the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, has told Russia’s foreign minister on Tuesday he is ready to fully mobilize the UN’s resources to evacuate people from the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol amid criticism of his role in the crisis.
“Thousands of civilians are in dire need of lifesaving humanitarian assistance, and many have evacuated,” he said, adding he had come as a messenger of peace.
It was Guterres first visit to Moscow since the crisis broke and it follows criticism that he had allowed his office to be marginalized in the crisis and undermined the UN’s authority.
Speaking at a news conference with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, he upbraided Russia for the war, saying he understood that Moscow had many grievances, but the UN charter had many mechanisms whereby such grievances could be addressed, including the International Court of Justice.
“There is one thing that is true and obvious, and no argument can change. We have not Ukrainian troops in the territory of the Russian Federation, but we do have Russian troops in the Ukrainian Federation,” he said. Lavrov said that was true.
Guterres, who also met the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, at a later meeting, said he was concerned by reports of war crimes in Ukraine and that they required an independent investigation, but not by the UN.
Putin, separated from Guterres by a long table, repeated his earlier claims that Moscow was not involved in alleged atrocities in Bucha. “Russia was faced with provocation in Bucha, something the Russian side had nothing to do with,” he said during the meeting in the Kremlin.
“Russian forces had no connections to Bucha. We know who did it. We know who prepared this provocation, the means they used. We know who they are.”
He also told Guterres that peace talks with Ukraine are continuing via a video link and that he hopes they would bring “some positive outcome” but blamed Ukraine for stalling the negotiation process, saying he would not sign a security guarantee agreement with Ukraine without the territorial questions of Crimea and Donbas being resolved.
Guterres has faced criticism from Ukraine for not visiting Kyiv before going to Moscow and for failing to intervene decisively before Russia invaded on 24 February. “It is simply wrong to go first to Russia and then to Ukraine,” Ukraine’s president, Volodymr Zelenskiy, told reporters in Kyiv on Saturday. “There is no justice and no logic in this order. The war is in the Ukraine, there are no bodies in the streets of Moscow. It would be logical to go first to Ukraine, to see the people there, the consequences of the occupation.”
Some of Zelenskiy’s advisers have said Guterres has no mandate to talk to Russia on their behalf.
The timing of the visit seems unpropitious, since both sides are heavily committed to the battle in the two big eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, known collectively as the Donbas, and the Ukrainian army is receiving its greatest supply of heavy armor from the US than at any point in the fighting.
Guterres announced his mediation effort after more than 200 former United Nations officials sent him a letter urging him to try to intervene and warning the UN was being marginalized in the crisis to the point of extinction.
One of the signatories of the letter, Franz Baumann, a UN assistant secretary general until 2015, told the Guardian that previous secretary generals understood they had an independent role of the security council to protect the UN charter, adding the letter had been written by UN patriots because the honor of the UN needed defending.
He said before the war started, the secretary general should have gone to Moscow to demand Putin say if he was sincere when he said the troop movements on Russia’s border of Ukraine did not represent a threat to the integrity of Ukraine, and “if he did not get a satisfactory answer he should have gone to Beijing to the Winter Olympic ceremonies to ask the same question of Russia and China when they met.
“Then he should have gone to the capitals that have been hedging such as Pretoria, Brasília, New Delhi and Ankara to demand they support peace.
He added the duty of the secretary general under article 99 of the charter was to bring to the attention of the security council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.
“Simply deploring something is not enough,” he said. “He does not seem to have grasped the concept that it is his responsibility to speak on behalf of the charter.”
Andrew Gilmour, another signatory to the letter and a former UN assistant secretary general for human rights until 2019, said: “It is very important for the long-term credibility of the UN that the SG is now visiting. From what I’m hearing, there are thousands of UN staff – current and past – who in recent weeks have been very anxious for Guterres to go to the affected countries. Yes, there is not a big chance that Guterres will pull something off, and it certainly would not be his fault if he does not.
“Not being afraid to fail is a crucial leadership attribute for a UNSG – because after all, what’s one person’s self-esteem when one’s talking about averting the horrors of war?
“There are millions of people around the world who hope Guterres will really speak truth to power in Moscow and make a passionate but calculated appeal in a way nobody else can do with Putin, and which would be very much of the SG’s job description anyway. ”