Zelenskyy Fights Difficult Diplomatic Battles, as Russia’s Isolation Deepens

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 147

(Source: Canadian Affairs)

Neither New York, nor Washington rolled out the red carpet for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He came ready for tough challenges and succeeded in making the case for sustained global and US attention to condemning and defeating Russia’s all-out aggression. Zelenskyy spoke at the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly and at a special meeting of the UN Security Council. The Ukrainian president deplored the deadlock in decision-making while acknowledging the indispensable role of the UN (see EDM; Kommersant, September 21). He was not granted an opportunity to address a joint session of the US Congress. Instead, he held a series of productive meetings on the Hill, in the Pentagon and, most importantly, at the White House (Meduza, September 22). Zelenskyy then proceeded to Ottawa to address the Canadian Parliament and hold talks with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Svoboda, September 23).

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his lieutenants tried their best to counter Zelenskyy’s carefully calibrated performance. The Russian officials dismissed it as a “show” but failed to provide any serious new arguments to justify Russia’s “long war” (Izvestiya, September 20). Lavrov’s role is being increasingly reduced to merely amplifying jingoist propaganda. The real work on expanding ties with key allies such as North Korea and Iran is being carried out by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (Moscow Times, September 21).

Much media attention in Russia has been given to the possible government shutdown in the United States. The inability of the US Congress to agree on the 2024 budget could seriously disrupt future aid to Ukraine (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 21). President Joe Biden’s delayed decision on supplying the MGM-140 ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) has already presented a blow to Ukraine’s counteroffensive, and more delays in military support will further complicate matters (Kommersant, September 21).

One difficult issue for Zelenskyy has been the sharp rise in tensions with Poland. Kyiv has taken exception with Warsaw’s decision to extend the ban on Ukrainian grain (Notes From Poland, September 19). The rift resulted in the cancellation of Zelenskyy’s planned meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. The Kremlin has been eager to capitalize on these developments and further stoke the conflict between Kyiv and Warsaw (RBC, September 20). Poland is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on October 15, and these elections are seemingly driving the trade dispute. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki even resorted to announcing an end to Poland’s supply of new weapons to Ukraine, though the Polish premier claims his words were “misinterpreted” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 20; Ukrainska Pravda, September 23).

Russian pundits eagerly presented Morawiecki’s statement as evidence of discord among members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Izvestiya, September 23). The hesitation shown by Bucharest in dealing with Russian drones falling on Romanian territory and sea mines damaging its ships in the Danube delta is being interpreted as a further manifestation of the same trend (Topwar.ru, September 20).

Russia’s strategy in the Black Sea underpins Ukraine’s disagreements with Poland and Romania’s worries. Russian forces continue to pummel the Port of Odesa with missile and drone strikes, disrupting grain convoys and coming dangerously close to Romanian territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin supports such actions and believes his decision to cancel the Black Sea Grain Initiative will continue to yield strategic fruits (Carnegie Politika, September 14). Zelenskyy exposed Putin’s cynical disregard for global food security concerns. Ukraine’s response has been a series of missile and drone strikes on military targets in Crimea, including the Sevastopol headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet (Meduza, September 23).

Turkey remains cautious about escalating hostilities in the Black Sea. While having the naval power to guard convoys coming to and leaving Odesa, Ankara’s propositions for reviving the grain deal have been repeatedly turned down by Moscow (see EDM, September 7; Valdaiclub.com, September 15). President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has found a way to reciprocate Putin’s arrogance in the South Caucasus, where Azerbaijan—Turkey’s staunch ally—recently moved to disarm the Armenians in Karabakh (see EDM; Republic.ru, September 20). The Russian peacekeeping force there could not deter hostilities from boiling over and even took some casualties. Baku duly apologized, with Moscow ostensibly accepting the loss of its status as security guarantor in the region (Forbes.ru, September 21; Novayagazeta.eu, September 22).

Globally, the renewal of regional conflicts might appear to be minor. It, nevertheless, illuminates the general trend of Russia’s waning influence (Svoboda, September 22). Zelenskyy was not granted an opportunity to address the recent G20 summit in New Delhi, but the impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine on each agenda item was still debated. The joint declaration, adopted through extraordinary efforts by India, codified the grave concerns of world leaders regarding the prospects for a “long war” (Kommersant, September 10; see EDM, September 11). Putin opted not to participate in the summit and took part only virtually at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg. The attempts by Moscow experts to present the expansion of this loose grouping as a success of Russian policy in the Global South are patently self-serving and deliberately misinforming (Russiancouncil.ru, September 19). Russia’s primary hope for salvaging its international profile is to upgrade its partnership with China. Beijing, however, prefers to keep its distance on the war in Ukraine and disapproves of Moscow’s attempts to manipulate conflicts in Africa (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 20).

The Kremlin has tried to assuage worries about the negative impact of a long war on every aspect of global governance. In countering this, Ukrainian diplomacy reinforces the argument that Russia is ultimately responsible for starting and prolonging the war. Every grain ship that breaches the Russian naval blockade contributes to improved global food security, and every missile strike on the Black Sea Fleet becomes a net win for the cause of peace (Ukrainska Pravda, September 24). Thus, Russia finds its international prestige damaged by its status as an aggressor state and further diminished with the growing specter of losing the war it started. The West’s task of broadening and strengthening the international coalition in supporting Kyiv’s just cause is eased by every Ukrainian flag raised over another liberated town.