Bringing Zelensky to the summit gives him a chance to engage with some key countries that have so far withheld their support against Russia’s invasion, and French President Emmanuel Macron hopes the opportunity will be a game-changer for Kyiv.
Macron, who has faced criticism for his statements on Ukraine-Russia peace negotiations, has lobbied to enable the Ukrainian president to make his case in front of some Arab leaders, as well as India and Brazil, who have also been invited to Japan.
A week ago, when Macron hosted his Ukrainian counterpart for dinner at the Elysee Palace, the idea of Zelensky attending the summit of his main Western allies was already under discussion, said a Macron adviser, but the logistics had yet to be figured out.
Finally, Kyiv came through with a formal request.
“They asked us on Wednesday if we could transport them on Thursday. We said yes,” said the French presidential official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
A French Air Force Airbus A330 picked up Zelensky at the Polish border and flew him first to Saudi Arabia, where he addressed an Arab League summit on Friday. Then from there, he traveled to Japan Saturday to immediately begin bilateral meetings.
‘Very positive signals’
The trip was the first to the Asia-Pacific for the wartime president since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine 15 months ago.
On board the French plane, accompanied by Isabelle Dumont, Macron’s adviser on Ukraine and former ambassador in Kyiv, Zelensky prepared “very carefully” for his mission, said the French side.
When greeting Zelensky in a large hotel in Hiroshima, Macron expressed hope the meetings on the sidelines of the summit will offer Kyiv a “a unique opportunity.”
“I think it can change the game,” Macron said.
Zelensky assured Macron that he had already received “very positive signals” from Arab countries the day before.
Zelensky has proposed holding an international peace summit over Ukraine and wants to rally as many countries as possible behind his cause.
In order to achieve this, Paris believes it is crucial for Zelensky to have a one-on-one with key leaders, such as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has pointedly refrained from condemning the Russian invasion, or Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has not sent weapons to Ukraine or joined sanctions on Russia.
Modi’s meeting with Zelensky on Saturday gave cause for optimism.
“I can assure you that to resolve this India and, me personally, will do whatever we can do,” Modi told Zelensky.
And the Elysee says Lula also plans to meet his Ukrainian counterpart in Hiroshima, though Brasilia has not confirmed that.
“We were able to convince the Japanese presidency” of the G7 “not only to invite President Zelensky to Hiroshima, but to allow him to exchange” with these emerging countries, during a session scheduled for Sunday at the end of the summit, said the French official. “It’s France’s initiative.”
Paris is hoping for a strong declaration at the end of the summit on Sunday that would show international unity behind “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine” and the need to “create together the conditions for peace”.
This French effort comes as US President Joe Biden this week announced, in a major reversal, a decision to support providing advanced warplanes including F16s to Ukraine and to back efforts to train Kyiv’s pilots — something long sought by Zelensky.
France has said it is ready to train Ukrainian pilots as soon as the coveted jets arrive in Ukraine.