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HIROSHIMA, Japan — No one fears a repeat of this city’s suffering more than Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
From the moment the world’s most recognizable president-in-uniform walked down the stairs from the Republique Française plane at the Hiroshima airport on Saturday, the Ukrainian leader soon captured all the attention at the G7 summit — downsized from G8 almost a decade ago after Russia was kicked out following its illegal occupation of Crimea.
Zelenskyy toured the site where an American atomic bomb put an end to the Second World War in 1945, as his people were fighting on the frontline in Ukraine, preparing for an offensive against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invading forces while fighting back Moscow’s claims that the key Ukrainian city of Bakhmut had fallen.
His surprise, whirlwind visit carried a sense of urgency in contrast to the somewhat relaxing schedule for the G7 leaders, some of whom took their spouses on the mission, enjoyed tea ceremonies and visited temples on an outlying island.
The Japanese leg of Zelenskyy’s travels — which previously took him to an Arab League meeting in Saudi Arabia — was his longest-yet flight since the war broke out in February last year, taking 15 hours from Jeddah to Hiroshima, intriguingly overflying Chinese airspace.
The plans for his imminent arrival were known to few in Hiroshima when the G7 summit kicked off on Friday.
During the first day of the meeting, much of the focus was on China — with the Japanese host keen to find language for the final communique agreeable to all on Beijing, the biggest security threat to Tokyo. France, in particular, pushed back on the idea of a tough stance on China, “so much so the Germans didn’t need to say much,” according to a G7 official speaking on condition of anonymity.
With the China text finally agreed — presenting a unified message on de-risking, economic security and anti-coercion — the G7 leaders turned their attention back to Ukraine, hoping to introduce Zelenskyy to some of their less convinced counterparts from the Global South, a number of whom were invited to attend the G7 meeting as “partner countries.” French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance, told Zelenskyy that his exchanges with those less sympathetic leaders “can be a game changer.”
Within hours of his arrival in Japan, Zelenskyy went into a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a key interlocutor who remains in close contact with Putin. India’s continued energy deals with Russia have upset many in the West, though the U.S. and the EU have been reluctant to punish or even criticize Delhi, given its strategic alignment with the U.S. on China.
Modi, in the meeting, pledged that India would do “everything we can” to help end the conflict in Ukraine. “The war in Ukraine is a big issue for the whole world,” he said. “It has also had many effects on the whole world. But I don’t consider it to be just an issue of economy or politics. For me, it is an issue of humanity,” he added.
“It was very good that the they had the opportunity to exchange in person,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in an interview with POLITICO, referring to Zelenskyy’s engagement with Global South leaders. “He found very clear words, and he made a very strong case why Ukraine is resisting the invader,” she said
“I hope this direct engagement will allow for a better understanding of how much Ukraine is suffering and what it would mean for the world if Russia got away with its war of aggression,” von der Leyen added.
Zelenskyy, though, has had less luck with the other key Global South heavyweight, Brazil.
Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, Brazil’s socialist president, has refused to meet his Ukrainian counterpart, with his team reportedly feeling “trapped” by Tokyo’s unannounced decision to invite Zelenskyy — the man Lula considered “as responsible as Putin for the war” — to come to the same event in person.
Asked by a journalist if he was disappointed by Lula’s attitude, Zelenskyy smiled and said: “He’s the one who’s disappointed.”
A Japanese official, asked about Brazil’s reaction to Zelenskyy, said he had not heard “complaints” about Zelenskyy’s presence in Hiroshima, but added: “Of course a lot of the arrangement was confirmed last-minute. For us, the security of President Zelenskyy was the most important factor.”
The other key question for Zelenskyy would be his idea of a “coalition of jets” — with the U.S. now greenlighting allies’ plans to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 warplanes, Ukraine is keen to get the program running, even though it remained unclear on Sunday which countries, and how many aircraft, would be involved.
At the press conference, Zelenskyy said he had no updates yet on the details of the jets to be supplied by allies at this stage, though he’s confident he would get the equipment necessary to win the war.
What he could talk about, with more certainty, was the uneasy connection between the Japanese remnants of a nuclear destruction and the Ukrainian battlefield.
“The pictures of a ruined Hiroshima really remind me, totally remind me, of Bakhmut,” a visibly emotional Zelenskyy told a press conference Sunday evening, after a visit to a museum on the site where the atomic bomb exploded in 1945. “There are lots of tragic pictures in the museum. The children, little babies, before their death, and we have similar pictures unfortunately” in Ukraine.
“Only tears,” he said, “are in my eyes.”