Diplomatic tour by Ukraine’s Zelenskiy highlights Putin’s stark isolation

In a span of a week, the Ukrainian president has dashed to Italy, the Vatican, Germany, France and Britain to shore up support for the defense of his country

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy walks past Republican Guards as he arrives at the Élysée Palace in Paris, on May 14, 2023.Michel Euler (AP)

While the world awaits Ukraine’s spring battlefield offensive, its leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has launched a diplomatic one. In the span of a week, he’s dashed to Italy, the Vatican, Germany, France and Britain to shore up support for defending his country. On Friday, he was in Saudi Arabia to meet with Arab leaders, some of whom are allies with Moscow.

President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, was in the southern Russian city of Pyatigorsk, chairing a meeting with local officials, sitting at a large table at a distance from the other attendees.

The Russian president has faced unprecedented international isolation, with an International Criminal Court arrest warrant hanging over his head and clouding the prospects of traveling to many destinations, including those viewed as Moscow’s allies.

With his invasion of Ukraine, “Putin took a gamble and lost really, really big time,” said Theresa Fallon, director of the Brussels-based Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies. “He is an international pariah, really.”

It was only 10 years ago when Putin stood proudly among his peers at the time — Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and Shinzo Abe — at a Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland. Russia has since been kicked out of the group, which consists of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the United States, for illegally annexing Crimea in 2014.

Now it appears to be Ukraine’s turn in the spotlight.

There were conflicting messages from Kyiv whether Zelenskiy would attend the G7 in Japan on Sunday. The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said on national television the president would be there, but the council later walked back those remarks, saying Zelenskiy would join via video link. The president’s office would not confirm either way for security reasons.

But whether in person or via video, it would be of great symbolic and geopolitical significance.

“It conveys the fact that the G7 continues to strongly support Ukraine,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It’s a visible marker of the continued commitment of the most highly industrialized and highly developed countries in the world.”

It also comes at a time when the optics are just not in the Kremlin’s favor.

There’s uncertainty over whether Putin can travel to Cape Town in August for a summit of the BRICS nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Moscow has long showcased the alliance as an alternative to the West’s global dominance, but this year it is already proving awkward for the Kremlin. South Africa, the host of the summit, is a signatory to the ICC and is obligated to comply with the arrest warrant on war crimes charges.

South Africa has not announced that Putin will definitely come to the summit but has been planning for his possible arrival. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has appointed an inter-ministerial committee, led by Deputy President Paul Mashatile, to consider South Africa’s options with regard to its ICC commitment over Putin’s possible trip.

While it is highly unlikely the Russian president would be arrested there if he decides to go, the public debate about whether he can is in itself “an unwelcome development whose impact should not be underestimated,” according to Gould-Davies.

Then there are Moscow’s complicated relations with its own neighbors. Ten days ago, Putin projected the image of solidarity, with leaders of Armenia, Belarus and Central Asian states standing beside him at a Victory Day military parade on Red Square.

This week, however, the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan flocked to China and met with leader Xi Jinping at a summit that highlighted the erosion of Russia’s influence in the region as Beijing seeks to make economic inroads into Central Asia.

Xi is using the opportunity “of a weakened Russia, a distracted Russia, almost a pariah-state Russia to increase (China’s) influence in the region,” Fallon said.

Putin’s effort this month to shore up more friends in the South Caucasus by scrapping visa requirements for Georgian nationals and lifting a four-year ban on direct flights to the country also didn’t appear to go as smoothly as the Kremlin may have hoped.

The first flight that landed Friday in Georgia was met with protests, and the country’s pro-Western president has decried the move as a provocation.

Zelensky’s ongoing world tour can be seen as a success on many levels.

Invitations from other world leaders is a sign they think Ukraine is “going to come out of the war in good shape,” said Phillips P. O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Otherwise, “it simply wouldn’t be happening,” he said. “No one would want to be around a leader they think is going to be defeated and a country that’s going to collapse.”

By contrast, the ICC warrant might make it harder for leaders even to visit Putin in Moscow because “it’s not a good look to visit an indicted war criminal,” Gould-Davies said.

European leaders promised him an arsenal of missiles, tanks and drones, and even though no commitment has been made on fighter jets — something Kyiv has wanted for months — a conversation about finding ways to do it has begun.

His appearance Friday at the Arab League summit in Jeddah, a Saudi Arabian port on the Red Sea, highlighted Kyiv’s effort to spread its plight for support far and wide, including in some countries whose sympathies are with Russia.

In addition to Zelenskiy, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also welcomed Syrian President Bashar Assad at the summit after a 12-year suspension — something analysts say aligns with Moscow’s interests.

Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute who focuses on Russia’s policy in the Middle East, called it “another testament to the fact that Russia is not isolated globally for its invasion of Ukraine, that the Middle East is one part of the world where Russia is able to find avenues to avoid global isolation — both ideological isolation but also economic isolation.”

She added that Zelenskiy and his government deserve credit for “in recognizing that they need to reach out more to improve their diplomatic efforts in this part of the world and other parts of the world where the Russian narrative resonates.”

Kyiv could expect that “this is the beginning of a larger shift in perception that could eventually translate into potential support,” Borshchevskaya said.

Similarly, the Ukrainian president’s participation in the G7 summit is “a message to the rest of the world, to Russia and beyond, and the so-called Global South,” Gould-Davies believes.

There is a concern in the West over the extent to which some major developing economies — Brazil, South Africa and, to a degree, India — “are not criticizing, not condemning Russia and indeed in various ways are helping to mitigate the impact of sanctions on Russia,” he said.

“Collectively, economically, they matter. So there is, I think, this felt need for a renewed diplomatic campaign to bring some of these most important states into the kind of the Western way of looking at these things,” Gould-Davies said.

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