Zelenskyy completes a charm offensive in Europe as Ukraine prepares for next phase

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, visited the European headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. He asked for more weapons, while also thanking the EU for its support thusfar.

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BRUSSELS — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s trip around Europe, ahead of an expected renewed offensive from Russia, was pulled off with relative success despite the political and logistical challenges that such a high-profile tour can encounter.

The European Union, the largest donor of financial aid to Ukraine, had wanted a visit from the Ukrainian leader for several months, particularly after Zelenskyy traveled to Washington, D.C., in December. Organizing such a trip is understandably tricky, particularly when a surprise visit gets leaked to the international press.

Politico Europe obtained a screenshot of a tweet published Monday by a group of European lawmakers welcoming Zelenskyy — the same tweet was swiftly deleted.

One Ukrainian official, who did not want to be named due to the sensitive nature of the visit, told CNBC Tuesday that it was unclear whether Zelenskyy would still come to Brussels given it was leaked to the press in advance.

Zelenskyy says certain agreements with allies are not public, but are positive

However by Wednesday morning, Zelenskyy managed to still obtain some modicum of surprise by touching down in London to meet British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and King Charles III.

Zelenskyy then traveled to Paris Wednesday evening and arrived in Brussels Thursday morning alongside French President Emmanuel Macron. The Ukrainian leader was finally at the heart of European policymaking, providing European officials with a sense of relief and, to some extent, pride.

An EU official, who wanted to remain anonymous due to sensitive preparations for the trip, said: “It makes sense that he [Zelenskyy] visits the G-7 leaders first, we do not have the weapons he needs.”

Weapons, weapons, weapons

Zelenskyy was direct in his message to European leaders asking for long-range artillery and ammunition, air defense systems, missiles, fighter jets and battle tanks.

“We, my friends, are protecting Europe from a regime that has proven that it has only one ambition: to destroy Europe’s freedom and to be an authoritarian master on the continent,” Zelenskyy told the 27 heads of state in Brussels Thursday, reminding them that Kyiv is fighting for European values.

Ukraine’s Zelenskyy visits Brussels

In London, Zelenskyy obtained assurances that the U.K. will double its training of Ukrainian troops and that this training will also include pilots so Kyiv can better protect its skies. Sunak did not commit to sending much-anticipated fighter jets, but did not exclude the possibility of doing so later down the line.

In Paris, Zelenskyy was promised further military assistance too. “There are certain agreements, which are not public, but are positive,” he told reporters in Brussels, preferring to keep these assurances secret.

One official working for a Nordic EU nation, who did not want to be named due to the secrecy of the talks, told CNBC that “some countries have said [they will send fighter jets]. We will see how it rolls out.”

Speaking at a press conference early Friday, Macron also did not rule out the possibility of sending aircraft to Ukraine.

A second official, working for a different EU nation, told CNBC that sending jets would take awhile to materialize, if it’s deemed possible. One of the issues raised by allies is that it takes a long time to train fighter jet pilots.

New sanctions on Russia

In the meantime, EU institutions are working on a new package of sanctions against Russia. Speaking Thursday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said these will include new export bans worth 10 billion euros ($10.7 billion) and targeting Russian propaganda.

“We will impose sanctions on a number of political and military leaders. But also, dear Volodymyr, we listened very carefully to your messages when we visited you last week in Kyiv. We will target Putin’s propagandists. Because there lies are poisoning the public space in Russia and abroad,” von der Leyen said, standing next to the Ukrainian leader.

The new sanctions are set to be finalized by Feb. 24, which will mark a year since Russia invaded Ukraine.

In the medium term, Zelenskyy wants the EU to help with boosting the morale of Ukrainian troops by opening negotiations for his country to some day join the political bloc.

Ukraine submitted a request to join the EU last year, after the war had first started. He pressured EU leaders to start the process this year. “When I say this year, Charles, I mean this year, 2-0-23,” Zelenskyy said addressing European Council President Charles Michel, who chairs the meetings among EU leaders in Brussels.

‘A very sensible man’

Zelenskyy only spent less than 24 hours in Brussels but he left a positive impression on several EU officials. He has been working closely with the EU but this marked the first time since the invasion begun that he was able to meet EU officials in person in Brussels.

“He was energetic, in a positive mood, very focused. He has a sharp focus and is committed to the Ukrainian cause — he is a very sensible man,” one EU official said regarding the Ukrainian president.

The official working for a Nordic nation said: “Seeing him in person made [an] impact after a year of video addresses.”

How Ukraine brought the European Union together

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