Ukraine’s Zelenskyi’s diplomatic tour highlights Putin’s stark isolation

TALLINN, Estonia — While the world awaits Ukraine’s spring offensive on the battlefield, leader Volodymyr Zelenskyi has launched a diplomatic offensive. In the space of a week, he traveled to Italy, the Vatican, Germany, France and Britain to lend support to his country’s defense.

On Friday, he met with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, some of whom are allied with Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, stayed at home, facing unprecedented international isolation, an International Criminal Court arrest warrant hanging over his head and curtailing travel to many destinations, including those seen as Moscow’s allies.

By invading Ukraine, “Putin risked and lost very, very much,” said Theresa Fallon, director of the Brussels-based Russia Europe Asia Studies Center. “He really is an international pariah.”

It was only 10 years ago that Putin stood proudly among his peers – Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and Shinzo Abe – at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland. Russia has since been kicked out of the group of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the United States for illegally annexing Crimea in 2014.

Now it seems that it is Ukraine’s turn to be in the spotlight.

There have been conflicting messages from Kiev as to whether Zelensky will attend Sunday’s G7 in Japan. The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said on national television that the president would be there, but the council later retracted those comments, saying Zelensky would join via video link. The presidential office did not confirm any of them for security reasons.

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

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“This signals the G7’s continued strong support for Ukraine,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “This is a clear sign of the continued commitment of the world’s most industrialized and developed countries.”

Even when the optics are simply not in the Kremlin’s favor.

There is uncertainty over whether Putin will be able to travel to Cape Town in August for the BRICS summit of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

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

South Africa did not announce that Putin would definitely come to the summit, but planned for his eventual arrival. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has appointed an inter-ministerial committee, led by Deputy President Paul Mashatile, to look into South Africa’s options for a possible trip by Putin in relation to its commitment to the ICC.

While it is highly unlikely that the Russian president would be arrested there if he decided to go, the public debate over whether he might do so is in itself “a welcome development, the impact of which should not be underestimated,” according to Gould-Davies.

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

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

Xi is taking advantage of “the opportunity of a weakened Russia, a fragmented Russia, almost a pariah Russia, to increase (China’s) influence in the region,” Fallon said.

Putin’s effort this month to make more friends in the South Caucasus by lifting visa requirements for Georgian citizens and lifting a four-year ban on direct flights to the country also did not go as smoothly as the Kremlin had hoped.

The first flight, which landed in Georgia on Friday, was met with protests, with the country’s pro-Western president calling the move a provocation.

Meanwhile, Zelenskyy’s ongoing world tour can be considered a success in several ways.

European leaders have promised it an arsenal of missiles, tanks and drones, and while they haven’t committed to fighter jets — something Kiev has wanted for months — talk has begun about how to do so.

His appearance on Friday at an Arab League summit in Jeddah, a Saudi Arabian port on the Red Sea, highlighted Kiev’s efforts to extend its support far and wide, including to some countries sympathetic to Russia.

In addition to Zelensky, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also welcomed Syrian President Bashar Assad to the summit after a 12-year suspension – which, according to analysts, is in line with Moscow’s interests.

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Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute who studies Russia’s Middle East policy, “further proof that Russia is not globally isolated because of its invasion of Ukraine, that the Middle East is part of the world. where Russia can find ways to avoid global isolation – both ideological and economic isolation.”

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

Kiev can expect “this is the beginning of a larger shift in perception that could eventually lead to potential support,” Borschevskaya said.

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

There is concern in the West that some large developing economies – Brazil, South Africa and to some extent India – “do not criticize, do not condemn Russia, and even help in various ways to mitigate the impact of sanctions. Regarding Russia,” he said.

“Together, they matter economically. So I think there needs to be a renewed diplomatic campaign to bring some of the key states to a Western way of thinking about these things,” Gould-Davies said.


Associated Press writers Danica Kirka in London and Gerald Imray in Cape Town, South Africa, contributed.


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