Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and several of his government colleagues just ended one of their most hectic weeks of the year, at the UN General Assembly in New York. It’s been dubbed “the world’s most important meeting place,” and was arguably more important than ever.
“Russia’s war in Ukraine and the many complex crises in the world cast dark shadows over the UN’s General Assembly this year,” Støre said even before leaving for New York, “but our time’s biggest challenges can only be solved together.”
He noted how Norway, as a small country, has always been a proponent of global, multilateral cooperation. He thinks Norway’s “contributions to dialog, peace and development” are now needed more than ever, too. Along with its gas.
He and his colleagues including Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt, Development Minister Anne Beathe Tvinnereim and Climate and Environment Minister Espen Barth Eide all took part in a packed program of meetings, speeches, receptions and conferences during the week. Støre’s began early, with a flight out to a US aircraft carrier and then quick but top-level meetings in Washington DC.
Then it was on to New York City, where Støre addressed both the General Assembly and the UN Security Council (of which Norway has been a member for the past two years) and had a string of one-on-one meetings with other leaders from around the world. Other events ranged from leading a panel on the state of the oceans to sharing waffles with expat Norwegians and locals at New York’s Norwegian Seaman’s Church.
Huitfeldt led a meeting of the Donor Group for Palestine, took part in a special Security Council meeting on Ukraine and had lots of individual meetings with fellow foreign ministers including those from China and Iran. Tvinnereim co-hosted a meeting on food security and took part in a UN’s summit on education. Eide, meanwhile, led a meeting aimed at halting plastic pollution by 2040 and invited colleagues to join in an international alliance against environmental crime.
In the middle of it all came Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech in which he announced a major escalaton of his war and threatened the rest of the world with nuclear attacks.
Støre and his fellow national leaders could quickly find lots of support in one another and literally stood together as they absorbed and quickly denounced Putin’s plans. It was handy and likely comforting to physically be among allies, and Støre was among those invited to a reception with US President Joe Biden after Biden had lashed out at Russia in front of the entire UN. Støre could also huddle with his fellow Norwegian and predecessor as prime minister, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
They all condemned Putin’s plans that made it at least a bit easier to try to get the so-called “neutral” countries like India and China on their side. The mass graves and emerging reports of war atrocities in areas of Ukraine formerly occupied by Russian troops have shocked them as well as Putin’s new threats of nuclear attacks. The UN itself can’t halt Putin’s war, but it clearly remained what newspaper Aftenposten has called “a relevant player” this week.
“The world needs a common meeting place, based on some fundamental principles of how countries can behave,” Aftenposten editorialized. “For Norwegian and other countries’ politicians and diplomats it’s part of their job to get most of the 35 countries that haven’t condemned Putin’s war to join the 141 that have.” There’s been some progress, with neither China’s nor India’s supporting the war during a meeting with Putin in Kazakhstan last week. India’s Narendra Modi reportedly told Putin that this wasn’t the time for a war.
The vast majority of the UN’s members agree that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is one of the worst violations of the UN Charter and international law for many decades, and they’re steadily isolating Putin. Støre prodded that theme along when he addressed the UN Security Council himself on Thursday, and all but blasted the leader of Norway’s neighbouring Russia. He was in a position to do it, given all the centuries of Norway and Russia generally being good neighbours in the north and his own experience in negotiating with both Putin and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in earlier years.
“This war is a catastrophe for Ukraine and its people … but it’s also detrimental to Russia itself, our neighour,” Støre told the Security Council. “Thousands of Russian soldiers have been sent to their deaths in an unnecessaary and illegal war. Russian citizens are increasingly being denied human rights and fundamental freedoms in a society ruled with an authoritarian fist.
“If the Russian people, and we know them, could freely express their views, would they have chosen war? I doubt it.”
Støre’s message was that while Ukraine continues to need lots of financial and military aid to defend itself against Putin, the vast majority of Russian people also need help that’s currently hard to offer. As he said at the outset of his remarks, “it’s the ordinary people who pay the heaviest price,” and recent days have shown how thousands of Russians are fleeing their homeland under Putin while media reports from Russia indicate thousands of others are scared.
Putin’s claims ‘simply not true’
Støre, a professional diplomat who spent more than six years as Stoltenberg’s foreign minister in Norway, went on to say that he had “listened carefully” to Putin’s speech the day before, during which Putin announced a “major escalation of the war, explained by a long list of allegations that Russia is being threatened from the west.
“Speaking for Norway, an elected member of this Council, a European state, a NATO member and a neighbour to Russia, let me say as clearly as I can: These allegations are simply not true. There is no military threat against Russia. There is no legitimate reason whatsoever to underpin a massive mobilization of Russian troops. This escalation will only lead to increased suffering for Ukrainians and Russians alike.”
It was just a year ago when Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov made a point of visiting Støre in Oslo just after Støre had won last autumn’s election. They’ve met numerous times as well over the years, but their relationship has now frozen with Støre utterly defying Lavrov’s own delayed remarks at the Security Council. Lavrov showed up nearly 90 minutes late on Thursday, arriving at the Security Council just before delivering his remarks and leaving right afterwards, thus avoiding rebuttal or direct confrontations by fellow council members.
Lavrov blamed Ukraine for the war and that the support it received from countries like the US, Germany and Norway only prolonged the war. “The west is a part of this,” Lavrov said, even adding that the massacre in Bucha had been orchestrated by Ukraine, and that Ukraine also was reponsible for attacks on a nuclear power plant at Zaporizjzja.
Nonsense, in Støre’s view and in those of most other UN members. Støre pledged that Norway would continue to support Ukraine, and hoped Ukrainian refugees would soon be able to move home. He called for Russia to be held accountable for its actions, its “destructive behaviour” and for the global consequences of the war, not least regarding the risk posed by the presence of Russian forces at nuclear power plants in Ukraine. “We commend the IAEA for its efforts in helping to stabilize the situation,” Støre added.
Støre went on to claim that Russia “must abide by the order of the International Counrt of Justice and immediately suspend its military operations in the territory of Ukraine. Russia chose to start this war. It must now choose to stop it.”
Norway’s prime minister ended his whirlwind week at the UN by addressing the General Assembly itself, noting how “we live in challenging times” and face “dire consequences from war, climate change, the pandemic, food insecurity and inequality.” He found solace in the Charter of the United Nations that “enshrines” the “values and principles necessary to deal with those challenges.”
But he thinks the UN Charter itself, and the rules-based order behind it, is also now “under attack” because of Putin’s war. He called the Russian president’s actions a “blatant breach of the UN Charter” while “we are all feeling the repercussions of the war” with the energy supply under pressure, inflation soaring and food insecurity increasing “dramatically.”
Again, Støre claimed that “Russia bears sole responsibility for the war and its consequences, and Russia is responsible for bringing it to an end.”