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UN chief met with Putin to bridge differences with Russia over its actions in Ukraine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We begin this hour with the latest diplomatic effort to end the conflict in Ukraine. The head of the United Nations was in Moscow today meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister. The U.N. chief's mission - to try to bridge differences with Russia.

Well, NPR's Charles Maynes is there in Russia, in Moscow. Hey, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: This is interesting, this visit, because, as we know, there have not been a lot of diplomatic breakthroughs on Ukraine to celebrate of late. What exactly was the secretary general hoping to achieve?

MAYNES: Yeah. Well, the secretary general, Antonio Guterres, said it was simple - he'd come to Moscow as, quote, "a messenger of peace." Let's listen in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONIO GUTERRES: My objective and my agenda is strictly linked to save lives and to reduce suffering.

MAYNES: Now, Guterres seemed to have no illusions going in. He noted that the U.N. and his Russian host had very different views about what was happening in Ukraine. And he admitted his own previous calls for a cease-fire had gone nowhere. So his focus, again, was on easing the suffering. He said this conflict was creating shockwaves not only in Ukraine and Russia, but throughout the world, causing rising food and energy prices. And he said the sooner this conflict ends, the better it'll be for everybody.

KELLY: Yeah. On that focus that he's proclaiming there of reducing suffering, saving lives, was there any progress on humanitarian corridors in Ukraine, you know, trying to get civilians out of cities under siege and then they're not allowed to leave safely or they're safe only for a few hours? Any movement?

MAYNES: Well, yeah, in a way. It's really his one big proposal. He said he wanted to allow the U.N. to take the lead in working with both sides to establish humanitarian corridors for civilians fleeing the fighting. It was a way, Guterres argued, to build trust that these offers were truly safe and not some, you know, propaganda tool for either Russia or Ukraine. You know, he also singled out the humanitarian crisis in the city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian soldiers and civilians had been trapped in a Soviet-era steelworks factory by Russian forces, calling it a crisis within a crisis that demanded action.

But, you know, Guterres also got into a remarkable back and forth at the televised portion of his meeting with President Putin. You know, the two men were sitting in the Kremlin at the far ends of a giant white table. Some people might recognize it from recent visits that Putin has had with world leaders. And Guterres told Putin that the U.N. viewed Russia's actions against its neighbor as, quote, "an invasion."

KELLY: Wait, really? He used the word invasion? How did that go down?

MAYNES: Well, not well. As you might imagine, Putin challenged him on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So Putin said he'd closely studied legal precedents for recognizing independent countries and defense treaties in Western Europe, and said, you know, why can't Russia do the same in the Donbas? You know, there, of course, Russia has recognized and now come to the military aid of these self-proclaimed Donbas republics. And so he really tried to provide legal cover for Russia's actions in Ukraine to the head of the U.N. live on Russian TV.

Now, he also repeated an argument that Russian officials have made often of late, and it's this - that Russia wants a diplomatic solution to the conflict, but Ukraine hasn't been a reliable negotiating partner. And the reason, Moscow says, is that the West keeps giving Kyiv increasingly heavy weapons and tells them to try and settle it on the battlefield.

KELLY: Which I guess brings me back to where we began, the dearth of diplomatic breakthroughs. Where does diplomacy go from here?

MAYNES: Well, we'll see if Guterres makes any progress with his humanitarian corridor idea, first with Putin and then with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with whom he meets later this week. The Ukrainians, I should add, weren't too happy to come in second on that list. If Guterres is successful, it may go some way toward silencing critics who say he and the U.N. have been largely missing amid this crisis in Ukraine so far.

KELLY: That is NPR's Charles Maynes reporting in Moscow. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.