Return to Transcripts main page

CNN News Central

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy Addresses UN, Urges Global Action Against Russian Aggression And Weaponization. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired September 19, 2023 - 14:00   ET




BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: The world is at an inflection point and democracy will deliver. That was President Biden's message at the United Nations this morning. And at the center of it all is the fight for freedom in Ukraine.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: That's right. We are awaiting right now remarks at the U.N. from the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Earlier today, President Biden setting that stage, aiming to rally support for Kiev. Now 19 months. Hard to believe it's been this long, but 19 months into this brutal fighting unleashed by Vladimir Putin.


JOSEPH BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will not retreat from the values that make us strong. We will defend democracy, our best tool to meet the challenges we face around the world. And we're working to show how democracy can deliver in ways that matter to people's lives.


KEILAR: Our Jim Sciutto is there at the U.N. Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: This, certainly, Brianna and Boris, a crucial moment for Ukraine and in the view of Biden, the U.S. president, addressing the nations here this morning, for the world as well, saying that Russia's invasion of Ukraine by violating its borders threatens not just Ukraine, but if that's allowed to stand, it threatens the borders of countries across the globe, whether the threat be from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea. This is, of course, happening as Ukraine's counteroffensive is grinding away for months.

It's making progress, according to senior U.S. and British officials I've spoken to. But a concern is the American public is losing patience and some U.S. officials questioning just how far, in fact, Ukraine can go. Here at home, a recent CNN poll showed that a majority of Americans oppose now sending more money, more financial assistance to Ukraine. House Republicans have stripped those funds out of a proposed spending bill, possibly setting up a showdown in Washington.

That is the harsh political reality here at home, something that not only the U.S. president is facing, but, of course, Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine as he takes the podium today. CNN senior U.N. correspondent Richard Roth is here with me. We're also joined by retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.

First to you, Richard. The president tried, it seemed this morning, to internationalize the crisis in Ukraine, to say it is a threat to the very mission of this building, of the nearly 200 nations that are members of the United Nations. Is that a message that was received well by this group? There were some times. In fact, that was the only applause line I believe President Biden received today.

RICHARD ROTH, CNN SENIOR UNITED NATIONS CORRESPONDENT: I don't think too many minds are changed, but any world leader has got maybe a Congress or head of state or someone else higher up the food chain who makes the decisions. I'm looking forward to this speech by President Zelenskyy, which is moments away. I mean, he's been in the spotlight, but this is the first time in person he's been at the U.N. since the war broke out. I think there's going to be a lot of passion there, and I'd be very interested in how long the standing ovation will be.

SCIUTTO: Very good point. Alexander Vindman, you're with us today. The Ukrainian president, he will hear a lot of words. He's already from the U.S. president, and I'm sure from others in the many bilaterals he is having while he's here in New York. But will he leave here with anything concrete, any new support? He's been pushing for more weapons systems. For instance, the question of ATACMS, long-range U.S. missile system, advanced missile system still hangs in the balance. What does he leave here with exactly?

ALEXANDER VINDMAN, FORMER DIRECTOR FOR EUROPEAN AFFAIRS, NSC: I think that President Zelenskyy is likely to walk away with this promise of ATACMS. I would be surprised at this point. There's a lot of noise being made about that additional ATACMS have been found and can be brought up to kind of fully functional standards and delivered to Ukraine, and they would have a fairly significant impact in between the ranges that they have currently with Gimlers, with some of these small-diameter bombs coming in. And with the storm shadows and scalp systems that come from France and Germany.

So I think that's likely to come. I think there won't be a lot of new people convinced, but maintaining support, which has been robust, is actually a major accomplishment in its own right. I think he's likely to do that with the democratic world. He's not going to convince the authoritarian world in any significant way. But you have to maintain support, just like President Biden has a job here with regards to international support --UNGA, and domestically keeping support --



SCIUTTO: Stand by there, we're seeing the Ukrainian--

VINDMAN: -- UNGA, and domestically keeping support --

SCIUTTO: president. Hold that thought, Alex. We're going to see the Ukrainian president here approaching the podium. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, let's listen in.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, PRESIDENT OF UKRAINE: Thank you very much. I welcome all who stand for common efforts, and I promise, being really united, we can guarantee fair peace for all nations. What's more, unity can prevent wars. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Secretary General, Mr. President, fellow leaders, this call so many, many wars, but not as active defender against the aggressions. In many cases, the field war, the final war, what allowed us here, the war after which no one would gather in the General Assembly Hall again.

The third world war was seen as a nuclear war, a conflict between states on the highway to nukes. Other wars seemed less scary compared to a threat of the so-called great powers firing their nuclear stockpiles. So the 20th century taught the world to restrain from the use of the weapons of mass destruction, not to deploy, not to proliferate, not to threaten with, and not to test, but to promote a complete nuclear disarmament.

Frankly, this is a good strategy, but it should not be the only strategy to protect the world from the final war. Ukraine gave up its third largest nuclear arsenal. The world then decided Russia should become a keeper of such power. Yet history shows it was Russia who deserted nuclear disarmament the most back in the 1990s. And Russia deserts it now. Terrorists have no right to hold nuclear weapons. No right. But truly, not the nukes are the scariest now. While nukes remain in place, the mass destruction is gaining its momentum. The aggressor is weaponizing many other things, and those things are used not only against our country, but against all of yours as well.

Fellow leaders, there are many conventions that restrict weapons, but there are no real restrictions on weaponization. First, let me give you an example. The food. Since the start of the full-scale war, the Ukrainian ports in the Black and Azov seas have been blocked by Russia. Until now, our ports on the Danube River remained the target for missiles and drones. And it is a clear Russia's attempt to weaponize the food shortage on the global market in exchange for recognition for some, if not all, of the captured territories.

Russia is launching the food prices as weapons. The impact spans from the Atlantic coast of Africa to Southeast Asia. And this is the threat scale. And I would like to thank those leaders who supported our Black Sea Grain Initiative and Program Grain from Ukraine. Thank you so much.

United, we made weapons turned back into food again. More than 45 nations saw how important it is to make Ukrainian food products available on the market, from Algeria to Spain to Indonesia and China. And even now, when Russia has undermined the Black Sea Grain Initiative, we are working to ensure food stability. And I hope that many of you will join us in these efforts. We launched a temporary sea export corridor from our ports and we are working hard to preserve the land routes for grain exports.

[14:10:29] And it is alarming to see how some in Europe, some of our friends in

Europe, play out solidarity in political theatre, making thriller from the grain. And they may seem to play their own role, but in fact they are helping, helping set the stage to a Moscow actor. Second, weaponization of energy. Many times the world has witnessed Russia using energy as a weapon. Kremlin weaponized oil and gas to weaken the leaders of other countries when they came to the Red Square. And now, now this threat is even greater. Russia is weaponizing nuclear energy. Not only it is, not only it is spreading, its unreliable nuclear power plant construction technologies, but it is also turning other countries' power plants into real dirty bombs. Look please what Russia did to our Zaporizhia power plant. Shelled it, occupied it, and now blackmails others with radiation leaks. Is there any sense to reduce nuclear weapons when Russia is weaponizing nuclear power plants? Scary question.

The global security architecture offers no response or protection against such a treacherous radiation threat. And there is no accountability for radiation blackmailers so far. The third example is children. Children. Unfortunately, various terrorist groups abduct children to put pressure on their families and societies. But never before did mass kidnapping and deportation become a part of the government policy. Not until now. We know the names of tens of thousands of children and have evidence on hundreds of thousands of others kidnapped by Russia in the occupied territories of Ukraine and later deported.

The International Criminal Court issued arrest warrant for Putin for this crime. And we are trying to get children back home. But time, time goes by. What will happen with them? What will happen to them? Those children in Russia are taught to hate Ukraine. And all ties with their families are broken. And this is clearly a genocide. When hatred is weaponized against one nation, it never stops there.

Each decade, Russia starts a new war. Parts of Moldova and Georgia remain occupied. Russia turns Syria into ruins. And if not Russia, the chemical weapons would have never been used there in Syria. Russia has almost swallowed Belarus. It is obviously threatening Kazakhstan and other Baltic states. And the goal of the present war against Ukraine is to turn our land, our people, our lives, our resources into a weapon against you. Against the international rules-based order.

Many seats in the General Assembly Hall may become empty, empty if Russia succeeds with its treachery and aggression. Ladies and gentlemen, the aggressor scatters deaths and brings ruins, even without nukes. But the outcomes are alike. We see towns, we see villages in Ukraine wiped out by Russian artillery, leveled to the ground completely. We see the war of drones. We know the possible effects of spreading the war into the cyberspace. The artificial intelligence could be trained to combat well before it would learn to help the humanity.


Thank God people have not yet learned to use climate as a weapon. Even though humanity is failing on its climate policy objectives, this means that extreme weather will still impact the normal global life and some evil state will also weaponize its outcomes. And when people in the streets of New York and other cities of the world went out on climate protest, we all have seen them. And when people in Morocco and Libya and other countries die as a result of natural disasters. And when islands and countries disappear underwater. And when tornadoes and deserts are spreading into, into new territories.

And when all of this is happening, one unnatural disaster in Moscow decided to launch a big war and kill tens of thousands of people. We have to stop it. We must act united to defeat the aggressor and focus all our capabilities and energy on addressing these challenges. As nukes are restrained, likewise the aggressor must be restrained and all his tools and methods of war. Each war now can become final, but it takes our unity to make sure that aggression will not break in again. And it is not a dialogue between the so-called great powers somewhere behind the closed doors that can guarantee us all the new wars era, but open war of all nations for peace.

Last year I presented the outlines of the Ukrainian peace formula at the UN General Assembly. Later in Indonesia I presented the full formula. And over the past year the peace formula became the basis to update the existing security architecture. Now we can bring back, back to life the UN Charter and guarantee the full power for the rules- based world order. And tomorrow I will present the details at a special meeting of the UN Security Council.

The main thing is that it is not only about Ukraine. More than 140 states and international organizations have supported the Ukrainian peace formula fully or in part. The Ukrainian peace formula is becoming global. Its points offer solutions and steps that will stop all forms of weaponization that Russia used against Ukraine and other countries and may be used by other aggressors.

Look, for the first time in modern history we have a real chance to end the aggression on the terms of the nation which was attacked. And this is a real chance for every nation to ensure that aggression against, against your state, if it happens, God forbid, will end. Not because your land will be divided and you will be forced to submit to military or political pressure but because your territory and sovereignty will be fully restored. We launched the format of meetings between national security advisors and diplomatic representatives. Important talks and consultations were held in Hiroshima, in Copenhagen and in Jeddah on the implementation of the peace formula. And we are preparing a global peace summit. And please, I invite all of you, all of you who do not tolerate any aggression to jointly prepare the summit.

And I am aware of the attempts to make some shady dealings behind the scenes. Evil cannot be trusted. Ask Prigozhin if one bets on Putin's promises. Please, hear me. Let unity decide everything openly. While Russia is pushing the world to the final war, Ukraine is doing everything to ensure that after Russian aggression no one in the world will dare to attack any nation. Weaponization must be restrained. War crimes must be punished. Deported people must come back home and the occupier must return to their own land. We must be united to make it and we'll do it. Slava Ukraini! (APPLAUSE)


UNKNOWN: On behalf of the Assembly, I wish to thank the President of Ukraine for the statement just made and request protocol to his Court as explained.

SANCHEZ: We've been listening to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressing the United Nations General Assembly, a powerful speech in which he described a, quote, natural disaster in Moscow, alluding to Vladimir Putin launching an unwarranted attack on his country. He talked about the lessons of the 20th century being that nuclear war should be something that should be avoided at all costs. He talked about how that is now a very real threat from the Kremlin, and he described how the Kremlin is also weaponizing other aspects in its invasion of Ukraine, energy and food, as well as displaced children.

It was a very notable moment in his speech as well when he talked about shady deals in back rooms, and he alluded to the former head of the Wagner mercenary force saying, ask Yevgeny Prigozhin if Vladimir Putin can be trusted.

KEILAR: Yevgeny Prigozhin obviously believed dead at this point in time, so that was a very sharp point that he made there. And at this point in time, you know, he is speaking as you have some allies of Russia trying to push Ukraine and Russia towards discussions, and at this point in time, obviously, that is not where Vladimir Zelenskyy is. So let's bring in New York Times White House and national security correspondent David Sanger with us. Also back with us is former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, along with retired army lieutenant colonel Alexander Vindman joining us. Ambassador, to you first, what did you take away from his comments there? What stood out to you?

WILLIAM TAYLOR, FORMER US AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: Well, Brianna, he made the case that this is not just about Ukraine. This is an attack by the Russians, by Vladimir Putin against principles, against other nations, against global security, against a rules-based order. He broadened the discussion to make it clear to people in that room that this is about them.

SANCHEZ: And David, he laid out the stakes. You and I were talking as the speech was going on, noting that he started with the threat of the use of nuclear weapons.

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It was really interesting how he constructed this speech. I actually thought it was fascinating and very effective delivery. So he started off by talking about how we learned over 50 years to control nuclear weapons because we thought that was the Third World War. And he said along the way, we forgot to control other forms of weaponization. And then he went through his list, using food as weapons, using oil and gas as weapons, using nuclear energy by his reference to how the Russians have been attacking the Zaporizhia nuclear plant, then grabbing children, bringing them all back to Russia and made the point that Vladimir Putin has already been indicted by the International Criminal Court for that role.

So, he was basically saying the moment has now come. It is now evident from the invasion of Ukraine that we need to have the kind of regulation on this kind of weaponization that we put on nuclear weapons. That's a very tall order at a time that Russia is still a member of the Security Council with veto rights, that China, which has largely sided with Russia, is as well. But it was an effort, as you said, to elevate this beyond Ukraine and basically say, this is the 1930s and you're next.


KEILAR: Jim Schudo back with us from the UN. As we heard this speech from Vladimir Zelenskyy, and he was making the case there that we heard, you know, he said, there's been this effort to restrain the growth of nuclear weapons, but that cannot be the only thing as he tried to broaden this out to just convince people and continue to keep convincing them, which is what he has to do, Jim, as he tries to keep his allies on his side and the weapons coming into Ukraine that they need to fight this war.

SCIUTTO: Listen, you will often hear bromides from the podium at the UN General Assembly. This was not a speech full of bromides or cliches. Here was the president of a country that's more than a year and a half into a bloody war, the largest war in Europe since World War II. And he described that in very visceral terms. He talked about towns and villages being wiped out. He described that as a genocide. He talked about the nuclear threat, turning the Zaparicha nuclear plant, in effect, into a dirtier bomb, or at least the threat of a dirty bomb by Russia.


Here's a Ukrainian president whose country is still bearing the weight of a horrible and bloody war. And by the way, a Ukrainian president who, when we speak about politics here in the U.S., you'll speak about President Biden facing, for instance, right-wing Republicans who don't want to send money to Ukraine anymore. The political pressure that Vladimir Zelenskyy faces are veterans, the many hundreds of thousands of veterans in his country who fought this war, and the family members who've lost veterans in the fight.

That is a powerful political force that he is responsible for and must face. No one is closer to this war than Vladimir Zelenskyy is, of course, compared to the other leaders joining at the UNGA. Our Alexander Vindman is here. I wonder how you compare what you heard from President Biden trying to internationalize the war in Ukraine, to say this is all of our responsibility to fight back and push back against countries such as Russia invading another sovereign nation, and hearing from Zelenskyy saying the time is now, in effect, to win that fight. Do you sense any distance between, any daylight between those two messages?

VINDMAN: Actually, I see a great deal of consistency. I think President Zelenskyy came into this conversation with two objectives in mind. One is maintain support, the alliance structure, keep them on board. And two is attempt to persuade those fence-sitters, those many countries in, let's say, Africa that are reliant on food supplies, or Asia, or South America. And I think he did that pretty well. What he did was he internationalized the conflict also. He tied the events that are occurring on the ground in Ukraine to what it means for the international stage, the use of nuclear, the nuclear power plants as dirty bombs, the food scarcity, food security issues, the energy as a weapon. I think he did that quite well.

And I think he probably didn't really win that many hearts and minds, but he did the best he could. And certainly he also made, I think, a key point that we've done a good job as a globe looking at deterring nuclear war. We need to do a better job at doing the precursor to nuclear war, World War III, which is how do we prevent large-scale global war. So I think on those points he did quite well.

SCIUTTO: And, by the way, this is a war in which Russia has rattled the nuclear saber repeatedly, threatened to use nuclear weapons there. Richard Roth with me here at the U.N. today. He also took pains to mention the Ukraine peace formula, a means for ending this war, steps that he said to stop all the forms of weaponization that Russia has pursued in Ukraine. Does the Ukraine peace formula have legs to any degree, particularly when we know, it's the U.S. assessment, that Russia has no interest in negotiations?

ROTH: That's why there hasn't been much interest in the peace plan. I mean, are they going to actually return land that they've taken by force and in Crimea? I think tomorrow it's going to be interesting. President Zelenskyy will address the U.N. Security Council meeting on Ukraine. This may be the first time he will be able to look across the table and see a Russian representative. He knows if he goes too far, he's going to turn off perhaps countries who are debating whether to supply ammunition and food. But that could be interesting tomorrow, 11 o'clock Eastern time. Tune in.

SCIUTTO: We'll be watching. One more question for you, Alexander Vindman, if I can, because there is an enormous amount of nervousness here, which I hear from European leaders, both here at the UNGA, but prior as well, as well as U.S. officials, American allies around the world and Ukrainian officials, that if there is a new president in 2024 in the U.S., particularly if that new president is Donald Trump, that U.S. support for Ukraine will end.

You, of course, served in the Trump administration. You were central to what was Trump's first impeachment, which involved the then U.S. president pressuring Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and withholding military assistance to, to do so. What is your concern, and how big a change would it be in terms of U.S. and Western support for Ukraine if Trump were to be reelected? What would that change be exactly?

VINDMAN: The change would be the fact that President Trump would attempt to cut support for Ukraine, but that wouldn't actually be the end of the war. Ukraine would continue on with the resources it has available. Eastern Europe, places like Poland that has militarized, would apply additional resources, maybe even ground troops, and that would actually be a recipe for spillover. More importantly, it would also be a huge hit to U.S. democracy here at home.