Report

The Reluctant Peacemaker

Criticized for inaction in Ukraine, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres wades into diplomatic hellscape with little prospect of halting Russian invasion.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres visits Ukraine after Russian invasion
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres visits Ukraine after Russian invasion
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres gestures as he visits Borodyanka, outside Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 28. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images
By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.

Putin’s War

In the weeks leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres dismissed warnings from the United States and the United Kingdom that Russia intended to march into Kyiv and topple the government. And as Russian tanks rolled across Ukrainian territory, Guterres swatted down suggestions that he pay a visit to Kyiv to show solidarity with Ukraine and lead a diplomatic effort to end the conflict.

But this week, Guterres yielded to pressure from Western governments and former U.N. officials to undertake what is perhaps the most ambitious—and politically risky—diplomatic mission of his career, visiting Moscow and Ukraine in an effort to crack open the door to a possible peace process and negotiate a cease-fire that allows thousands of civilians to escape cities under siege.

“He’s been worn down, and he finally had to do it,” said one Western diplomat familiar with the behind-the-scenes efforts to force Guterres’s hand. However, the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, credited Guterres with delivering a tough message in Moscow, underscoring Russia’s violation of the U.N. Charter and exacting a pledge from Russian President Vladimir Putin to permit the evacuation of civilians from the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.

In the weeks leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres dismissed warnings from the United States and the United Kingdom that Russia intended to march into Kyiv and topple the government. And as Russian tanks rolled across Ukrainian territory, Guterres swatted down suggestions that he pay a visit to Kyiv to show solidarity with Ukraine and lead a diplomatic effort to end the conflict.

But this week, Guterres yielded to pressure from Western governments and former U.N. officials to undertake what is perhaps the most ambitious—and politically risky—diplomatic mission of his career, visiting Moscow and Ukraine in an effort to crack open the door to a possible peace process and negotiate a cease-fire that allows thousands of civilians to escape cities under siege.

“He’s been worn down, and he finally had to do it,” said one Western diplomat familiar with the behind-the-scenes efforts to force Guterres’s hand. However, the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, credited Guterres with delivering a tough message in Moscow, underscoring Russia’s violation of the U.N. Charter and exacting a pledge from Russian President Vladimir Putin to permit the evacuation of civilians from the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.

For Guterres, a risk-averse former Portuguese politician and U.N. refugee chief, the diplomatic mission marks a rare instance of the U.N. leader wading into a hot conflict with low expectations of success. It also offers an opportunity to reshape a secretary-generalship that has been defined by caution, amid rising tension among the U.N.’s most powerful nations, particularly the United States, China, and Russia.

Even before he took his seat at the foot of Putin’s long table, Guterres did little to build expectations of a major diplomatic breakthrough. Instead, Guterres proposed setting up a Humanitarian Contact Group, with representatives from Ukraine, Russia, and the U.N. negotiating a series of local pauses in fighting to allow for the evacuation of civilians and the delivery of food, medicine, and other forms of assistance.

The initiative got a positive reception from Putin, who, while denying Russia was preventing civilians from fleeing the city, agreed to work with the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross to prepare for the evacuation of thousands of civilians trapped in the besieged city of Mariupol. There is reason to be skeptical that Putin will make good on his pledge, as Russia has reneged on previous commitments to allow civilians to escape from Ukrainian cities and has additionally abducted hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and forced them to move to Russia, Ukrainian officials say.

On Thursday, Russia fired cruise missiles at Kyiv while the U.N. secretary-general was in town for meetings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, according to Kuleba and other senior Ukrainian officials. Guterres also met separately with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal.

“While the UN Secretary General @antonioguterres is visiting Kyiv, a permanent member of the UN Security Council – russia – is launching missile strikes on the city,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov tweeted. “This is an attack on the security of the Secretary General and on world security!”

“Today, two rockets have exploded in the city of Kyiv,” Guterres told the BBC after the strike. “I was shocked to be informed that two rockets have exploded in the city where I am. So this is a dramatic war, and we absolutely need to end this war.”

“We were in the prime minister’s office when it took place,” Stéphane Dujarric, Guterres’ chief spokesperson, told Foreign Policy by telephone from Kyiv on Thursday. “It was a shock, but it was not a surprise for anybody. This is the capital of a country at war that has endured a lot since the beginning of this war.”

Asked if the missile strike was intended to send a signal to the U.N., Dujarric said: “We’re not that self-centered to think this is about us. It’s not the first missiles to have hit the areas around Kyiv.”

“This doesn’t diminish our effort and work toward increasing humanitarian aid and getting corridors going,” he added.

Before the high-level meeting, Guterres toured grim scenes of atrocities in the towns of Borodyanka, Bucha, and Irpin, which had been occupied by Russian forces. Ukraine’s leaders were miffed that Guterres visited Moscow before coming to Kyiv, with the Ukrainian leader saying, “It is simply wrong to go first to Russia and then to Ukraine.”

“The war is in Ukraine, there are no bodies in the streets of Moscow,” Zelensky added. “It would be logical to go first to Ukraine, to see the people there, the consequences of the occupation.”

But Guterres’s visit is likely to allay some of those concerns. During his stop in Bucha, where victims had been discovered on the streets, executed with their hands tied behind their backs, Guterres reiterated his support for an investigation into mass atrocities by the International Criminal Court and appealed to Russia to cooperate. Speaking at the site of bombed residential buildings in Borodyanka, Guterres said, “I imagined my family in one of those houses that is now destroyed and black. I see my granddaughters running away in panic.”

“The war is evil,” he added.


U.N. Secretary-General Anotonio Guterres delivers a remote speech at the opening of a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Feb. 28, as the council takes on the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

Guterres delivers a remote speech at the opening of a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Feb. 28, as the council voted to hold an urgent debate about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

In the days after Putin ordered troops into Ukraine in late February, Guterres appeared stunned by the Russian action, and he delivered some of his clearest and most unambiguous denunciations of a permanent member of the Security Council, characterizing the military intervention as a flagrant and illegal act of aggression against a U.N. member state and a direct threat to the U.N. Charter.

Seated next to Russian U.N. envoy Vassily Nebenzia in the Security Council on Feb. 23, after Putin recognized the independence of separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine, Guterres conceded that he had dismissed rumors of a Russian invasion, taking the Russian government at its word. “I never believed in them, convinced that nothing serious would happen,” he said. “I was wrong.”

During his visit to Moscow, Guterres didn’t mince words, rebuking the Russian leadership by declaring, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a violation of its territorial integrity and against the Charter of the United Nations.”

“There is one thing that is true and obvious, and that no arguments can change,” he added at a press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “We have not Ukrainian troops in the territory of the Russian Federation, but we have Russian troops in the territory of [Ukraine].”

Still, diplomats and other U.N. observers said that they hoped Guterres would have moved sooner to confront Russian aggression in a conflict that poses an existential threat to the U.N. Charter. Weeks before the attack, European officials had urged Guterres to raise concerns with Putin on the sidelines of the Beijing Olympics in February about the massive military buildup along the Ukrainian border, according to a diplomat familiar with the appeals.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres holds a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on April 26.

Guterres (left) holds a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on April 26. Russian Foreign Ministry/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Europeans, in particular, “really wanted Guterres to get involved in diplomacy before the war,” but they were largely rebuffed by the secretary-general, who “like some others, including in Kyiv, thought this was all an enormous bluff,” according to Richard Gowan, an expert on the U.N. at the International Crisis Group.

“In retrospect, that was his best chance of an entry point for diplomacy, before hostilities ramped up; he has been playing catch-up ever since,” Gowan added. “But we also have to be realistic. If [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz and [French President Emmanuel] Macron couldn’t change Putin’s mind, it wasn’t going to be changed by the secretary-general.”

Weeks before the invasion, Guterres contacted the Russians to prepare a visit to Moscow by Rosemary DiCarlo, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs. The Russians responded that DiCarlo was welcome to visit, but that the government wouldn’t discuss the Ukraine issue with her.

A senior U.N. official said that Guterres, who was seated in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s section at the opening ceremony of the Olympics, was physically separated from Putin. And Putin did not attend an official dinner hosted by Xi. There were no opportunities, the official said, for Guterres to speak to Putin.

The U.N. chief “has been very clear from the get-go that his good offices were available as in any conflict mediation situation,” Dujarric, Guterres’s chief spokesperson, said in a telephone interview Wednesday night from Kyiv. “But both parties need to agree to the good office of any secretary-general.”

“António Guterres is an extremely pragmatic diplomat and politician, and so he will move forward and take risks where he thinks he can make a difference,” Dujarric said. “What he is trying to do in Moscow and in Kyiv is to focus on the humanitarian crisis and to figure out how we can scale up what we are doing.”

In the weeks following the start of the war, Guterres has faced mounting pressure from Western delegations and from within the community of U.N. civil servants to increase his visibility on the diplomatic front.

On April 15, a group of more than 200 former U.N. officials wrote a letter to Guterres acknowledging his “appeals to stop the conflict,” but urging him to go further, according to a copy of the letter, which was first reported by the Guardian.

“We want to see a clear strategy to re-establish peace, starting with a provisional ceasefire, and the use of the UN’s capacity for good offices, mediation and conflict-resolution,” according to the joint letter, which was obtained by Foreign Policy. “We therefore implore you to intensify your personal efforts, deploying all capabilities at your disposal and acting upon lessons learnt from previous conflicts, for the cessation of hostilities and conflict resolution through peaceful means.”

“This is the raison d’être of the United Nations, which is being tested again in this case,” the letter continues. “We are horrified at the alternative, the UN becoming increasingly irrelevant and, eventually, succumbing to the fate of its predecessor, the League of Nations.”

Jeffrey Feltman, a former U.S. diplomat and U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs under Guterres, said that he “regrets” that his former boss did not travel to Moscow in January when satellite imagery was showing a massive troop buildup along the Russian and Belarusian borders with Ukraine. “I wish Guterres had gone to Moscow to remind the Russians of their charter obligations and to ask Putin his intention behind these troop movements,” said Feltman, who signed the joint letter.

But he said he’s relieved that the secretary-general has finally decided to make the trip, even though he has low expectations about the prospects for peace. “I’m really glad he is going, really glad he is there even though tangible results will probably be few,” Feltman said. “He needs to embody the principle of the U.N. Charter that all member states have an obligation to settle their disputes through peaceful means.”

“He’s not going to end this war with this trip,” he said. “But he needs to be caught trying.”


Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Guterres at the Kremlin in Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with Guterres at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 26. VLADIMIR ASTAPKOVICH/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who once led the U.N.’s refugee agency, came into the office with a desire to play a more direct personal role in global politics and conflict resolution, according to U.N. observers. But his first forays into mediation, particularly in Libya, were unsuccessful.

In Libya, Guterres’s peacemaking mission to Tripoli in April 2019 coincided with an offensive by the rebel leader, Khalifa Haftar, burying U.N. efforts to put the country on a path to national reconciliation. Since then, Guterres has limited his peacemaking role, prioritizing the struggle against climate change, promoting the U.N.’s sustainable development goals, and seeking to manage the economic and political fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Ultimately the Libyan misadventure was what really seemed to leave him profoundly skeptical about getting involved in personal diplomacy of this type,” Gowan said.

In the recent crisis in Ukraine, Guterres has until this week played a limited diplomatic role, eclipsed by numerous other world leaders, including Macron, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have sought to mediate the conflict. It remains unclear what relationship Guterres has with Putin, who supported his second term as U.N. chief. But Guterres has confided to some dignitaries that since the war began Putin has refused to take his calls, apparently infuriated by the U.N. chief’s sharp criticism of the Russian invasion.

Guterres’s low-profile diplomatic role in the weeks leading up to the war has reinforced the perception that the stature of the U.N. secretary-general role has been diminished during the past decade, according to Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador to the United Nations. Guterres and his predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, have been “less active and certainly less prestigious than some of their predecessors,” he said, which raises the question: “Where is the U.N.?”

Araud said expectations of a diplomatic breakthrough on Ukraine “are low and should be low.” But he said the conflict poses a dilemma.

“It is true that there is a state which has aggressed another state, and which is violating international humanitarian law and the laws of war. But this country is also a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council,” Araud said. “If he wants to be a mediator he has to really be prudent in his relationship with Moscow.”

The U.N. chief’s full-throated condemnations of Russia’s invasion have done little to endear him to the embattled Ukrainian population, however.

Top Ukrainian officials have lashed out at the U.N. with withering criticisms of its response to the conflict, hampered by the fact that Russia retains a permanent seat with veto power on the Security Council. Some Ukrainian officials have cast doubt on whether Guterres’s trip to Moscow would achieve anything.

Some experts believe Guterres has an important, if unenviable, role in keeping diplomatic channels with Russia open, particularly as Western countries expel hundreds of Russian officials from embassies, and Moscow reciprocates by cutting some of its own diplomatic ties with the West.

“It is up to Guterres to ensure that diplomatic lines of communication remain open, even in the face of Russia’s egregious assault on Ukraine,” said Rachel Rizzo, an expert on European security at the Atlantic Council think tank.

Several U.S. diplomats said Washington has pushed Guterres to take a more proactive role in settling the conflict, but they conceded that the U.N. chief had little diplomatic room to maneuver, as Moscow has shown no signs of halting its invasion, and Ukraine has shown no signs of giving up.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, testifying before the Senate on Tuesday, threw cold water on the idea that Putin was ready to sit down for peace talks ahead of Guterres’s mission. “We’ve seen no sign to date that President Putin is serious about meaningful negotiations,” Blinken said. “If he is, and if the Ukrainians engage, we’ll support that.”

At this stage of the conflict, the Ukrainian government appears unlikely to give up the fight.

“It doesn’t look like a ripe situation,” said Gowan, the International Crisis Group expert. “Our reading of the situation is that both sides are pretty determined to keep fighting.” It may be, Gowan added, that Guterres has “ended up doing the right thing, but at the wrong moment.”

Staff writer Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.

Update, April 28, 2022: This story has been updated to include new details on the alleged Russian missile attack on Kyiv during Guterres’s visit.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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