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Russia’s Invasion Shadows U.N. Assembly Amid ‘Colossal Global Dysfunction’

Torn by war, strained by shortages and facing the catastrophe of global warming, dozens of world leaders converged on the United Nations in New York on Tuesday for the first full, in-person General Assembly since the pandemic began.

Among all the global crises, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dominated the day, as heads of state addressed the violence of the conflict, the chaos in supply chains, skyrocketing energy prices and other knock-on effects of war.

“We cannot go on like this,” António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said in an opening speech to the assembly. “We have a duty to act. And yet we are mired in colossal global dysfunction.”

At least two presidents, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Emmanuel Macron of France, used the United Nations as a stage to appear as would-be peacemakers in the war in Ukraine.

Sir. Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in Uzbekistan last week and urged him to return captured territories in Ukraine – reflecting growing pressure on Mr. Putin from nations such as India and China, which have been key sources of financial support for Russia in the face of Western sanctions.

Sir. Mr Macron has been in dialogue with Mr Putin for months, apparently with little success, although he has helped keep Europe united behind Ukraine. On Tuesday, the French president was the most prominent speaker in the Western alliance countering Russia, and he was vehement in his condemnation of the invasion – even as he insisted he could play a role in making peace.

“What we have seen since February 24 is a return to the age of imperialism and colonialism,” he told the gathering, referring to the day Russia’s invasion began. “France rejects this. France will stubbornly seek peace.”

But it remained far from clear how any of the world leaders gathered in New York might be able to influence Mr Putin, who chose not to attend the gathering, or what the UN might decide to do in this week, however widespread. but not universal anger at Mr Putin.

As a member of the UN Security Council, Russia has veto power over its actions, leaving nations and allied blocs to come up with their own policies – forcing Mr Guterres to focus on specific crises, like a deal to get grain exports out of Ukraine’s ports and a mission to stabilize a Russian-controlled nuclear facility in Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan, Turkey’s mercurial president, played a central role in the grain talks and on Tuesday trumpeted his role in that deal and as host of unfinished peace talks in March.

“We believe that war will never have a triumph and a just peace process will not have a loser,” he told the gathering. “We need a dignified way out of this crisis through a diplomatic process that is rational, fair and workable.”

Throughout the war, Mr. Erdogan tried to maintain a close relationship with Mr. Putin, as he tries to cushion the fallout from the war in Turkey as he heads into an election year with his country’s economy faltering. He has also condemned the invasion and spoken out an interview televised on Monday by PBS that Russia should return all Ukrainian territory it has captured.

“This is what is expected,” said Mr. Erdogan in the interview. “That is what is desired.”

Since the war began, Mr Macron has spoken regularly with Mr Putin and has stressed that Ukraine and Russia will need to negotiate to end the conflict.

On Tuesday, the French leader challenged the nations that have remained “neutral” in the war, saying they were “wrong” and making a “historic” mistake. “Those who remain silent today are in a way complicit in the cause of a new imperialism,” he said.

He called on the members of the UN Security Council “to act so that Russia rejects the path of war and assesses the cost to itself and to all of us – and in fact bring this act of aggression to an end.”

Mr. Macron and Mr. Erdogan were two of the most watched speakers on Tuesday in the absence of President Biden, whose speech was delayed by a trip to Britain for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. The US leader will address the gathering on Wednesday, where he is expected to address themes of international cooperation and human rights, and to warn that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine violates international law and threatens order.

The war has roiled much of Europe, pushed Sweden and Finland to apply for NATO membership and even prompted Ignazio Cassis, the president of famously neutral Switzerland, to say on Tuesday that Russia’s “act of military aggression” violated the UN charter.

“Neutrality does not mean indifference,” he said. “Neutrality does not mean absence of solidarity.”

To some extent, the war has also given new purpose to the UN – if only as it tries to deal with pressing crises, such as the security of a large nuclear power plant seized by Russian troops in Ukraine.

For Mr Guterres, the conflict has unexpectedly elevated his role as a humanitarian mediator. He has flatly condemned Russia for violating the UN Charter and has called for investigations into potential crimes against humanity in Ukraine.

The war, Mr Guterres said on Tuesday, has “triggered widespread devastation with massive violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.”

But as much as the war affected the assembly, the leaders of several smaller nations touched only briefly on the conflict in their speeches, reflecting the reluctance of many countries to become embroiled in the rivalry and economic sanctions imposed on Russia since the war. began.

In their view, the focus on the war has diverted global attention from the crises they face, including climate change, food shortages and internal conflicts.

Macky Sall, Senegal’s president, urged the major powers not to let their rivalry sow new destruction on the African continent. “Africa has suffered enough from the burden of history,” he said. “It does not want to be the site of a new cold war.”

For Middle Eastern leaders, the war in Ukraine was not the most pressing issue. King Abdullah II of Jordan and the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, sat out the fighting there and instead called on the assembly to support the Palestinians’ long-settled cause.

The leaders of two middle powers also expressed general concerns about the challenges facing their countries and the world, but did so without casting blame.

President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea said, without naming any nations in his speech, that freedom and peace were in “danger.” And Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, called on the international community to address the humanitarian impact of the fighting, particularly on energy and food.

The Corona pandemic, although it had kept world leaders from gathering for two years, was not a central point of discussion. But its presence was still felt, illustrating the struggle of UN officials trying to wrangle officials into even the bare minimum of cooperation. The president of the session, Csaba Korosi, called the assembly to order and asked them to pay attention to the rules.

“I would like to remind members that masks must be worn by participants at all times when they are indoors, except when they are directly addressing the meeting,” he said as presidents, ministers and diplomats milled around, most without masks.

Reporting is contributed by Carlotta Gall, Cora Engelbrecht, Yonette Joseph and Jack Nicas.