Volodymyr Zelensky will travel in person to Japan for the Group of Seven (G7) summit, according to officials familiar with the planning, a stark display of confidence and Western solidarity as Ukraine’s wartime leader tries to keep crucial support from allied nations flowing.
The surprise trip – which would be the Ukrainian president’s first to Asia since Moscow’s invasion of his country last February – comes as Kyiv is preparing a highly anticipated counteroffensive against Russia and building pressure on partner governments for more military aid amid intensifying aerial attacks.
And it also illustrates how Moscow’s onslaught against its neighbor has unleashed repercussions far beyond Europe’s borders in Asia, where Western-allied democracies are increasingly rattled by the growing authoritarian assertiveness of both Russia and China.
The war already tops the agenda of the three-day G7 summit, where leaders from the world’s wealthiest democracies are expected to make a strong statement of unity in support of Ukraine and unveil new measures to choke off Russia’s ability to fund and supply its war.
“Very important things will be decided there,” Oleksii Danilov, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, said on Ukrainian television Friday.
“Therefore the physical presence of our president is absolutely important – to defend our interests, to explain, to provide clear proposals and clear arguments on the events that are taking place in our country,” he said.
G7 member countries, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, include the largest backers of Ukraine’s defense.
Zelensky’s appearance at the summit will bring him face-to-face not only with the leaders of the G7 nations, but also others who have been invited to attend.
Each year the summit includes geopolitical players outside the G7 alliance, and this year that list features leaders who have been hesitant to fully back Kyiv against Russia’s invasion.
“The key to Zelensky’s visit is not his coming to see the G7 – he already has their full support. The key is seeing in person the governments who have been invited the summit as participants this year – India, Indonesia, Brazil, and more,” said Josh Lipsky, the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center.
“These so-called ‘fence-sitter’ countries as (US Secretary of the Treasury) Janet Yellen described them, have never seen him in person,” Lipsky said. “This is a rare opportunity to press his case directly to some of countries that are providing key economic support by continuing to trade with Russia.”
Earlier this week, Zelensky completed a whirlwind European tour, where he made a bid to restock Ukraine’s military arsenal during stops in Italy, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.
The Ukrainian leader also attended the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia on Friday, where he urged sympathy from leaders in Saudi Arabia who “turn a blind eye” to the war in Ukraine.
“Look at how much suffering the long-term wars have brought to Libya, Syria, Yemen, how many lives have been wasted by years of fighting Sudan and Somalia, in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Zelensky told his counterparts.
“I hope that most of us are here for the sake of peace and justice.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was present at the Arab League summit for the first time in a decade, and was seen on camera in the conference room minutes ahead of Zelensky’s speech. Syria was only one of only two countries in the world (along with North Korea) to recognize Russia’s claimed annexations last year of four Ukrainian regions.
Zelensky’s expected travel halfway around the world to Japan would give him another chance to stress his appeal for further military support to leaders of the world’s wealthiest democracies face-to-face.
It would also send a signal of a confident and well-connected Ukraine that contrasts sharply with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who has become increasingly isolated and cut off in recent months – especially after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against him for alleged war crimes.
Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had previously said Zelensky would participate virtually in a Sunday session of the G7, after being invited to the gathering by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida earlier this year.
Kishida made a surprise visit to Ukraine in March while earlier this month Japan confirmed it is in talks to open a NATO liaison office, the first of its kind in Asia, arguing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had made the world less stable.
The week of frenetic diplomacy comes amid deepening urgency at home as Russia’s war consumes Ukraine’s resources and people in an existential fight for survival.
Aerial attacks rained down across Ukraine Thursday, with explosions heard in areas across the country, including the capital, which city officials say Russia has pelted with a series of air strikes of unprecedented power and intensity this month.
But Kyiv’s anti-missile defenses – bolstered by crucial Western weaponry – have had apparent success with the Ukrainian Air Force claiming to have downed 29 out of 30 cruise missiles launched by Russia overnight Thursday.
Zelensky’s appearance at the summit could add momentum to his appeal for more of that kind of equipment, which Kyiv says it desperately needs to protect its people from Russia’s aerial onslaught, and bolster any counteroffensive.
“What Zelensky wants to get from the G7 is reassurance about their support for the war, and he wants to make sure that there is no fatigue,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an emeritus professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University, adding that the timing of Zelensky’s travel near the start of Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia was important.
The Ukrainian leader welcomed additional pledges of military support for that effort – including $3 billion in military aid from Germany – at the close of his European tour earlier this week, but renewed demands for the modern fighter jets.
Zelensky welcomed the US’s decision to support a joint F-16 fighter jets training effort for Ukrainians. “This will greatly enhance our army in the sky,” he wrote on Twitter.
At the top of Ukraine’s list in recent months have been F-16 fighter jets, and Britain earlier this week said it was working with the Netherlands to form an “international coalition” to help Ukraine procure the jets and train pilots to fly them.
The Biden administration recently signaled to European allies that the US would allow them to export the jets to Ukraine, CNN reported Thursday, citing sources familiar with the discussions.
Zelensky’s expected visit to Asia will follow on the heels of one from Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska.
On Tuesday, Zelensky pressed South Korea to provide air defense systems as well as non-lethal military hardware to her country during a meeting in Seoul with President Yoon Suk Yeol.
The outreach to Asia comes as Beijing dispatched its own special envoy to Europe this week to promote conversations around ending the conflict, as China – which is not part of the G7 and maintains close ties with Russia – attempts to play a role in brokering peace.
Zelensky met with envoy Li Hui earlier this week, China’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry earlier that day had confirmed Li met Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and discussed “ways to stop Russian aggression.”
CNN’s Kevin Liptak in Hiroshima and Olga Voitovych in Kyiv contributed to this report. CNN’s Mick Krever contributed to this report.