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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Zelenskyy makes dramatic entrance at G-7, bringing a personal plea

U.S. President Joe Biden participates in a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia on the second day of the 47th G7 Summit, in Hiroshima, Japan on May 20, 2023.

By David E. Sanger and Peter Baker

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine landed in Japan on Saturday determined to urge the wealthiest democracies in the world to stick with him as Russia bets on the West growing fatigued by the cost and consequences of the war.

Zelenskyy made a dramatic entry into Hiroshima, landing in a French plane after days in which Ukrainian and Japanese officials insisted, presumably for security reasons, that he would join the leaders at the Group of 7 summit only virtually. He was dressed in his signature hoodie, standing out from the coat-and-tie diplomatic crowd of this annual summit meeting.

Hours after Zelenskyy arrived in Japan, the Russian government said its forces had occupied the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. The city had become an important symbol of Ukrainian defiance and Russian determination, and its fall would both bolster and complicate Zelenskyy’s appeal for help.

Zelenskyy, U.S. and British officials say, seems to sense that when he shows up in person, he can both break through U.S. resistance to sending more powerful weapons and pressure nations like India and Brazil that have stayed on the sidelines.

His presence could make it more difficult for them to maintain their stance as fence-sitters, several officials said. And even as Zelenskyy consulted with countries already in his corner, he sat down with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was there as an observer, to make his case for support, much as he had done earlier in the week in Saudi Arabia.

“I think this is a unique opportunity” for Zelenskyy to have “exchanges with a lot of countries from the south and express your situation, express a message and share a view,” President Emmanuel Macron of France said. “I do believe it can be a game changer.”

Zelenskyy was expected to address the G-7 leaders Sunday as part of his continued efforts to marshal more military aid for his country. He is making his appeals in a city that serves as a sobering reminder of the devastation that arises when a bitter war leads to the use of a nuclear weapon.

Zelenskyy plans to go to the peace park that has been built on the island that was ground zero for the explosion in 1945 that ushered in the age of nuclear weapons — an era that has returned amid episodic threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin to turn to his own arsenal.

Even before he landed, Zelenskyy had won a significant victory: On Friday night President Joe Biden told other leaders he would join the largely European effort to train Ukrainian pilots on how to fly the F-16 fighter jet. Reversing his previous stance, Biden said he would work with allies to begin providing the warplanes to Ukraine, weaning it from its dilapidated Soviet-era fighters.

Administration officials said they increasingly realized that sooner or later Ukraine would need the new fighters as part of a long-term program to deter Russia from invading anew, and decided they should get out ahead of the effort. But the planes would have little utility in the present stage of the war, where urban warfare rather than air warfare has dominated.

Zelenskyy arrived in Japan just as the head of the Wagner paramilitary group said his forces had captured the devastated city of Bakhmut on Saturday, suggesting that the monthslong struggle to control it was over. The Ukrainian military rejected the claim by the mercenary group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is prone to making bombastic remarks.

Much of the discussion in Hiroshima in the past two days has focused on cracking down on sanctions evasion, as countries seeking to play both sides of the war — including India and the United Arab Emirates — have done nothing to curtail a black market trade in semiconductors and materials needed by Russia to keep fighting the war.

Biden and Zelenskyy — and most of the core members of the G-7 — appear intent on maximizing Russia’s pain until it comes to the bargaining table and retreats from Ukrainian territory. While they deny a new Cold War is underway, the surge in sanctions announced over the past two days seems a modern version of the containment strategy that guided the West’s confrontation with the Soviet Union, which collapsed more than three decades ago.

This was the first time Zelenskyy has taken his diplomatic tour to Asia, and he landed late Saturday afternoon in the city known to the world for having resurrected itself, in a monumental reconstruction task akin to what many believe Ukraine will have to undertake.

Zelenskyy’s visit to Japan for the G-7 meeting followed the trip to Saudi Arabia, where he urged Arab leaders meeting there not to turn a “blind eye” to Russian atrocities in Ukraine.

His appearance was arranged after Zelenskyy expressed a “strong desire” to participate in the summit face-to-face, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The visit is the latest in a flurry of trips outside Ukraine to shore up support before an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The leaders — besides Biden, they include the heads of government from Japan, Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Italy; and a top European Union official — will be talking over the weekend about all dimensions of Russia’s war in Ukraine. In addition to questions of when and how to provide Ukraine with the F-16 fighter jets, they may also discuss the possibility of negotiations over an armistice or peace treaty.

The G-7 leaders have already pledged at the summit to toughen punishments on Russia and redouble efforts to choke off funding for its war.

Biden has cut short his trip in order to return to Washington for debt and spending talks. The president had planned to fly from Japan to Papua New Guinea, before heading to Sydney for a meeting of the so-called Quad: the United States, Australia, India and Japan.

Instead, the leaders of the Quad countries came to Biden, meeting him in Hiroshima on Saturday night.

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