Volodymyr Zelensky confronts Vladimir Putin’s supporters at the G7 summit
For support beyond his Western allies, Volodymyr Zelensky faces a scene-stealing appearance at Sunday’s G7 summit with the leaders of India and Brazil after they decided not to support sanctions against Russia.
During his first visit to Asia since the start of the war, the Ukrainian president will meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — leaders of two crucial developing countries that have sought to maintain close ties with Moscow despite the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The pair also glossed over who is to blame for the conflict, in which Kiev is preparing to counterattack for battlefield advantage.
After his similarly unexpected decision to attend Friday’s Arab League meeting in Saudi Arabia en route to Hiroshima, Zelensky’s appearance at the G7 will test his efforts to expand his coalition of support beyond NATO states and US allies.
Brendan Boyle, a Democratic congressman and co-chairman of the House EU caucus, said Zelenskyy’s presence was a “unique opportunity” for him to put pressure on Modi and Lula in the presence of the United States and other G7 leaders.
“It’s one thing for Modi or Lula to ignore Zelenskyy while he’s at home,” Boyle said. “But it’s quite another to try to ignore him when the president of the United States is right there with him.”
Zelensky’s surprise move to fly to Saudi Arabia and then Japan was kept secret until Friday for security reasons, but in the weeks leading up to the event it was agreed upon by all involved.
India and Brazil, two of the world’s most powerful developing countries, did not support sanctions against Russia and maintain close political and trade ties with Moscow, which is a partner of the Brics group along with South Africa and China.
The two countries have not taken steps such as China’s political support for Moscow or South Africa’s alleged role in arms shipments to Russia.
But moves such as India’s role in processing Russian crude oil and diamonds and Brazil’s refusal to sell ammunition to Germany on the grounds that it could help Ukraine have angered Western partners.
New Delhi abstained from a UN vote in February demanding that Russia end its invasion, and Russia’s increased thirst for oil over the past year helped push Moscow’s crude exports to a post-invasion peak last month.
Brazil supported the UN resolution in February, but Lula is accused of fueling Russian propaganda by saying that both Kiev and Moscow are to blame for the conflict and that Ukraine “doesn’t want to stop” the war.
Zelenskyy’s opportunity to speak directly to Modi, Lula and other invited guests from developing countries is “the best way for him to explain why he is coming, as he has already met with G7 leaders,” said a senior G7 diplomat. “This is part of our joint action [to developing countries] and this is a significant step for Zelenskyy.”
“The Japanese would not go ahead without proper consultation and thorough preparation,” the senior diplomat added.
François Heisbourg, a consultant at the Paris-based think tank Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, said: “The basic rationale is to continue what investors would call a roadshow. To look Lula and Modi in the eye is a big bonus.”
“He was in different places [western] capitals, and now you will see people you have not met before. He shapes the political battlefield,” added Heisbourg.
Zelenskyy is expected to attend two separate meetings on Sunday – one with only G7 members and the second with Modi, Lula and other invited guests, including Indonesian President Joko Widodo, around the table. Russia, which was a member of the G8 before it was expelled over the annexation of Crimea, was not invited to the Hiroshima summit.
For host Japan, the Hiroshima gathering was a seven-year opportunity to focus the attention of its Western allies on threats posed by China’s military and economic ambitions.
Paul Haenle, a former top China official at the White House, said Beijing would not welcome a move by the G7 to use Zelensky’s participation to link security issues in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region.
“The biggest problem [for China] it would be for the G7 to use Zelensky’s presence to address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the risk of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan,” said Haenle, current director of the Carnegie China think tank.
Zelensky’s visit risks focusing the G7 agenda on Ukraine, but officials in Tokyo also say it offers a rare opportunity for major players in the Indo-Pacific region, including Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and India. together with Ukraine.
“There is hope that this will deepen the understanding of Ukraine’s position in the Global South,” said a Japanese government official.
According to Hideaki Shinoda, a professor at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Zelensky’s presence at an event attended by leaders of the Indo-Pacific region could reinforce Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s message that the security of Europe and the Indo-Pacific region are “inseparable”.
Richard McGregor, an Asia expert at the Lowy Institute think tank, said Zelensky’s presence would serve as a “symbol of unity” vis-a-vis Russia, but added that the presence of Modi and Lula would be an “uncomfortable reminder” that there are limits to unity over Ukraine.
Noting that Tokyo has been reluctant to criticize Russia in the past, he added: “The most gratifying part of this limited display of unity is the fact that it comes at the invitation of Japan.”