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Guterres meets Putin in Moscow ahead of trip to Kiev

Despite Lavrov's warnings about the outbreak of World War III, the UN Secretary General has travelled from Ankara to Moscow for talks with the Russian authorities
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AFP/ALEXEY SPUTNIK  -   File photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the sidelines of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in St Petersburg on June 7, 2019

The big war machines in Ukraine don't seem to take a second's rest. Hour after hour, day after day, for more than two months now, Russian shelling and artillery have hit, in one way or another, almost every corner of its Slavic neighbour. However, beneath the vast surface of the war machine, the gears of diplomacy are also relentless in their efforts to stop, once and for all, one of the biggest European confrontations so far this century.

One of the cogs in the wheel of negotiations and diplomatic rapprochements this week was embodied by the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who travelled to the Russian capital of Moscow to meet with the Kremlin leader, Vladimir Putin. 

However, Guterres' tour - which aims to put the UN at the centre of the Ukraine peace talks - already began yesterday, Monday, with his trip to Ankara in Turkey. After talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that did not materialise in a press appearance, both Guterres and Erdogan underlined their mutual "goal" of stopping the war "as soon as possible". Moreover, highlighting Ankara's efforts that brought together the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers - Sergey Lavrov and Dmytro Kuleba, respectively - a few weeks ago, the UN Secretary General praised Turkey's mediating role in the conflict. 

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PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT via REUTERS - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Ankara, Turkey April 25, 2022

Today it was the turn of the Moscow authorities. On Tuesday, Antonio Guterres was on his way to the Russian capital to meet with Sergei Lavrov and Vladimir Putin. The meeting with the foreign minister ended with Guterres calling for a ceasefire "as soon as possible" and proposing the creation of a trilateral Contact Group between Moscow, Kiev and the UN itself, which would guarantee the effectiveness of "safe humanitarian corridors in Ukraine". "We are deeply interested at this time in doing everything possible to end the war in Ukraine as soon as possible, and to minimise the suffering of people and reduce the impact on vulnerable groups in other parts of the world," Guterres said at the start of the meeting.

Lavrov's position, however, remained less optimistic. "Talking about mediators at this stage, in my view, is premature," he said during the joint press conference. In addition, and in contrast to Guterres' defence of multilateralism, the Russian minister accused the West of creating parallel structures to the UN and "establishing a unipolar world". "The moment of truth in international relations has arrived; the moment to decide whether humanity will really live under the UN charter," Lavrov said. 

For his part, President Erdogan on Tuesday proposed elevating the negotiations that already began with the Kuleba-Lavrov meeting in Istanbul by holding a summit at the highest level between Zelenski and his Russian counterpart. This suggestion from a neutral Ankara came after Erdogan's telephone meeting with Vladimir Putin. The Russian president assured his Turkish counterpart that Mariupol "has been liberated and combat actions are no longer taking place there". 

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AFP/GENYA SAVILOV - Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenski addresses international media at a metro station in Kiev on April 23, 2022. Zelenski criticised the UN secretary general's decision to visit Moscow on 26 April, before heading to Kiev

But despite yesterday's promises of a unilateral ceasefire by Moscow, and assurances made to President Erdogan, in the last 24 hours the Azovstal steel mill facilities have suffered about 35 new Russian air strikes and a fire, as reported by military sources holding out at the plant.

The itinerary of the UN Secretary General's trip has aroused some animosity in Ukrainian high circles, with President Zelenski reproaching Guterres during one of his speeches for visiting Moscow before Kiev. "There is no justice or logic in this order. The war is in Ukraine, there are no bodies on the streets of Moscow. It would be logical to go to Ukraine first, to see the people there, the consequences of the occupation," the Ukrainian leader criticised. 

Guterres' trip to the last of his stops - the Ukrainian capital - is scheduled for Wednesday, where he is expected to meet with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and President Volodymir Zelenski on Thursday. 

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AFP/RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hold a joint press conference after their talks in Moscow on 26 April 2022
A missile crisis like 1962?

But while diplomacy continues to work hard to stop the conflict, the tone of the Russian authorities does not seem to be lowering. Just yesterday, Sergey Lavrov warned the West of the "real risk" that the war in Ukraine could end up triggering World War III. "The danger is serious, it is real, and cannot be underestimated," the minister said during an appearance on Russian television, as reported by the Interfax news agency.

Lavrov criticised Washington for "continuing to send weapons to Ukraine despite warnings", and compared the current escalation of tensions to the Missile Crisis of 1962. Indeed, according to the senior Russian official, at least at that time "the rules of conduct were very clear and there was a channel of communication that the leaders trusted. Now there is no such channel and nobody is trying to create one. 

In a very similar vein, the secretary of the Moscow Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, told the Russian daily Rossiskaya Gazeta that Western intervention in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will eventually lead to "the disintegration of Ukraine into several states". "In an attempt to crush Russia, the Americans, using their protégés in Kiev, decided to create an antipode of our country, cynically choosing Ukraine for this purpose, trying to divide an essentially single people," said Patrushev. 

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PHOTO/MARÍA SENOVILLA - Oleksandr Senkevich , mayor of the city of Mikolaiv
On the ground

In the meantime, military and armament moves on Ukrainian territory continue. The mayor of the southern Ukrainian town of Mykolaiv - located halfway between Russian-controlled Kherson and the "pearl of the Black Sea" Odessa - has warned that Moscow is transferring troops and troops close to the town. "We are prepared for an attack or a siege of the city that could happen imminently," Mayor Oleksandr Senkevich said in an interview with the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper. 

The Belarusian Defence Ministry also issued a statement this morning warning of joint air exercises with its Russian neighbour. As reported by the Reuters news agency, this will take place between 26 and 29 April and will serve as practice for the war in Ukraine.