Zelenskiy’s world tour to ask Kyiv’s allies not to give in to Russia

The Ukrainian leader has visited over 10 countries so far ahead of the June 16 peace summit in Switzerland, which U.S. President Joe Biden will not attend

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron
Volodymyr Zelenskiy greets Joe Biden in the presence of Emmanuel Macron and Petr Pavel, this Thursday in Saint-Laurent-sur-mer.CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON (EFE)
Cristian Segura

Volodymyr Zelenskiy has embarked on a three-week marathon of foreign visits seeking unwavering international support for Ukraine’s defense according to his plans, without ceding an inch politically or militarily to Russia. The Ukrainian president acknowledged to The New York Times on May 21 that his Western allies are proving hesitant and that “everyone keeps the door slightly ajar,” to Russia. Six days later, on May 27, Zelenskiy began an intense agenda of meetings that included visits to at least 11 countries.

Zelenskiy was among the leaders invited Thursday to the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings. The message was twofold: of remembrance of the victory against Nazism and now, of a common front against Russian imperialism. But even in the run-up to the D-Day anniversary, Kyiv’s fear of its partners leaving that door ajar to Moscow was exposed: the French government announced in April that it would invite a Russian delegation to the commemoration; the proposal was finally cancelled after criticism from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine.

Zelenskiy is scheduled to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday in Paris, an appointment that is expected to be loaded with symbolism. Despite the fact that French military aid to Ukraine is notably lower than German or British, Macron has assumed a more defiant discourse with Russia and one closer to that of the Ukrainian leader than other major powers. “Zelenskiy has sought to create a moment of opportunity for his European policy, positioning France with a greater initiative to support Ukraine,” Léonie Allard, a researcher at the Atlantic Council, assessed in an analysis Wednesday.

Europe, led by Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, is showing less hesitation over Ukraine than the United States, which is engaged in the early stages of the presidential election. The likely Republican candidate, Donald Trump, is in favor of turning off the tap on military aid to Ukraine. And the Democrats, as reported by U.S. media outlets such as Politico, prefer to put the invasion on the back burner during the campaign for fear of paying an electoral toll.

For these reasons, Zelenskiy’s tour took him to Madrid on May 27, Lisbon and Brussels on May 28, and Stockholm on May 31, where he signed 10-year bilateral defense treaties with the governments of Norway, Sweden, and Iceland. He did the same in Portugal and Belgium, and earlier in Spain, where Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez pledged unprecedented military assistance worth over $1.4 billion as well as his government’s support for Ukraine’s aspirations to accede to NATO, the biggest red line that the Western powers are avoiding crossing for fear of escalating the conflict with Russia into a world war.

Tension with Washington

The Ukrainian president was able to meet on the beaches of Normandy with his American counterpart, Joe Biden, after two weeks of bilateral tension. Biden’s personal resistance to allowing weapons provided by Washington to target military positions on Russian soil has left U.S.-Ukraine relations “farther apart than ever since the war started,” sources in both governments told the Financial Times last week. The veto was finally lifted, but Biden continues to refuse to sanction the use of ATACMS long-range missiles on Russian soil, precisely the military asset that Kyiv is demanding to be able to hit enemy targets on the other side of the border.

Zelenskiy’s remarks in Brussels on May 28 were not well received by the White House. Biden has ruled out his presence at the peace summit to be held on June 15-16 in Switzerland, where over 100 states will participate to discuss ways to support Ukraine and Zelenskiy’s 10-point plan for hypothetical peace negotiations with Russia. The U.S. president will be attending a campaign fundraiser in California on those dates. Of the decision, Zelenskiy said: “Putin will only applaud his absence, personally applaud it — and standing, at that.” “[The] peace summit needs President Biden and so do the other leaders who look at the reaction of the United States.”

The U.S. president will meet again with Zelenskiy at the G-7 summit to be held in Italy from June 13-15. One of the points to be discussed is the transfer of part of the Russian assets frozen in Kyiv’s allied countries to finance Ukraine’s defense and reconstruction. The obstacles to this lie not only in the legal complexity of the operation, but also in misgivings about Moscow’s response. Before the G-7, Zelenskiy will travel to to Berlin on June 11, where he is scheduled to meet with Scholz and address the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house.

China is Russia’s main ally on the international stage, both economically and diplomatically. Beijing will not attend the Swiss Peace Summit, following the logic that any discussion on ending the war is only productive if Moscow participates. Zelenskiy has played a risky card during his international tour: speaking out directly against China. The Ukrainian leader accused the authorities in Beijing of sabotaging his peace proposals to favor Russia on June 1 while in Singapore. From there, Zelenskiy traveled to the Philippines, a country that is embroiled in territorial disputes with China. On June 5, on his return trip to Europe to attend the Normandy landings commemorations, the Ukrainian president stopped in Doha to meet with the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, one of the few states, together with Turkey and other Arab countries, that are mediating between Moscow and Kyiv.

The chances of Ukraine expelling Russian forces by military means are slim. Mikola Bielieskov, a leading analyst and researcher at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a center under the Ukrainian presidency, published a report last week in which he noted that a “realistic strategic victory for Ukraine” will be to have sufficient resources to defend territory not occupied by Russia over the next year and a half.

Both Zelenskiy and representatives of his government have publicly conceded that the more the war is extended, the more complex it is to negotiate military support from allies that could turn the situation around on the battlefield. The clearest example was the more than half a year it took for Republicans and Democrats to finally agree in April on the latest multi-billion dollar arms package for Ukraine.

In an interview with EL PAÍS on May 31, Oksana Mishlovska, a researcher at the University of Bern, confirmed that “in contrast to what is happening in Ukraine, where the non-dominant voices in favor of a negotiated solution or a Korean scenario [a ceasefire that leaves Ukraine divided into two opposing realities] are silenced, in the European Union and beyond, opinions are visibly divided.” Zelenskiy’s agenda focuses precisely on persuading the international community that in the face of Russia, not an inch can be given. Time and a pro-Kremlin war front are working against him.

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