Volodymyr Zelenskyy will take his pitch for support beyond his western allies with a scene-stealing appearance at the G7 summit on Sunday, confronting the leaders of India and Brazil after they chose not to back sanctions against Russia.
The Ukrainian president’s first visit to Asia since the war began will bring him face to face with India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — the leaders of two crucial developing countries who have sought to maintain close ties with Moscow despite its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The pair have also obfuscated over who is to blame for the conflict, in which Kyiv is preparing a counter-offensive.
After his similarly unexpected decision to attend an Arab League meeting in Saudi Arabia on Friday on the way to Hiroshima, Zelenskyy’s G7 appearance will test his efforts to expand his support coalition beyond Nato states and US allies.
Brendan Boyle, a Democratic congressman and co-chair of the EU caucus in the House of Representatives, said Zelenskyy’s attendance was a “unique opportunity” for him to leverage peer pressure on Modi and Lula in the presence of G7 leaders.
“It’s one thing for Modi or Lula to ignore Zelenskyy while at home,” said Boyle. “But it’s quite different to try to ignore him when you also have the president of the US standing right next to him.”
Zelenskyy’s surprise move to fly to Saudi Arabia and then Japan was kept secret for security reasons until Friday, but agreed by all attendees in the weeks leading up to the event, officials said. He arrived in Japan on Saturday.
India and Brazil, two of the world’s most powerful developing countries, have not backed sanctions against Russia, and have maintained close political and trade ties with Moscow, which is a partner in the Brics grouping alongside South Africa and China.
The two countries have stopped short of taking steps similar to China’s political support for Moscow, or South Africa’s alleged role in supplying weapons to Russia.
But moves such as India’s role in processing Russian crude and diamonds, and Brazil’s refusal to sell ammunition to Germany on the grounds that it could help Ukraine, have irritated western partners.
New Delhi abstained in a February UN vote demanding that Russia end its invasion, and its increased thirst for Russian oil over the past year helped push Moscow’s crude exports to a post-invasion high last month.
Brazil did back the February UN resolution, but Lula has been accused of boosting Russian propaganda by claiming that both Kyiv and Moscow are to blame for the conflict and that Ukraine “does not want to stop” the war.
The opportunity for Zelenskyy to speak directly with Modi, Lula and other guests from developing nations was “the best way to explain why he is coming, as he has already met with all the G7 leaders”, said one senior G7 diplomat. “It is part of our joint outreach [to developing countries] and is a major step for Zelenskyy.”
“The Japanese would not just go ahead without properly consulting and preparing extensively,” the senior diplomat added.
François Heisbourg, an adviser to the Paris-based Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique think-tank, said: “The basic rationale is the continuation of what investors would call the roadshow. If you get to look Lula and Modi in the eye, that’s a major bonus.”
“He’s been to the various [western] capitals, and now he is going to see those he hasn’t already met. He is shaping the political battlefield,” Heisbourg added.
Zelenskyy is expected to take part in two separate sessions on Sunday — one solely with the G7 members, and the second with Modi, Lula and other guests including Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo. Russia, which was a member of the G8 before being expelled for annexing Crimea, was not invited to the Hiroshima summit.
For host nation Japan, the gathering has been seen as a once-in-seven-years opportunity to focus the attention of its western allies on threats posed by China’s military and economic ambitions.
Paul Haenle, a former top White House China official, said Beijing would not welcome a move by the G7 to use Zelenskyy’s participation to link security issues in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
“The biggest concern [for China] would be if the G7 uses Zelenskyy’s presence to draw a connection to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the risk of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan,” said Haenle, now director of Carnegie China, a think-tank.
Zelenskyy’s visit risks focusing the G7’s agenda on Ukraine, but officials in Tokyo also say it provides a rare opportunity to bring together significant participants in the Indo-Pacific — including Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and India — along with Ukraine.
“There is hope that this will deepen understanding of Ukraine’s situation within the global south,” said a Japanese government official.
Hideaki Shinoda, professor at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, said Zelenskyy’s presence at an event attended by leaders from the Indo-Pacific could reinforce Japanese PM Fumio Kishida’s message that security in Europe and the Indo-Pacific were “inseparable”.
Richard McGregor, an Asia expert at the Lowy Institute think-tank, said Zelenskyy’s appearance would serve as a “symbol of unity” against Russia, but added that the presence of Modi and Lula would be “an uncomfortable reminder” that there were limits to unity over Ukraine.
He noted that Tokyo had been reluctant to criticise Russia in the past, and added: “The most welcome part of that limited display of unity is the fact that he is coming at the invitation of Japan.”