Kyiv, Ukraine – Antonio Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, had just finished a longer-than-scheduled meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv when Russian cruise missiles struck a nearby residential area.
The proximity of the attack stunned Guterres.
“I was obviously shocked when I was informed that two missiles had reached a target in Kyiv,” he told Al Jazeera later on Thursday. “I was shocked,” he repeated.
“Kyiv is a city with an enormous historical value,” Guterres said, calling the capital “wonderful”. “It represents, I would say, everything for both Ukrainians and Russians and I hope that Kyiv will be spared.”
Several people were reported wounded in the strikes, the first to hit Kyiv in almost two weeks. Zelenskyy described them as an attempt by Russia “to humiliate the UN and everything that the organisation represents”. Russia’s defence ministry called it a “high precision” strike on a space-rocket facility in the heart of the capital.
“If anything, the attack on Kyiv underlines how difficult it will be for the international community to mediate a settlement between the two sides,” Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from the capital, said. “For the secretary-general, the priority at the moment is to provide humanitarian relief to Ukrainians trapped in battle zones.”
‘My only objective is to rescue people’
Earlier in the day, Guterres had called war “an absurdity in the 21st century” during a tour of several towns on the outskirts of Kyiv where Russian forces are alleged to have committed war crimes before retreating to refocus their offensive on the eastern Donbas region. Russia denies the allegations.
“When I see those destroyed buildings, I imagine my family in one of those houses now destroyed and black. I see my granddaughters running in panic,” he told reporters in Borodyanka, northwest of the Ukrainian capital, from beside the wreckage of apartment blocks.
This was Guterres’ first visit to Kyiv since Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 24 ordered his troops into Ukraine for what he calls a “special military operation” to “demilitarise and de-Nazify” the neighbouring country. The war has killed thousands of people, if not more, and forced more than five million, mostly women and children, to flee abroad.
Guterres’ talks with Zelenskyy came two days after he met Putin in Moscow, where he underscored the need for so-called “humanitarian corridors”, particularly for civilians holed up in a besieged steelworks with the last fighters defending the southeastern port city of Mariupol that has experienced weeks of intense Russian bombardment.
But the UN chief’s decision to visit Moscow first, instead of Kyiv, frustrated Zelenskyy, who said Guterres should have first seen the trail of destruction left behind by Russian forces.
“I can understand if you are president of a country that is suffering, as Ukraine is suffering, that you are very sensitive to this kind of issues,” Guterres told Al Jazeera in Kyiv, defending his move.
“My only objective is to rescue people and contribute for peace – and obviously with the enormous concern that the government of Ukraine had expressed about the civilians trapped in the steel plant in Mariupol, it was absolutely central to find a way to take them out,” he said.
“And the only place I could try to do it was going to Moscow and talking to President Putin, so I believe that it was the right thing to do. At the same time, of course, making sure we create the conditions to work seriously with the government in Kyiv in boosting our humanitarian support to the people of Ukraine,” he added, hailing what he described as “very constructive and very positive discussions in this regard”.
Following Guterres’ talks with Putin on Tuesday, the UN said the Russian president had agreed “in principle” to the world body and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) being involved in the evacuation of civilians from the huge Azovstal plant in Mariupol.
“There have been intense preparatory discussions to try make it a reality,” Guterres told Al Jazeera. “I spoke also with President Zelenskyy and I hope that it will be possible, but the best way to make it happen is not to start talking too much about it. Let’s hope that it happens and let’s not create problems for it to happen,” he said.
Guterres also expressed “regret” that the UN had not been invited to be part of the Minsk process or Minsk Agreement, which was brokered by France and Germany, and followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and moves by Russian-backed separatists to take control of parts of eastern Ukraine.
Negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian delegates have stalled in recent weeks and hopes for a ceasefire faded in the face of heavy fighting in Ukraine’s east and southern regions.
Noting that the UN was not part of the “present political negotiations”, Guterres stressed that the world body was “following with a lot of interest” the talks between Russia and Ukraine and that it was “not by chance” that he had stopped over in Turkey and met President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his way to Moscow earlier this week.
“Turkey has been very active and engaged in bringing the parties to Istanbul and Antalya and strongly supporting those political discussions and we are … fully supporting this initiative,” he said.