Ukrainian president tries to avoid panic as pressure mounts


KYIV, Ukraine — Russian attack helicopters were spotted a few miles from his country’s borders on Sunday. The last threads of diplomacy were fraying. The allies evacuated their embassies, airlines canceled flights and a large number of private jets took off from the capital.

For Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian president and former comic actor elected three years ago on a message of optimism about his country’s relations with Russia – which now seems a distant memory – the room for maneuver has narrowed this weekend -end to a tiny selection of uncertain options.

During a phone call Sunday with President Biden, Mr. Zelensky issued an invitation for a visit, so that the American president could “contribute to the de-escalation” by his presence in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. The United States has already ordered most American diplomats out, making a presidential visit unlikely.

“I am convinced that your arrival in Kiev in the next few days, crucial for the stabilization of the situation, will be a strong signal,” Zelensky said, according to a Ukrainian official. Account of the conversation, adding that the Ukrainian capital was “safe and under reliable protection”.

Mr. Zelensky also thanked Mr. Biden for US support, including arms airlifts, and said, “We hope that, among other things, will help prevent the spread of panic.”

What is perhaps the most intense security crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War appears to be coming to a head, with Washington warning that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could begin at any moment. But Ukraine’s 44-year-old president clings to the strategy he’s been pursuing for months, using every appearance to warn against panic and overreaction, to the point of seeming almost delusional about the grave risks his country is facing. confronted.

Early in his presidency, Mr. Zelensky was seen as a novice playing a high-stakes game with a shrewd and experienced opponent, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. And rifts have widened with allies in recent weeks as Mr Biden and the leaders of Europe’s major powers sounded the global alarm, treating the threat of an invasion much more seriously than Mr Zelensky claimed. done publicly.

Mr Zelensky has remained engaged in diplomacy even though no clear path to a settlement is in sight, while calling on his military to signal, as it said in a statement over the weekend, that Ukraine is “absolutely ready to fight”.

Adhering to a disciplined public relations strategy has been a hallmark of Mr. Zelensky’s tenure, seen as stemming from the experience he and prominent aides share in the entertainment industry.

Supporters say he has no choice but to project calm no matter the circumstances, lest Ukrainians flock to banks or grocery stores.

Ukraine is now nearly surrounded by Russian forces and backed by Russia at a high level of readiness, with the start of Russian naval exercises on the Black Sea on Sunday completing the noose in the south. Russian officials have said they have no intention of invading Ukraine.

Adding to the sense of alarm, some of Mr Zelensky’s key allies cut staff or evacuated embassies in Kiev over the weekend. The United States announced a withdrawal at the American embassy except for a “core team” of senior diplomats, citing the risk of combat. Canada has announced a withdrawal of diplomats to the western city of Lviv.

Russia also said it had decided to downsize its missions in Ukraine.

Mr Zelensky criticized the evacuation of diplomats as unnecessarily alarmist and remained defiant, downplaying the threat to his country – despite some of the most disturbing military maneuvers in Europe in decades.

“An enemy’s best friend is panic in our country,” he told reporters in southern Ukraine on Saturday, where he observed a police training exercise. Even this choice of location was significant: the police exercised their riot control skills to prevent internal unrest, not foreign invasion. Mr Zelensky skipped public appearances during military exercises also underway in Ukraine.

Also over the weekend, Dutch airline KLM halted flights to Ukraine, and air travel appeared more widely under threat as airline insurers reacted to US warnings of impending war.

Mr Zelensky’s infrastructure ministry rushed to reassure airlines on Sunday, saying the government had not shut down airspace and suggesting it could step in to protect planes.

Flight cancellations have helped make Ukrainians aware of the seriousness of the military risk. But the Ministry of Infrastructure made no mention of the war. He loosely blamed the flight disruptions on “fluctuations in insurance markets”.

Also over the weekend, the US military said it had withdrawn about 150 National Guard soldiers who were helping the Ukrainian military as trainers. Regardless, Mr. Zelensky seemed to signal, “As a state, we have to rely on ourselves, on our military, on our citizens.

A Ukrainian media, Ukrainska Pravda, which monitored air travel via flight tracking sites, reported that on Sunday the highest number of private and chartered jets left Kyiv in a single day since the group began monitoring flights six years ago, indicating the country’s elite were getting out.

In another ominous sign on Sunday, US members of a ceasefire monitoring mission by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to the separate conflict in eastern Ukraine have packed their bags and left their hotels, Reuters reported, and British monitors have withdrawn from territory held by Russian-backed separatists to Ukrainian-held areas , local media reported.

The departure of frontline monitors, just as the risk of war looms, leaves Ukraine with less chance that international monitors will be able to report separatist troop movements that could telegraph the start of military action.

Over the weekend, a key adviser to Mr Zelensky said he saw greater chances for a diplomatic solution than for war, although diplomacy around boosting Russian troops had become worn.

On Monday and Tuesday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will travel to Kyiv and Moscow. A German official, speaking on the merits in Berlin, said he did not expect a breakthrough and it was unclear whether a specific settlement proposal was on the table.

Mr. Scholz, when meeting with Mr. Putin, will seek to better understand Russia’s objectives and determine whether there are options for de-escalation, the official said.

Mr. Zelensky’s optimism, while clearly intended to avert panic, has deeper roots.

Already a teenager, having grown up in a Russian-speaking Jewish family in an industrial city in central Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky took part in humor competitions. He eventually founded his own studio, Kvartal 95, whose shows and movies became hits throughout the former Soviet Union.

In one show, “Servant of the People,” Mr. Zelensky played an idealistic schoolteacher whose anti-corruption tirade goes viral. The post was so popular that Mr Zelensky created a political party named after the show and won the real presidency and majority in parliament in the 2019 elections.

Like the fictional leader he portrayed, Mr Zelensky campaigned on a sunny vision of turning over a new leaf for Ukraine and brokering a peace deal with Russia.

Mr Zelensky had hoped for diplomatic support from the United States in negotiations to end the war with Russian-led separatists in eastern Ukraine, which has lasted for eight years and is distinguished from the new threat of a direct Russian attack.

But that strategy crumbled in the events that led to the first impeachment of former President Donald J. Trump, in a first setback for the Ukrainian leader.

While Mr. Zelensky sought diplomatic support from the United States, the American envoy, Kurt Volker, instead worked alongside Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, not to negotiate war issues and peace, but rather to ask Mr. Zelensky to investigate Mr. Trump’s case. political opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr. The demands eventually led to Mr. Trump’s infamous phone call asking Mr. Zelensky to “do us a favour” and alluding to the suspension of military aid to Ukraine s he didn’t.

One of the results has been distrust by Mr. Zelensky and his top officials of any relationship other than direct ones with the White House, and a certain contempt for the American foreign policy establishment, as in witness his criticism of the American measures aiming to expel diplomats from Ukraine.

Early in his term, Mr. Zelensky floated the idea of ​​resolving the conflict with Russia using the soft power of Ukraine as the largest democracy in the former Soviet Union.

And he had hoped by his personal example to defuse accusations from Moscow that the Ukrainian government had been seized by “neo-fascists” after a 2014 revolution. The Ukrainian government was careful to point out that it is the only state in outside of Israel with both a Jewish president and a Jewish prime minister.

But shortly after his election, he also hinted at a stubborn streak. In Ukraine’s relations with Russia, he suggested, the country would not bend. He promoted the creation of a Ukrainian-based Russian-language television channel to broadcast to breakaway areas in the east that could also be accessed online in Russia.

“Ukraine will not abandon its mission to serve as an example of democracy for post-Soviet countries,” he said in his first speech on Russian politics after his election in 2019. Ukraine would resist and would accept help wherever it could, from “all who are willing to fight alongside us for our freedom and yours.”

Katrin Bennhold contributed reporting from Berlin and Maria Varenikova from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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