Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky went to the Arab League at the end of last week, before traveling to the G7 in Japan. These two important trips illustrate not only Zelensky’s global leadership on behalf of Ukraine but also how the Ukraine conflict has become so central to the world’s affairs.
The Arab League was a harder sell for the Ukrainian leader, as the event was in the midst of a historic meeting welcoming the Assad regime of Syria back to the League. While not every member of the group was pleased to see Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad attend, the overall context was that Saudi Arabia and some other states had helped make this happen.
On the other hand, many of the Arab states are more neutral on the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Some of them quietly side with the West on some issues, such as not supplying weapons to Russia or working to prevent Russian military planes from flying to Syria over their airspace. On other issues, however, they hedge their bets.
Russia has had historic relations with countries in the Middle East. Moscow is a key ally of Syria, in the old days, it supplied Saddam Hussein of Iraq with weapons; and before the 1980s, it was a key partner of Egypt.
Many countries in the Gulf are today also hedging bets on other groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and they are willing to work with China, even as the US warns them not to open up too much to Beijing.
Therefore, Zelensky was entering a forum that was not automatically on his side. The fact he was traveling to the Arab League at all shows his foresight. He understands that groups like the League are not in the Russian or US camp and that Ukraine can get something from some of these countries.
For instance, Saudi Arabia has played a key behind-the-scenes role in some prisoner exchanges. It’s important to remember Saudi Arabia helped in an exchange of five UK and two US volunteers in Ukraine who had been captured by Russia and were freed with Riyadh’s help.
In what other ways was Zelensky's trip important?
The Ukrainian leader’s trip was important for other reasons such as showcasing his willingness to go wherever possible to help Ukraine, even if the returns on his trip may be long-term and small. The League’s meeting was marred in some ways by the presence of the Assad regime. Zelensky’s appearance showcases that the Arab League is not just a network of authoritarian regimes, but rather can play an important role in the world. This means the meeting served both Ukraine and the League.
Zelensky also was willing to critique some of the countries in attendance. "Unfortunately, there are some in the world and here among you who turn a blind eye to those [prisoner of war] cages and illegal annexations," the BBC quoted him as saying.
Moving on to the G7
Zelensky next went on to the G7, where he first arrived at Hiroshima airport. Not all the details of his trip were clear, but it comes as countries are moving to support Ukraine through more training on F-16s and the potential supply of the key warplane to Kyiv.
This would be a huge game-changer. No one imagined this would happen a year ago. Today, Ukraine is slowly receiving a lot of advanced Western weaponry, from the HIMARs to Patriots and other systems. The BBC said his arrival “stole the limelight” at the event. Zelensky is a star and these G7 countries are showing how relevant they are by supporting Ukraine.
They have other big issues on their plate, such as China. The meeting in Japan of course is clearly in the context of rising tensions with China.
Zelensky has praised the decision by the US and others to supply Ukraine with F-16s. The Ukrainian leader said that this G7 meeting will help with security and enhanced cooperation that could lead to victory and peace.