But the effort faces serious challenges. Many of the countries that have avoided taking sides hail from Africa, Asia and Latin America — often called the Global South — and they are loath to anger any world power if it could damage their own national interests. Even if they’ve rhetorically condemned the Kremlin’s invasion, many haven’t cut economic or diplomatic ties or enforced Western sanctions on Russia, allowing Moscow to keep up some cash flow.
Still, Ukrainian leaders believe they have to make their case. The Zelenskyy trip is part of a broader surge in Ukrainian diplomacy that has coincided with Kyiv’s military counteroffensive against Russia.
“To secure a comprehensive, long-lasting peace, we need more than Western political support,” said the senior Ukrainian official, who was granted anonymity to describe sensitive, still-tentative plans. “We have to have many countries on board, including from the Global South, because their voices matter.”
Ukrainians also worry about a growing sense of global impatience.
“The realization is setting in that this will be a long war,” said Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, who follows the war closely.
Zelenskyy has rarely left Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022. His refusal to abandon the country in the early days of the full-on attack earned him hero status globally. He was granted special permission to speak to the General Assembly via a pre-recorded video address during last year’s gathering.
But as the war has dragged on and strained the global economy, Zelenskyy appears to have decided that showing up in person can help make Ukraine’s case that it still needs support. In December, he visited Washington and appealed to Congress to keep money and weapons flowing. In May, he swung by the meeting of the Group of Seven in Japan to see the leaders of some of the world’s most economically powerful governments.
The United Nations offers an unusually bright spotlight for any world leader. If a special U.N. Security Council meeting on Ukraine is held next week as some diplomats expect, Zelenskyy may be able to make his case in public at the same table as a Russian representative — a rare face-off.
The Ukrainian leader has two tactical goals in New York.
One is to gather support for the 10-point peace proposal his administration has been shopping around the world since last fall.
Kyiv has presented its peace plan at past major events, including an August peace conference for Ukraine in Saudi Arabia that Russia did not attend. Ukraine wants to bring more countries on board ahead of a global peace summit it hopes to hold later this year — even if that means taking a piecemeal approach.
“It’s not necessary that the countries endorse all 10 points of the plan,” the senior Ukrainian official said. “They can choose different points that they feel comfortable about and join efforts to push and implement them.”
Russia, which officially refers to the conflict in Ukraine as a “special military operation” and not a war, has shown no serious interest in peace talks and it has dismissed Kyiv’s demands.
But Ukraine’s leaders believe that it’s important to show the world that while they are the victims of unjust Russian aggression, they are still willing to pursue diplomacy to end the war.
Zelenskyy’s other main focus is to find solutions to the food security crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion, the Ukrainian official said.
That crisis has deepened in recent weeks because Moscow has abandoned the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allowed Ukrainian agricultural products to leave certain ports, often destined for vulnerable countries in the Middle East and Africa.
Zelenskyy wants to marshal ideas and support for other means of exporting Ukrainian products, the official said. He also hopes to convince Global South countries to pressure the Kremlin to stop its negative moves in the Black Sea, which have helped cause food prices to spike in many places.
It will be a tough sell.
Two U.N. General Assembly resolutions condemning the Kremlin’s invasion have gained votes from more than 140 countries. But fewer countries are willing to go beyond rhetoric to punish Russia.
Many of the countries Zelenskyy intends to appeal to in both bilateral and group settings at the United Nations have economic and security ties to Russia, not to mention China, which has sided with Moscow in the war.
Some also see an America and Europe in decline.
“Among African actors, at least in that part of the Global South, there is an understanding that there’s something shifting about international affairs, and it is not in their interest to align themselves behind any one party,” said W. Gyude Moore, a former senior Liberian official now with the Center for Global Development.
It’s possible that a special U.N. Security Council session about Ukraine will be held during this year’s gathering and that Zelenskyy will attend, said a Western diplomat familiar with the General Assembly planning who was granted anonymity because discussions are still ongoing.
(The Ukrainian official declined to comment on that possibility or give details about the number of meetings Zelenskyy hopes to have or the size of his entourage.)
The theatrics of such a Security Council meeting could prove riveting, especially if a Russian representative, likely to be Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, shows up. The diplomats at such meetings generally project calm, but the tension can be thick and the words sharp.
U.S. officials wouldn’t say whether President Joe Biden would attend such a special Security Council meeting on Ukraine.
Lavrov, a veteran diplomat, will likely hold his own meetings with Global South leaders, though his schedule appeared relatively light during last year’s gathering.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin often skips the General Assembly and isn’t traveling outside his country much these days because the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for his arrest related to the war.
An official with the Russian mission to the United Nations declined to comment for this story.
Several other major world leaders have indicated they won’t be in New York this year for a variety of reasons. They include France’s Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Rishi Sunak and India’s Narendra Modi.
It’s not a concern, the senior Ukrainian government official said.
Zelenskyy already is in regular touch with some of these leaders. He wants to use his platform in New York to meet with others with whom he’s less acquainted, the official said.
“We don’t have much opportunity to talk to the president of, for instance, Botswana,” the official said.
Last year, Zelenskyy used both his video address to the Assembly and a side virtual appearance to urge countries to stop being neutral. In the side address, he said: “You cannot vacillate between good and evil, light and dark.”
The message didn’t appear to make much difference in the calculations of countries such as India, South Africa and Brazil, which continue to say they want peace but aren’t willing to endanger their ties to Moscow.
“Nothing changes simply because we’re in New York,” said Moore, the former Liberian official. Even if Zelenskyy finds more sympathetic ears, “I don’t know if he’s going to get a different result than the one he’s gotten for the last two years.”