia were showing “utter indifference to the fate of the Donbas people,” just as Kyiv and its Western backers had.
Addressing the gathering of 193 U.N. member countries, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said: “Now is the time to get off the sidelines. Let us together show Russia that it is isolated and alone in its aggressive actions.”
The foreign minister of Ukraine also addressed the gathering, appealing to the international community to take concrete and swift action against Russia that matched the level of its threat.
“Active diplomacy, strong political messages, tough economic sanctions and strengthening Ukraine can still force Moscow to abandon aggressive plans,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. He denied accusations by Russia that Ukraine had engaged in military actions against its own citizens.
But the General Assembly has little ability to take significant action. Secretary General António Guterres condemned Russia’s actions, accusing it of violating Ukrainian sovereignty — and drawing a rebuke from Mr. Nebenzya, who said Mr. Guterres had overstepped his authority.
The U.N. Security Council, the 15-member body that is responsible for securing world peace, could take legally binding actions, but Russia is a permanent member with veto power, as is China, which has voiced support for Russia.
Nonetheless, a near-unanimous chorus of countries assailed Russia on Wednesday for violating international laws and the U.N.’s charter by recognizing the breakaway regions as independent and sending troops there as “peacekeepers.”
The exceptions were China and Saudi Arabia, which refrained from directly condemning Russia and broadly called for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis and urged both sides to de-escalate military tensions.
Mr. Guterres told the assembly that the world was facing “a moment of peril” and that the situation called for “restraint, reason and de-escalation.”
“It is high time to establish a cease-fire and return to the path of dialogue and negotiations to save the people in Ukraine and beyond from the scourge of war,” he said.