At Davos, Zelenskiy lashes out at Putin and urges support for Ukraine’s fight

The Ukrainian President described ‘the terrifying feeling that the war may never end.’ He also criticized a world that told him not to escalate tensions ahead of Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks at the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, 16 January 2024.GIAN EHRENZELLER (EFE)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy came out swinging Tuesday against Russian President Vladimir Putin at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos and even had a harsh tone for his allies as war fatigue grows, pressing political and corporate leaders to enforce sanctions, help rebuild his country and advance the peace process.

Zelenskiy is trying to keep his country’s long and largely stalemated defense against Russia on the minds of political leaders, as Israel’s war with Hamas, which passed the 100-day mark this week, has siphoned off much of the world’s attention and sparked concerns about a wider conflict in the Middle East.

“Anyone thinks this is only about us, this is only about Ukraine, they are fundamentally mistaken,” he said in a speech in English at the Swiss ski resort. “Possible directions and even timeline of a new Russian aggression beyond Ukraine become more and more obvious.”

“Putin embodies war” and will not change, he said. While lashing out at Putin for mass deportations, leveling cities and “the terrifying feeling that the war may never end,” he also offered pointed criticism for a world that told him not to escalate tensions ahead of Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022.

“After Feb. 24th, nothing harmed our coalition more than this concept. Every ‘Don’t escalate’ to us, sounded like ‘You will prevail’ to Putin,” Zelenskiy said.

He thanked allies for each package of sanctions on Moscow but urged them to ensure they work. Russia, for instance, has found workarounds for imports of banned Western products that still appear on shelves.

It is Zelenskiy’s first trip to Davos since the war began after speaking by video in previous years, and he rushed between meetings with corporate executives and world leaders. Surrounded by a large security contingent, he’s drawn the attention of media and others seeking to meet him.

Conversations with the prime ministers of Qatar and Jordan will bookend the day’s most visible events, with speeches by Chinese Premier Li Qiang, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan in between.

Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani of Qatar said the concentration on the attacks on ships in the Red Sea by Yemen’s Houthi rebels — which have spurred retaliatory strikes by the U.S. and Britain — was “focusing on the symptoms and not treating the real issue” of Israel’s war with Hamas.

“We should focus on the main conflict in Gaza. And as soon as it’s defused, I believe everything else will be defused,” he said, adding that a two-state solution was required to end the conflict.

Sheikh Mohammed also warned that a military confrontation “will not contain” the Houthi attacks.

“I think that what we have right now in the region is a recipe of escalation everywhere,” he added.

Li, the Chinese premier, focused on pitching the country as a place to invest, noting that “we are opening wide our embrace.” He said China’s economy is estimated to have grown about 5.2% last year, exceeding the target it had set of 5%.

China’s economy, for decades a leading engine of global expansion, has struggled since Covid-19 restrictions, with high youth unemployment and the implosion of its overbuilt property market.

Li gave veiled criticism of U.S. restrictions on China’s ability to buy advanced computer chips used in everything from cellphones to washing machines.

“Technology’s achievements should be used to benefit all humankind and it should not be used as a method to limit, to suppress another country,” Li said.

Von der Leyen reiterated that the EU doesn’t want to break from Beijing — one of its most important trade partners — but ease the risks of relying too heavily on it because “we have issues when it comes to access to the market, when it comes to a level playing field, when it comes to economic security.” She noted China’s export controls on metals used in computer chips, solar cells and more.

For the U.S., Sullivan said no when The Associated Press asked whether he would meet with China’s delegation as he headed into talks with Zelenskiy and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Zelenskiy, once reticent about leaving his country, has recently gone on a whirlwind tour to rally support for Ukraine amid donor fatigue in the West and concerns that former U.S. President Donald Trump — who touted having good relations with Putin — might return to the White House next year following his commanding win Monday in the Iowa caucuses.

Zelenskiy hopes to parlay the high visibility of the event into a bully pulpit to showcase Ukraine’s pressing needs, and allies will be lining up: Corporate chiefs including JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and officials like von der Leyen learned in multiple gatherings what support and investment was needed to help rebuild Ukraine.

“It’s time for us, for Ukrainian companies, for international companies to rebuild (the) Ukrainian economy,” Maxim Timchenko, CEO of Ukrainian energy company DTEK said after the session. “To rely on ourselves. To build a future for Ukraine.”

In her speech, Von der Leyen painted an optimistic view of the war in Ukraine despite the battlefield stalemate. She said Russia has “lost half of its military capabilities,” while Ukraine regained half the ground it had originally lost early in the invasion.

A day earlier, Zelenskiy stopped in Switzerland’s capital, Bern, where President Viola Amherd pledged her country would work with Ukraine to help organize a “peace summit” for Ukraine.

In his speech at Davos, he invited every leader who respects and international law to join, saying “peace must be the answer.”

The theme of the gathering is “rebuilding trust,” and it comes as that sentiment has been fraying globally: Wars in the Middle East and Europe have increasingly split the world into different camps.

While the geopolitical situation has oozed gloom, businesses appear more hopeful — in part from prospects that artificial intelligence can help boost productivity.

AI is a major topic at Davos, with a key talk by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella — whose company has invested billions in ChatGPT maker OpenAI — among the sessions Tuesday.

Nadella, speaking at a Bloomberg News event ahead of his talk, indicated that issues surrounding OpenAI’s leadership have been resolved. The ChatGPT maker’s governance and relationship with Microsoft came into question last year after the startup’s board suddenly fired CEO Sam Altman, who was then swiftly reinstated.

“I’m comfortable, I have no issues with any structure” of the operating model at OpenAI, Nadella said. “What I would like is good governance and real stability.”

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