In the first of a series of Summit Recaps, we analyse Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visits to the Arab League and G7 summits to make his country’s case to leaders of non-Western countries who have sought to remain neutral.
Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has rallied European and North American politicians and populaces around Ukraine’s fight against Russia with remarkable success.
Once known by few outside Ukraine and its immediate neighbours, Zelensky is now a household name around the world.
- At the war’s end, we will all be judged on how we approached Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
- Russia’s war is awakening Ukraine’s historical trauma
- How to finance a successful reconstruction in Ukraine
However, the Ukrainian cause remains decidedly less universally supported in much of the Global South. Although many are sympathetic to Ukrainian civilians surviving airstrikes and refugees forced to flee, Russia remains an important trading and security partner for countries from the Sahel to South America.
Ukraine has visibly aligned itself with Western countries recently while Russia is currently engaged in controversial military operations in Africa and the Middle East. Ukraine’s supporters and officials frequently argue it is fighting for ‘Western civilisation’ while Russia is becoming ‘more Asian’—characterisations those outside the West often find alienating, exclusionary, and at times racist.
Last weekend, Zelensky launched a new charm offensive with countries in North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America who have sought to stay as neutral as possible in the conflict by making surprise appearances at the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia and G7 summit in Japan.
Assad and Zelensky walk into a Hilton
The May 19 meeting of the Arab League’s leaders in the Jeddah Hilton had already drawn headlines before Zelensky’s attendance was announced—Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad would participate for the first time since Syria’s membership was suspended in 2011 following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War.
As Assad fought rebels ranging from Kurdish leftists to the jihadist Islamic State, he levelled entire cities with the aid of Russian airstrikes and used chemical weapons banned by international conventions. Western countries and predominantly-Sunni Arab countries worked to diplomatically and economically isolate Assad with strict sanctions, leaving only Russia and Iran supporting him. The Syrian Civil War created what was at the time the largest refugee crisis since the World War II—it has now been surpassed by the exodus of Ukrainians.
With the war in Syria largely over, re-engaging with the country is a matter of practicality for many nations in the region, even if Western capitals are not yet ready to restore relations with Assad’s Russia- and Iran-backed government.
Saudi Arabia played an active role supporting Sunni forces fighting against Iran’s proxies in the Syrian and Yemeni Civil Wars but recently announced it would normalise relations with Iran—thanks to an agreement brokered by China—and is holding peace talks with the Houthis in Yemen amidst a ceasefire.
As the host of the Arab League summit, Saudi Arabia invited Zelensky, and his appearance largely overshadowed Assad’s in Western media coverage of the event.
Zelensky addressed the assembled leaders and accused some in attendance of “turning a blind eye” on Ukraine’s plight.
“Look at how much suffering the long-term wars have brought to Libya, Syria, Yemen; how many lives have been wasted by years of fighting in Sudan and Somalia, in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Zelensky. “Everyone who adds to suffering by his new aggressions, everyone who sows enmity, everyone who wants to bring back the old days of invading … every aggressor … will be cursed by the people.”
“I greet everyone who is ready to join us on the path to justice,” he added.
Zelensky also condemned Russia’s treatment of Muslim Tatars in Crimea and said, “I’m here so that everyone can take an honest look, no matter how hard the Russians try to influence, there must still be independence.”
As it did in inviting Zelensky to counter-balance Assad, Saudi Arabia has sought to remain largely neutral in the conflict in Ukraine. Riyadh sent 400 million US dollars of humanitarian aid to Ukraine and has voted for United Nations resolutions urging Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukrainian territory and refrain from annexing regions of Ukraine.
However, it also rejected pleas from the United States to increase oil production—which would drive prices down and squeeze one of Russia’s most important revenue streams.
Peace and partners in Hiroshima
Zelensky travelled to Jeddah in a French government plane—a show of support from one of Ukraine’s closest allies—and again boarded it to fly to the G7 summit in Japan.
Speculation about whether or not Zelensky would attend the summit had dominated news cycles in the West for the previous day, and his surprise appearance again made headlines and overshadowed the other invitees to the summit, which included the Cook Islands, Indonesia, and India.
G7 leaders condemned China’s “economic coercion” and Russia’s brutality in Ukraine. US President Joe Biden announced that Ukraine would receive US-made F-16 fighter jets and an additional 375 million US dollars military aid package including ammunition, artillery, armoured vehicles, and training.
Zelensky met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the first time in-person since the war began. India has provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine but continues to rely on energy, arms, and fertiliser imports from Russia.
Zelensky did not, however, meet Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Zelensky said this was due to scheduling conflicts while Lula said his team scheduled a meeting with Zelensky for Sunday afternoon but that Zelensky ran too late.
When asked about the lack of a meeting with Zelensky, Lula said, “I wasn’t disappointed. I was upset, because I’d like to meet him and discuss the matter”.
Lula has previously said the US is “encouraging” the war and advocated for peace talks between Ukraine and Russia mediated by Brazil, Indonesia, and China. However, he says he is sceptical that Zelensky or Putin are open to peace talks now.
“For now, they’re both convinced they’re going to win the war,” Lula said.
Zelensky can travel, Putin can’t
While the materiel value of Zelensky’s summit visits might have been limited – he came away from both with far less than he might have hoped for – his presence alone was a coup for both the president and for Ukraine.
Photos of Zelensky with G7 leaders cemented his position as an admired world leader sharing the global stage with the most powerful men and women in the world.
And all at a time when Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the subject of an international arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court in connection with the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children, is a virtual prisoner in his own country.
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