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Russia's invasion of Ukraine to be the main topic at annual UN General Assembly meet

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is the big topic as world leaders gather in New York for the U.N. General Assembly this week. The U.N. secretary general has been trying to deal with some of the war's fallout, like rising food and energy costs. He has little hope of any real breakthrough, though, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The U.N. has been the scene of many debates about Ukraine in the past six months. The General Assembly even had lengthy deliberations before voting to allow President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to address the world body by video. Russia and Belarus tried to block that. Ukraine's ambassador, Serhiy Kyslytsya, explained that Zelenskyy wanted to be there in person but has to stay with the Ukrainian military defending his country.

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SERHIY KYSLYTSYA: He has a lot to say to the General Assembly for the first time since the unjustified and unprovoked, full-scale Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February this year, an invasion that has caused enormous devastation.

KELEMEN: This will be the first all in-person General Assembly since the COVID-19 pandemic, so all other world leaders are expected to show up if they want their 15 minutes on the world stage. The annual gathering gives diplomats a chance to meet on the sidelines, too. But U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says he's not expecting any diplomatic breakthroughs on Ukraine.

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ANTONIO GUTERRES: Anything that can help rebuild confidence is useful. But it would be naive to think that we are close to the possibility of a peace deal.

KELEMEN: He's trying to maintain the arrangement he helped broker for getting Ukrainian and Russian food and fertilizer on world markets. And he calls this a time of geostrategic peril for the United Nations.

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GUTERRES: Geostrategic divides are the widest they have been since at least the Cold War, and they are paralyzing the global response to the dramatic challenges we face.

KELEMEN: Many diplomats from Africa, Asia and Latin America have expressed frustration that they're being pressured to take sides on the war in Ukraine while the war pulls attention away from their countries' problems. A U.N. expert who teaches at Fordham University, Anjali Dayal, describes it this way.

ANJALI DAYAL: Some of them have tried to frame this as, like, a return to the Non-Aligned Movement that they had during the Cold War. And some of them have made it clear that this isn't to say that they no longer support Ukraine. They just want to make it clear that they intend for the body to do the work - the rest of the work on its plate.

KELEMEN: There have been recent clashes between U.N. peacekeepers and protesters in the Democratic Republic of Congo and ongoing security concerns in Mali. Add to that concerns about famine, drought and the climate crisis. U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield has heard these concerns.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We know that as this horrible war rages across Ukraine, we cannot ignore the rest of the world. There are conflicts taking place elsewhere. There are issues that impact us all.

KELEMEN: President Biden has moved his speech from Tuesday to Wednesday in order to attend Queen Elizabeth's funeral. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will step in for him to co-chair a summit on food security. And Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield says the U.S. is also tackling other subjects that matter to much of the world.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We are focusing on food insecurity. That relates to Ukraine, certainly, but is not all about Ukraine. We're going to be focused on climate change. We're going to be focused on health. And we're going to be focused on supporting and building on commitments to the U.N. charter.

KELEMEN: The charter that Russia is violating in Ukraine. On that, most countries agree. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.