Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lands in Japan on Saturday afternoon with a key objective: to speak in person with leaders from countries like Brazil and India who have taken a more neutral stance over Russia’s invasion.
Zelenskyy is making the nearly 5,600-mile journey to Hiroshima on a French military jet from Saudi Arabia, where he attended an Arab League meeting. While he’s joining a Group of Seven summit, he’s more eager to see other invited leaders who hail from what is often called the Global South.
Zelenskyy is particularly keen to sit down with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, according to G-7 and Ukrainian officials. The Ukrainian leader is set to meet Saturday with Modi, whose country has stepped up purchases of Russian energy and continues to seek weapons from Moscow.
Zelenskyy has also formally requested a meeting with Lula, who has yet to respond, according to Brazilian officials familiar with the matter. Brazil has no problem sitting down with any leader but it shouldn’t be imposed, one official said, describing Zelenskyy’s impromptu attendance as a potential “trap” for non-G-7 attendees.
The war in Ukraine has accelerated the shift to a multipolar world in which China, Russia and the United States are all fiercely competing for influence. And while the G-7 nations and European Union have slapped an array of sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s government and sent military aid to Ukraine, some nations in the Global South have continued to trade with Moscow and expressed support for a Chinese cease-fire proposal that would freeze Russian gains in place — something Zelenskyy rejects.
President Xi Jinping’s blueprint to stop the fighting effectively puts both aggressor and victim on the same level, suggesting Ukraine should cede territory in order to negotiate. Lula, who recently visited Beijing to express support for Xi’s efforts, has previously said that Ukraine and the U.S. share part of the blame for the war — even though he more recently partly backtracked on those remarks.
Still, engaging the Global South is a central priority for both Zelenskyy and the G-7 advanced economies.
Besides Lula and Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has invited the leaders of South Korea, Australia, Vietnam and Indonesia, as well as Comoros, who chairs the African Union, and the Cook Islands as the current head of the Pacific Islands Forum.
Zelenskyy is expected to join two Sunday sessions at the G-7, and also meet with U.S. President Joe Biden. The U.S. has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine and a key supplier of military and financial support. Biden has now dropped his reluctance to Ukraine getting F-16s after months of pressure from Kyiv and allied governments, announcing Friday that the U.S. would support efforts to train Ukrainian pilots to use the fighter jet.
The meeting comes at a delicate time for the conflict on the ground, as Ukraine gears up for a counteroffensive in a war that is entering its sixteenth month.
And the setting of Hiroshima — hit by a nuclear bomb by the U.S. in 1945 — is symbolic as Moscow periodically threatens to use nuclear weapons against its neighbor and intense fighting continues in dangerous proximity to power plants occupied by Russian troops.
While G-7 countries are already staunch supporters of Ukraine, the country has no better spokesperson than Zelenskyy himself, according to a French diplomat. The Ukrainian president again traveled through Europe last week, and U.S. and Ukrainian officials are in constant contact.
The countries of the Global South are a more recent focus. Ukraine’s government traditionally has engaged more with the West and former Soviet states. It still doesn’t have embassies in some countries in Africa, for example, although Zelenskyy has said previously that Ukraine will open 10 new embassies there.
Ukraine’s efforts should be aimed at “countries in which our influence is still less than we need from the point of view of the national security of Ukraine and the interests of our people,” Zelenskyy said in a December meeting of his diplomatic corps. “This is a huge economic potential, and it is also a significant diplomatic opportunity.”
A German official said the Japan trip was a potential “double-win” for Zelenskyy to meet both G-7 and Global South leaders, though the official voiced skepticism that Brazil or India would fundamentally change their position on the war.
The two emerging economies are influential players in their respective regions and globally as members along with Russia of the BRICS grouping of nations and the Group of 20.
As Ukraine prepares to launch its counteroffensive, Zelenskyy is also looking to make progress on weapons requests to the G-7 and NATO states for more longer range capabilities and modern fighter jets.
The UK previously said it was working with other countries to train Ukrainians and provide them with F-16 jets. It has also donated an unspecified amount of long-range precision missiles.
The question of actually delivering jets is not imminent, another person said, as the training would take months.
(Arne Delfs, Jenny Leonard and Alex Wickham contributed to this story.)
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