United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (Photo by Sebastian Barros/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

UN-welcome in Ukraine?

Prevaricating UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is finally flying to Kiev — but is it too late?

Artillery Row

Better late than never. That was the sober judgement of one United Nations diplomat as he helped the Secretary-General make his way from Moscow to Kiev today, on a peace mission doomed to low expectations and limited goals. To some of us, who worked with previous UN chiefs, it looked like an operation to save the UN’s reputation from the kind of collateral war damage never seen before in the decades since the organisation was created (lest we forget) to prevent war.

The choreography of this trip made you wonder about strategy

Three months into Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres finally listened to friends and critics telling him he had to stop relying on emissaries, to stop issuing just statements from New York, or making phone calls. Yes, sir, you had to go yourself to call for a stop to fighting, seek a ceasefire, and allow the innocent to leave cities under siege such as Mariupol. When shown articles, such as the one that appeared here six weeks ago, Guterres sat tight, responding, “it’s not my job to negotiate.”

Guterres did finally go, even if the choreography of this trip made you wonder about strategy. Stopping in Moscow first, to be told by Putin and his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov that Ukraine had brought tragedy on itself, was always bound to alienate the leadership waiting for him in Kiev. 

Ukraine’s President Zelensky, such a savvy communicator, delivered the obvious broadside as Guterres came his way: “there are no bodies in the streets of Moscow,” he said, his team insistent the UN had no right to negotiate for Ukraine. “Logic is you come first to see the country being occupied and attacked.”

Consider that alongside the denunciation of the Secretary-General’s leadership from more than 200 UN veterans who sent him a recent blast memo. They warned that the UN was becoming “irrelevant” under his leadership, and that he didn’t represent the UN’s values, specifically the UN charter for peace. “He should check his job description when he says he’s not the go-to negotiator at time of war,” one signatory told me.

In my time, working for the late Kofi Annan and then Ban Ki-moon during their terms as Secretary-General, I heard some regard the role in semi-religious terms. The High Priest of humanity, to quote one of Mr Annan’s many admirers, a well-known columnist. Not sure I wanted that mantle for my boss, but I did think of him as humanity’s lead voice. That, sadly, has been lost under the leadership of Antonio Guterres.

At the outset of the war he was dealt a poisoned chalice

To be fair to him, the hand he was dealt as the outset of this war was a poisoned chalice. In a shameful episode, in the very week Russia launched its invasion, Putin’s Ambassador at the UN in New York had the chair in the Security Council, and vetoed condemnation of Putin’s war, while persuading other lead players (China and India) to abstain. For weeks Guterres issued tough denunciations of Russia, pleas for a ceasefire, and humanitarian intervention, but he must have felt like a man talking to himself.

Likewise, he chose a moment to intervene in person when all sides to the conflict were upping the stakes militarily. Sergei Lavrov and Putin greeted the Secretary-General with a warning that by arming Ukraine, the NATO alliance was launching proxy war against Russia. For their part, the Americans escalated rhetoric and intent by declaring the goal of “weakening Russia so that it cannot bully anyone ever again”. Muscular language backed first by the UK and then the Germans dispatching tanks to Ukraine.

In the short term, the Guterres mission will be judged by whether Putin lives up to his “promises” in Moscow to pursue negotiations. Russia must work with the UN contact group alongside Ukraine, on a humanitarian corridor out of Mariupol, in particular relief for those trapped at the vast Azovstal steel plant, and other battle zones under siege. Zelensky’s team has been adamant on that front: “the UN means nothing to us if the organisation can’t deliver such humanitarian intervention,” to quote one adviser. Damning words indeed, albeit in the midst of war.

Down the road, the questions abound. Are the UN Secretary-General’s days carrying the torch of peace now over? Is the UN, specifically the UN Secretariat and the Security Council, fit for purpose namely pursuit of peace when it appears so clearly paralysed, precisely at the moment when the world stares at the threat of a new world war?

How long before even Western democracies start questioning the bills they pay to keep the UN going? I represented the Secretary-General in Washington DC, and heard voices on both sides of the aisle express support for the humanitarian arms of the UN, for taking care of refugees, for feeding the starving, for inoculating half the kids on the planet. Pause. Then you could hear dismay, bordering on disgust, for the political wing of the organisation.

Secretary-General Guterres may have found his voice at last on this terrifying war. But you know damage has been done, power and influence devalued, when you watch him sit across from Vladimir Putin at that huge table in Moscow, and learn that the Russian President hadn’t been taking his calls for weeks, since the war began. Then in Kiev, no welcome mat in sight. A far cry from the days when a UN Secretary-General had the ear, and the attention, of all.

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