U.N. Chief Visits Odesa, Facing Limits of Influence Over War in Ukraine

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Emma BubolaDan Bilefsky and
António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, said during a visit to Odesa, Ukraine, on Friday that the port — where shipments of grain have begun departing under an international deal in recent days — stood as a symbol of what the world can achieve when countries work together for the common good.
But he said that wealthier countries needed to support developing nations by helping them buy the grain.
“A country cannot feed itself if it is starved for resources,” Mr. Guterres told reporters in Odesa, Ukraine’s largest port city.
He visited the city to witness the progress of the fragile agreement brokered by the United Nations and Turkey that freed up grain after it was stuck for months amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia’s monthslong blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports aggravated a global food crisis, helping stoke famine in Africa and contributing to soaring grain prices.
Mr. Guterres urged the private sector to cooperate to get more food and fertilizer out of Ukraine and Russia, warning that “without fertilizer in 2022, there may not be enough food in 2023.” Yet his remarks came in the midst of a conflict that has underscored the limits of his organization’s influence when one of its most powerful members instigates a war.
On Thursday, as he met with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in Lviv, in western Ukraine, he heralded the effectiveness of the deal, saying it confirmed the United Nations’ vital role as a mediator. But Mr. Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister, acknowledged that the unresolved problem that had brought him to Ukraine was the war.
As the head of a global organization whose charter pledges to end “the scourge of war,” he has repeatedly called for a political solution to end the conflict and has offered to mediate, to little avail. From the beginning of Russia’s invasion in late February until April, Mr. Guterres was unable to even get President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on the phone, according to Mr. Guterres’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric.
Some of the most effective efforts to punish Russia have come in the form of tough economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, but those came outside the Security Council, the structure within the United Nations that has the power to impose sanctions.
While the war has laid bare the limits of the United Nations’ ability to resolve global conflicts, it has also showcased the organization’s vital humanitarian role, providing aid, food and health care to millions of Ukrainian refugees. Mr. Guterres himself served as the U.N. high commissioner for refugees from June 2005 to December 2015, taking up the role of secretary general in 2017.
But Russia holds veto power on the Security Council, robbing it of the ability to pass legally binding resolutions holding Moscow accountable. And Russia has a powerful ally, with its own veto, on the council: China.
Among the council’s most striking recent failures is the yearslong civil war in Syria, in which Russia blocked definitive action. China’s and Russia’s alliances kept the Security Council from moving aggressively to counter atrocities against the Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar. North Korea, which China also protects, has repeatedly ignored U.N. prohibitions against conducting nuclear tests.
Cases where the council was able to act include imposing painful sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. The council also authorized military intervention in support of Libyan rebels in 2011, despite Russia’s reluctance — but the assassination of the Libyan dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, reinforced Russian suspicion of the organization.
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