Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky may not get everything right, but one thing is for sure – since becoming president in May 2019, he has worked tirelessly to resolve Ukraine’s territorial integrity issues. Yes, his efforts have accomplished very little so far, but this is not for the lack of trying. Back in April, as Russia started to amass its troops on Ukraine’s borders, Zelensky sounded the alarm bells, asking the western leaders to stand in solidarity with Ukraine against Russia. He regularly demands more involvement from the international community in Ukraine’s peace process to end the war in Donbas and regularly offers allies new venues for engagement. Zelensky has also openly complained that Ukraine’s NATO allies are not doing enough to support the country militarily, and continues to ask for Ukraine’s NATO and EU membership. So far, the western allies have been slow to come through for Ukraine. Statements of support and calls on Putin to stand down have not been followed up with meaningful action in a very long time. The array of sanctions imposed by the west on Russia years ago over Ukraine is growing stale, and the recent US greenlight for the controversial Nordstream-2 pipeline is a reminder that the allies are not willing to make any major sacrifices on behalf of Ukraine. The lackluster international response over the recent years to Russia’s continued occupation of Crimea and its involvement in Ukraine’s civil war in Donbas have further emboldened Moscow. Putin’s imperial ambitions over Ukraine have only solidified since 2014.
Zelensky may not have been able to achieve any tangible western response to Russia’s continued aggression against Ukraine, but he has been very successful in regularly garnering moral and public support from the leaders in Brussels and Washington. On August 24th Ukraine celebrated 30 years since its independence from the Soviet Union. Zelensky marked this occasion by organizing a full week of activities geared towards engaging Ukraine’s international allies. Delegations from 46 countries attended the meetings and festivities at Zelensky’s request – a major show of international support for Ukraine indeed, especially during a pandemic when international travel is still not fully safe for most.
One of the major events included the Crimea Platform summit held on August 23 in Kyiv. President Zelensky created the Crimea Platform as a mechanism to further mobilize the international community in support of Ukraine’s endeavor to end Russian occupation of Crimea. This was the first summit held under this initiative, and while tangible results are yet to be seen, it seems to have sent the right message to Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called it a “hollow propaganda venture” and added “Of course, [the Crimea Platform] is a Russophobic endeavor which is artificially created.” Lavrov continued “They will try to fan these sentiments to play to ultraradical neo-Nazi manifestations in modern Ukraine. Both the Kiev authorities and leaders of the Western world pander to these manifestations.” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba reacted with glee, saying he was pleased to see Moscow’s nervous reaction to the initiative.
At the summit Zelensky asked the participants to consider the platform as a “center for the development and adoption of key international decisions on Crimea.” He added that he was personally invested in doing everything possible to return Crimea to Ukraine “so that it becomes part of Europe together with Ukraine.” Zelensky stressed that Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea calls the entire global order into question.
"From today, we are actually starting the countdown to the liberation of our land - the Ukrainian peninsula. It is quite possible that August 23, 2021, will go down in history as the day of the beginning of the de-occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol. The occupation of the Crimean Peninsula began in Moscow. We will definitely start the de-occupation of Crimea in Kyiv. Let's start.”
All 30 NATO member states were represented at the summit. Some of the notable speakers included NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana who spoke firmly of NATO’s “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He reminded the event attendees that the June NATO summit had made the Organization’s stance on Russia very clear:
“We condemned Russia’s military build-up and destabilizing activities. And called on them to stop the human rights abuses and violations against all Ukrainians, including the Crimean Tatars. And I salute the leaders of this important community. And to end restrictions on freedom of navigation in the Black Sea, including access to the Sea of Azov and Ukrainian ports. We reiterated the decision of the Bucharest Summit that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO. And we commended Ukraine’s commitment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.”
Geoana added that Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 had inspired NATO to increase its presence in the region.
“NATO ships routinely operate in the Black Sea in line with international law. We have stepped up our cooperation with Georgia and Ukraine, with more exercises, more port visits and sharing of situational awareness. Only last month’s Sea Breeze exercise – co-hosted by the US and Ukrainian navies, with more than 30 participating nations, 32 to be more precise – was an important example of this. NATO continues to support Ukraine’s efforts to consolidate democracy, strengthen the rule of law, and reform your security and defense sectors. Including through capacity-building support to the Ukrainian armed forces, and to tackle cyber and hybrid threats.”
President of the European Council, Charles Michel, was also among the keynote speakers and he too delivered a strong message on behalf of the European Union— “I am here to reaffirm the EU's unwavering stance: we do not and will not recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by Russia. We will continue to staunchly enforce our non-recognition policy. And we will stand tall against any violations of international law.”
Michel also spoke of the worsening security situation in the Black Sea – “Unfortunately, Russia continues to act in ways that multiply the negative impact of the annexation. The continued militarization of the peninsula heavily affects the security situation in the Black Sea region. This should be reversed. The human rights situation remains dire, due to Russia's efforts to forcibly integrate the peninsula into its mainland. The Crimean Tatars continue to be persecuted, pressured and have their rights gravely violated. All this and ongoing destructive actions against the peninsula’s cultural heritage must stop.”
The festivities also included an impressive military parade in which Ukrainian troops marched alongside their NATO allies - which included soldiers from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. At the parade Zelensky told the international guests, "we are fighting for our people, because it is possible to temporarily occupy territories, but it is impossible to occupy people's love for Ukraine.”
What’s refreshing about Zelensky is his understanding that show of local ownership of security issues is key to garnering greater international aid and support. This is particularly important the context of the current environment of chaos, apathy, and despair in the Black Sea/Caucasus region. Without renewed local initiative and adamant calls for engagement from local leaders, the international community, especially the US and Europe, is becoming increasingly unwilling to fight the fights that locals won’t take on. This is evident from the experience of US withdrawal from Afghanistan and America’s unwillingness to meaningfully engage in solving conflicts in places like Nagorno-Karabakh, or step in to prevent further democratic backsliding in places of strategic importance like Georgia.
Zelensky’s eagerness to remain outspoken about Ukraine’s security and foreign policy challenges and show sincerity in his efforts to keep Ukraine on its path to Euro-Atlantic integration shows a president who clearly understands this shifting global context and is committed to keeping up with the changing times.
Maia Otarashvili is a Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program. Maia also serves as the Deputy Director of Research at FPRI. Her research interests include geopolitics and security of the Black Sea-Caucasus region, Russian foreign policy, and the post-Soviet “frozen” conflicts.