United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres started out wobbly on the Ukrainian crisis. In the days leading up to the Feb. 24 Russian attack on Ukraine, he remained on the sidelines. He was apparently unconvinced that the Russians would invade the country. Had he taken the threat of Russian troops assembled on Ukraine’s borders seriously, he might have flown to Moscow and Kyiv to see if he could settle the dispute between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky and prevent the outbreak of war. If he had failed at this endeavor, he would have, nonetheless, won praise from the world for acting proactively. But he stayed at a distance.
In retrospect, the man considered to be the UN’s foremost secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjold, spoke about how he would have addressed such a menace, Russian or otherwise. Hammarskjold, a Swede, told a press conference on April 5, 1955, that if faced with a perilous but uncertain situation, he would act in the following way: “I feel that when a danger does exist, we should act on the basis of that very fact that there is a danger and not give ourselves any leeway as to false speculations that the danger is far off in time; that is to say, whatever your guesses are concerning the time of certain possible threatening developments, you should act as if things might happen tomorrow.”
However, since his initial lapse, Guterres has come back strong, showing leadership more in line with Hammarskjold. In the days after the invasion, he directly criticized Putin for the assault on Ukraine. That stance took a great deal of courage. A secretary-general normally does not upbraid any of the five veto nations, which are those most responsible for his appointment. Indeed, as a result of Guterres’s comments early into the war, Putin could have decided to end any dealings with him on any and all UN matters — something that Moscow once did to a previous secretary-general, the Norwegian Trygve Lie, who had supported the UN’s involvement in the Korean War, ultimately forcing Lie to resign. And Russia surely would have prevented Guterres, now in his second five-year term, from running for a third one — though that is unlikely, as no UN leader has ever served more than two go-rounds on the job.
Despite his rebuke of Russia, Guterres used deft diplomacy to re-establish a working relationship with Putin. This might have been helped along by Putin’s realization, given the intense and widespread fury at his intervention — demonstrated by the General Assembly, which on March 3 voted 141 to 5, with 35 abstentions, to condemn the Russian attack, and Russia’s own embarrassing ouster from the Human Rights Council — that he needed the UN to help him better deal with the global community. In any event, Guterres used his opening with the Kremlin to arrange an unlikely deal: the safe evacuation of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians trapped in the basements of the Mariupol steel works. The rescue of these men, women and children took place peacefully. Unfortunately, though, many of the captives were taken to Russian or occupied-Ukrainian territory, where a large number were imprisoned and tortured. In the end, many were later repatriated to Ukraine in a prisoner exchange.
Guterres also finagled an agreement with Putin on July 22, known as the Black Sea Grain Initiative, to allow for the renewal of grain exports from Ukraine’s Odessa and other ports to global markets through the Black Sea. That shipping corridor had been sealed off by Russia for months, aggravating the suffering of populations in numerous low-income countries, primarily in Africa, where they were already facing starvation from terrible droughts; or in the case of Ethiopia, war. Estimates that about four million metric tons of grain, just below the usual monthly average of five million metric tons, were transported in the first six weeks after the Guterres accord was signed with Ukraine, Russia and Türkiye. (As of Oct. 7, 6.4 million metric tons have left Ukraine ports.) Meantime, Russia’s shipments of fertilizers and ammonia (required to produce additional fertilizer abroad), while not under Western sanctions, were assured of no future interference.
In addition, Guterres blocked the possibility of a Chernobyl-type nuclear disaster. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in eastern Ukraine, the largest in Europe with six reactors, was in grave danger of being bombed. Russian troops had occupied the plant since the early days of the war, forcing Ukrainian technicians to operate the reactors under Russian troops’ watch. A missile hit on any of the buildings might have caused a radioactive catastrophe worse than what had happened in Chernobyl, spreading radiation throughout the region and resulting in untold deaths. Guterres and the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, got an O.K. from Putin to inspect the plant. Eventually, an IAEA watchdog team visited the reactors for a damage assessment and concluded that for the moment, they were relatively safe but that conditions were seriously precarious. The agency also left behind two of its inspectors to monitor the power stations.
Guterres has continued to seek ways to limit, if not end, the conflict. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Türkiye revealed during the UN General Assembly meeting in mid-September that he and Guterres are working behind the scenes to end the crisis. While not much is known about what these men are doing, at least the UN’s good offices are being put to good use. Meanwhile, other UN agencies, including Unicef, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Program, UN Development Program and the World Health Organization, are pitching into Ukraine at the edges.
The obstacles to a settlement mount. Putin’s latest gambit, to annex four provinces in eastern and southern Ukraine via sham referendums, complicates the situation. To his credit, Guterres publicly denounced the latest Russian scheme, stating: “Any annexation of a state’s territory by another state resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the principles of the UN Charter and of international law.”
The referendums, he added, “have no legal value and deserved to be condemned.” Russia’s UN mission reacted to Guterres, charging that he supported “double standards,” claiming that he was silent on the United States’ “occupation” of Syrian territory. But Guterres has been steadfast in his position, placing the UN in a stance of upholding the historic principles of the body, including the UN Charter, despite facing manifold difficulties.
A resolute UN remains the globe’s hope for peace, but a favorable outcome will require even more forceful, insistent involvement by Guterres and the UN in the coming weeks and months. The winter will only worsen conditions for Ukrainians trying to survive the bloodshed.
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Stephen Schlesinger is the author of three books, including “Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations,” which won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City and the former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School (1997-2006) and former publisher of the quarterly magazine, The World Policy Journal. In the 1970s, he edited and published The New Democrat Magazine; was a speechwriter for the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern; and later was the weekly columnist for The Boston Globe’s “The L’t’ry Life.” He wrote, with Stephen Kinzer, “Bitter Fruit,” a book about the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.
Thereafter, he spent four years as a staff writer at Time Magazine. For 12 years, he served as New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. In the mid 1990s, Schlesinger worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with cities.
Schlesinger received his B.A. from Harvard University, a certificate of study from Cambridge University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He lives in New York City.