Updated March 24. The sanctions are doing their work, more are being prepared in Europe and today as Biden lands in Europe for meetings with NATO, the EU and the G7 to prepare more moves against Russia, his administration has announced new sanctions. More than 300 members of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament are targetted as well as two dozen companies linked to the defense sector and the CEO of Russia’s largest bank. But the impact of sanctions is slow and carries a price: The blowback is inevitable, as Russia’s economy collapses and major trading partners, especially in Europe, are hurt. By contrast, the political work of Ukraine President Zelinsky is highly visible, hurts no one and probably contributes far more effectively than sanctions in isolating Russia in public opinion and turning it into a pariah state.
While his army is waging war on the ground, Zelinsky has embarked on his own war of information, addressing 10 Parliaments in the last two weeks, and obtaining not just standing ovations everywhere but also, on occasion, some concrete results: For example, soon after addressing the French Parliament and shaming French companies for not leaving Russia, France’s carmaker Renault announced it was leaving – a decision that was unfortunately not followed by all the other companies Zelinsky mentioned.
It is, in fact, extraordinary to see how the war in Ukraine is unfolding: On one hand, a classic, if unusually brutal war waged by Putin verging on genocide; on the other hand, and an information war where Zelinsky has taken a lead, showing exceptional talent in establishing links both at the highest levels of power with heads of state and governments and at the parliamentary level.
On the ground, we are witnessing the tragedies of war that we hadn’t seen in Europe since Sarajevo and the Balkan War – in particular, the atrocities against civilians. They are so extensive that one might well speak of genocide: For that is what is happening now in Mariupol, the southern port city bombed for weeks, unable to evacuate its inhabitants because of Russian shelling.
Today, as I write, 100,000 people are trapped there, in a city that is now 90% destroyed, and left without food, water, heating, as per Putin’s ruthless and brutal model of invasion that aims at the civilian population since his army is unable to win outright by military means. The Ukrainians are trying to negotiate safe passage to evacuate Mariupol’s people, but for now, with little success, only 7,000 were evacuated yesterday. That something like this could happen in the 21st century in Europe is both astonishing and unconscionable. It’s a throwback to the darkest moments of World War II.
Yet, on another level, we are witnessing something that is entirely new in warfare. I cannot recall in recent History anything like what Zelinsky is doing, a leader engaged in an ongoing war, and talking to parliamentarians around the world.
Zelinsky’s tour of parliaments
Today, Zelinsky spoke to the Japanese Diet and the French parliament.
He used his address to Japan this morning to make two major points:
- He slammed the United Nations, saying the UN had failed over the conflict in his country and reforms were needed, calling for Japan to put more pressure on Russia. He told the lawmakers via video: “Neither the United Nations nor the UN Security Council have functioned. Reforms are needed. We need a tool to preemptively ensure global security. Existing international organizations are not functioning for this purpose, so we need to develop a new, preemptive tool that can actually stop invasions.”
- Recalling the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster that haunts the Japanese, he warned of the dangers his own country is facing from Russian attacks on nuclear plants and the site of the Chernobyl meltdown; Russia turned that into a war zone,” he said, warning that years would be needed to assess possible environmental effects of Russia’s occupation of Chernobyl; indeed, this is the first time that a country like Ukraine that depends on 15 nuclear reactors to produce its electricity has become a theater of war, raising concerns about world nuclear safety.
In France, this afternoon, Zelensky invoked images of devastated cities such as Mariupol that “recall the ruins of Verdun as in the photos of World War I that everyone has seen.” He added, “The Russian army makes no distinction between targets. They destroy residential areas, hospitals, schools, universities. They do not take into account the concepts of war crimes,” he said.
He asked for a minute of silence for the thousands of Ukrainians killed by the Russian invasion. But what shook his French audience was his calling on French companies to leave Russia, including carmaker Renault, supermarket group Auchan and DIY retailer Leroy Merlin.
Indeed, the facts are not in favor of French industry. Partly state-owned Renault suspended its production at its plants near Moscow last month after Russia’s invasion but has since resumed production. Major French retailers such as Auchan, Leroy Merlin and sports group Decathlon have not followed a boycott of Russia by other top Western brands from McDonald’s to Coca-Cola. French energy giant TotalEnergies has said it will stop purchasing Russian oil and petroleum products but not right away, it will do so “by the end of this year” and it will continue to buy Russian gas as it has “no alternative”.
Zelensky’s extremely effective rhetorical technique is based on evoking episodes in recent history that arouse feelings of empathy in his audience and then frame his demands for help.
Yesterday he spoke to the Italian parliament, telling them “imagine Genoa like Mariupol”; earlier he had spoken to the German Bundestag, telling them that a new type of Berlin Wall is being built, dividing Europe between freedom and oppression; to the American Congress he evoked the September 11 terrorist attack; to the British House of Parliament, he quoted Churchill and Shakespeare:
“We will fight to the end. We will not give up and we will not lose. We will fight until the end at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost.”
Earlier, when the war started, he had spoken to the European Parliament, saying:
Every square today, no matter what it’s called, is going to be called Freedom Square, in every city of our country. No one is going to break us. We are strong. We are Ukrainians. […] We have a desire to see our children alive. I think it’s a fair one.
And he had concluded with the broader picture:
“We are fighting for our rights, for our freedoms, for life, for our life, and now we are fighting for survival. And this is the highest of our motivation. But we are fighting also to be equal members of Europe.”
This motivation is one we would hear more about when he asked later for fast-track membership into the European Union, a procedure that was rejected on March 11 at the Versailles meeting of the 27 European leaders, although the door was left wide open for Ukraine to put its candidacy to the EU.
And he’s been invited to speak to NATO on March 24 at a meeting also attended by President Biden. Following Zelensky’s moving appeal to NATO, here is what Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-general said, reinforcing support to Ukraine:
This is a whirlwind virtual tour, and he’s not likely to stop there. Every time he asks for more sanctions, more support and yet the war keeps on, as the Russian troops get stuck, stopped by an unexpectedly effective Ukrainian resistance.
The only solution is for cease-fire negotiations to start as soon as possible and for diplomacy to take over where military confrontation only leads to a painful stalemate.
The diplomatic front: The large number of leaders directly involved by Zelensky is another historic first
One cannot imagine leaders talking to each other during World War II in the way they are doing now. Mussolini or Hitler never got on the phone with Churchill or Roosevelt. Yet that is precisely what is happening now.
Not only is Zelensky speaking to everyone, from America’s Biden to France’s Macron, Germany’s Scholz, Israel’s Bennett, the Pope and more, but Putin too is in direct phone contact with everyone as well – though not the Pope (so far). Phone calls at the highest levels have never been so numerous.
Meanwhile, at the lower working levels, things are not moving so smoothly and that’s a matter of concern. Because here is where the real, practical decisions are taken, the ones that could lead to an actual cease-fire and an eventual solution.
Zelensky has publicly indicated his willingness to talk and to compromise. He’s largely given up on Ukraine joining NATO and he’s willing to seek a “solution” for the Donbas and the separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. His chief negotiator in an interview on March 17, five days ago, published in the Polish media indicated his hope that some sort of solution could be found “over the next 10 days”.
Ten days is a long time in a war, and the military advantage could go either way. But one thing is certain, Zelensky has literally pulled all the plugs and done his very best to try and stop the absurdity of war. Will Putin listen and see that it is to his advantage too to come to terms?
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Zelensky talking in French parliament via video, 23 March 2022 (screenshot of France 24 video)