Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
President Joe Biden has consistently and correctly characterized the great geopolitical issue of our time as a battle between democracy and autocracy. While that's still a defining dynamic in world affairs, his focus on fundamental sovereignty in his Wednesday address to the United Nations General Assembly made for an even more effective argument against Russia's illegal, immoral and increasingly globally dangerous invasion of Ukraine.
"Let us speak plainly," Biden told the assembled world leaders. And so he did, saying: "A permanent member of the United Nations Security Council invaded its neighbor and attempted to erase a sovereign state from the map. Russia has shamelessly violated the core tenets of the United Nations charter — [none] more important than the clear prohibition against countries taking the territory of their neighbor by force."
The war, Biden later stated, "is about extinguishing Ukraine's right to exist as a state, plain and simple. Ukraine's right to exist as a people. Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe — that should make your blood run cold."
So too should Russian President Vladimir Putin's escalation of the conflict. Just hours before the diplomats gathered in New York, Putin said in a speech in Moscow that Russia was calling up roughly 300,000 reserves, a tacit admission of what the world already knows: Russia's military was recently routed in key sections of northeastern Ukraine.
Putin also pointed to recently announced referendums in four areas of eastern Ukraine on whether they become parts of Russia, a vote that Biden rightly labeled a "sham." Most menacingly, Putin also tacitly threatened to respond with nuclear weapons, a violation of every principle and charter U.N. member states stand for.
Biden used his speech to "pivot" to "the fundamentals of the U.N., the U.N. Charter," Elizabeth Shackleford, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Chicago Council for Foreign Affairs, told an editorial writer. He's "using this opportunity and really reiterating and using the U.N. stage to talk about what brings all of the U.N. countries together, and this is just some basic fundamentals of how the international system works."
Or, in this case, doesn't work. Because not only has Russia egregiously violated Ukraine's sovereignty, it's set off a chain of pernicious effects that threaten to tip a precarious global political and economic environment further askew. Already, it is a world "in big trouble," according to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who said in his General Assembly speech on Tuesday that "divides are growing deeper. Inequalities are growing wider. Challenges are spreading faster."
Although Guterres should have been blunter about Russia, he justifiably touted the U.N.'s role in brokering a deal to get "Ukrainian grain destined for the people of the Horn of Africa, millions of whom are on the edge of famine."
Biden also emphasized the consequence of food insecurity, both by stressing that the Western sanctions against Russia expressly do not include food or fertilizer, and by pledging $2.9 billion in food-security aid to combat the shortages from the war as well as climate change, another issue Biden directly addressed to delegates.
But the president pressed most on the most pressing issue of our time: whether the international system can effectively respond to a violation of international law.
"We will stand in solidarity against Russia's aggression, period," Biden said, alluding to how the U.S. has led with military aid and moral persuasion. Those efforts have rallied allies. As Putin's threats grow more dangerous, all nations should be united in opposition.