Every September, world leaders converge on United Nations headquarters in Manhattan for a series of meetings on topics ranging from socioeconomic crises in Africa to climate change. For most Americans, the weeklong affair can best be described as a monotonous event, where dozens upon dozens of high-level officials who like to hear themselves talk deliver speeches to the U.N. chamber on the state of the world and what is needed to improve it.
Yet the U.N. General Assembly’s annual meeting is about more than just a bunch of leaders talking into the microphone. It’s also a time when diplomacy is in full force, and informal chitchats are arranged to tackle some of the globe’s most pressing problems. President Joe Biden will be engaging in a lot of chitchat when he’s in New York City this week. So will Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president who has spent the last 19 months lobbying anybody and everybody for military support as his country valiantly resists Russia’s war of aggression.
Zelenskyy is a tireless advocate for his nation. Over the last year and a half, the comedic actor-turned-wartime commander in chief has given countless interviews in the Western media to press his case: Russian President Vladimir Putin is a wannabe Peter the Great who not only wants to destroy Ukraine’s independence but also rebuild the Russian empire. Zelenskyy has traveled to Washington, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, London and Rome to meet with officials and ensure lawmakers in these respective countries understand why it’s imperative to assist Kyiv’s war effort. The most dramatic visit took place in Washington last December when Zelenskyy handed then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the gift of a Ukrainian flag from soldiers fighting thousands of miles away in Bakhmut.
The Ukrainian president has been treated like a rock star in the West. Yet Zelenskyy has never been able to garner similar appeal in the capital cities of Africa, Latin America and Asia. (Seoul and Tokyo, two U.S. allies, have been the exceptions.) Whereas the collective West is fully behind Kyiv’s mission of expelling the Russian army from Ukraine, countries as varied as Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and South Africa just want the fighting to stop regardless of the outcome. To Zelenskyy and his partners in the U.S. and Europe, such a stance is unethical and immoral. But for the Ukrainian president specifically, it’s a stance that nonetheless exists and one he hopes to tame during his short time at the U.N.
The Ukrainians recognize they have a problem with the so-called Global South, the developing and middle-tier powers straddling three continents. As one Ukrainian official acknowledged last week, “To secure a comprehensive, long-lasting peace, we need more than Western political support.” Zelenskyy seems to have taken those words to heart; in May, he made a surprise appearance in Riyadh to address the Arab League, whose members have chosen to stay neutral in the conflict. In June, Zelenskyy greeted an African Union delegation to receive its draft peace plan, if only to send a message that he isn’t dismissing its effort out of hand.
Yet those few appearances aside, Zelenskyy’s efforts in the Global South have been lacking compared with his diplomatic activity in the West. Granted, much of this can be chalked up to sheer necessity: The U.S. and Europe, after all, are Ukraine’s biggest military backers, and Kyiv’s top priority is to maintain, and ideally, expand, this aid well into next year. Without consistent Western military supplies, Ukrainians simply can’t maintain their positions, let alone advance along a 600-mile-long front line inundated with trenches, anti-tank traps and minefields that in some places reach 10 miles wide.
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Even so, the almost exclusive focus on the West hasn’t helped Kyiv’s prospects in large swaths of Africa, Latin America and Asia. And let’s be honest: His prospects weren’t especially great to begin with. This is less about Zelenskyy’s ability as a communicator and more about the fact that the positions are almost irreconcilable.
For Zelenskyy, there is no such thing as compromise on this issue. The entire picture is black-and-white, a contest between good and evil. Putin is a despot, Russia is an aggressor state, Ukraine is the victim and the only acceptable outcome is Russia’s unequivocal withdrawal from every square centimeter of Ukrainian territory. This has been Zelenskyy’s fundamental theory of the case, and he reiterates it at every opportunity. As he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria recently, talking with Putin is folly: “When you want to have compromises or a dialogue with somebody, you can’t do it with a liar.”
Needless to say, Zelenskyy’s absolutism doesn’t hold bandwidth outside the West. While Russia’s invasion and occupation certainly violate the core tenets of the U.N. charter, the developing world can’t afford to cut off a major power to make a moral point. This obviously drives the West crazy but is quite sensible for countries that either depend on Russia as a food source (Brazil), have historical relations to the Kremlin dating to the Cold War (South Africa) or are seeking to leverage their strategic position (Saudi Arabia). Indeed, some, such as India, have actually made out quite well financially and geopolitically since the war began — New Delhi has exploited Russia’s desperate need for cash by scooping up hundreds of millions of barrels of Russian crude oil at a hefty discount.
Bluntly put, Zelenskyy has a lot of work ahead of him if he wants to bring these nations to Ukraine’s side. He will have his best chance this week.
But he, and we, shouldn’t be surprised if he flies back to Kyiv with little to show for his effort. In international relations, national interests trump values more often than not.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.