Ukrainian forces ventured far beyond the occupied territories, aiming to retaliate against Russia and force the Russian Ministry of Defense to divert some forces from Ukraine to protect their own territory. The initial impact of these actions was seen in the cancellation of May Day parades in Russia, which symbolized a recognition of vulnerability on the part of President Putin. Furthermore, there were notable incidents, such as drones targeting the cupolas of the Kremlin Senate and interviews with Russian “patriots” describing their incursion into the Belgorod region as a “liberation” from Putin’s regime. On May 30th, Ukrainian drones even managed to fly over residential areas of Moscow, testing the city’s air defense system and the reactions of the population under fire.
While Podolzhak expressed confidence in the counter-offensive, President Zelensky adopted a less assertive stance. On May 11th, he solemnly announced that the Ukrainian military required additional arms and equipment before launching its counter-offensive against Russian forces. His goals were unchanged – liberating all occupied territories, including Crimea; rebuilding the country; bringing those responsible for the war to an international tribunal; and pursuing membership in the EU and NATO. However, he also sought to project an image of responsibility, emphasizing his concern for the lives of his people and soldiers. This message aimed to assure Western backers that he would refrain from hastily organizing a counter-attack, which, in case of failure, could potentially undermine popular support in allies’ countries. To acquire more arms, including F-16 fighter jets, Zelensky embarked on a surprise diplomatic tour, visiting multiple European capitals in search of political and military support. He met the group of Nordic countries on May 3rd-4th, followed by the Benelux countries in the Netherlands, where he also visited the International Criminal Court. Between May 13th and 15th, he visited five additional countries (Italy, Vatican, Germany, France, United Kingdom), with each host eager to demonstrate unwavering support equal to that of previous hosts.
However, Zelensky decided to explore uncharted territory and assume that, given the information he personally provided, these countries might offer some level of support alongside the West and Japan. As part of this venture into what is commonly referred to as “the Global South,” he attended a meeting of the Arab League on May 19th, which had just reintroduced Syrian President Assad. The following day, Zelensky addressed the African Union during his visit to Senegal. Unfortunately, the results were modest. While traveling to Africa or the Middle East in a French presidential plane might have been justified for security reasons, it was not diplomatically sound at this moment. Moreover, these regions were not the ideal choices to blame Russia for poverty and hunger or to discuss the threat posed by Russian colonialism. As a result, Zelensky received warm receptions and had opportunities to raise Ukraine’s profile in places where it had been absent, but no concrete promises were made. Moreover, it was evident that leaders were apprehensive, viewing Ukraine’s Western pressures as a risk to the unity of their own unions or leagues. Instead of condemning the Russian invasion, the general consensus was to call for peace and a swift resolution to the conflict, with diplomatic statements centered around the theme of “peace is better than war.”
Outside the West
Zelensky’s reception was more enthusiastic at the G-7 summit, which he attended on May 20th. Japan, the host country, extended a personal invitation to him, along with other non-G7 countries, including India and Brazil, with the hope of garnering condemnation of Russia and support for Western sanctions. However, these non-G7 countries were not ready to take such actions, especially considering the summit’s increasingly anti-Chinese tone. The heavy pressures exerted by a wealthy coalition aiming to maintain global control, through threats of “secondary sanctions” that could adversely affect national economies and regional stability, were perceived as blackmail.
The lesson for Zelensky, if he is willing to heed it, is that the majority of people living outside of Europe view the conflict in Ukraine as a purely European war involving Washington and NATO. While there is no shortage of potential mediators, they all claim their neutrality precludes them from taking sides, as it would undermine their credibility. China echoed this sentiment, as expressed by its ambassador to the EU, Fu Cong, who stated that China refuses to let its relations with the EU be dominated by the conflict in Ukraine. These declarations came after a European tour by a special representative of the Chinese president and a phone conversation between Zelensky and Xi, which was touted as a turning point. Many countries benefit from trade with Russia, despite the sanctions, sometimes because of the sanctions, including numerous middle companies serving as intermediaries.
Consequently, Zelensky’s efforts should logically focus on consolidating Western support for the military campaign, securing financial assistance for the national budget and country reconstruction, and obtaining agreement on security measures for Ukraine. However, as the “summer counter-offensive” continues along the lines observed in May, Westerners, especially Americans, are becoming increasingly concerned. Only a small minority in the West supports attacks on Russian territory, primarily those who envision Putin being overthrown and the Russian Federation splitting apart. But the majority fears that such events could be the beginning, rather than the end, of the problems. For the first time, questions are being raised about the communication skills of Zelensky and his team when faced with contradictory statements about attacks outside of Ukraine, despite official denials of Western involvement or approval.
It is difficult to interpret these contradictions, involving the presidency, the Ministry of Defense, and military intelligence, as a classic “bad cop-good cop” scenario under these circumstances. The explosions in the Belgorod region targeted civilians, contrary to earlier mysterious incidents involving energy storage facilities, military bases, or radar installations. It is difficult to accept that these attacks were conducted with presidential approval, especially since they seem to be the work of small groups of individuals using ordinary means. But Belgorod, where shelling are continuing, is another story. While it might be plausible that Russian dissidents fighting alongside Ukraine and risking their lives to liberate their country from Putin’s clique were responsible for storming villages near Belgorod, the Russian Volunteer Corps, like all foreign volunteers, operates under the control of the Ukrainian armed forces. They crossed the border undetected by Ukrainian border guards, in full uniforms; they were even seen driving Humvees, which was a shock to Americans.
This situation aligns more closely with the harsh stance taken by Ukrainian intelligence services, which have called for attacks on Russian soil, including Moscow. They arrest “traitors” within Ukraine and proudly claim responsibility for killings in the occupied territories. The intelligence services are undoubtedly more radical than the Ministry of Defense and the presidency, who have distanced themselves from anything beyond attacks against occupying forces and the hope for regime change in Russia, taking in mind the Western preoccupation.
While Zelensky remained unusually silent on these matters, the Ministry of Defense denied any responsibility for attacks on Russian soil. General Vadym Skivitsky, the number two official in military intelligence, in charge of operations beyond the front line and on Russian territory, declared that the services had not yet killed Vladimir Putin, but eliminating the Russian president was his main objective. President Biden stated that the West was assisting Ukraine in defending its territory and reiterated Zelensky’s solemn promise that no equipment provided by the West would be used outside its intended purpose.