Dueling Tours for Influence as Ukraine War Scrambles Alliances

by Pelican Press
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The diplomatic ripple effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine played out on Monday from the Middle East to the Baltics and northern Europe as leaders jockeyed to cement new alliances in a scrambled world.

On the fourth stop of a tour aimed at securing more weaponry to repel Russian forces, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine arrived in Athens for meetings with the leaders of Greece and other Balkan nations to discuss common security concerns and better integration with Europe.

“Thank you for your readiness to help us fight for our freedom,” Mr. Zelensky told Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis after the two men met privately.

As Mr. Zelensky was making his way to Athens after securing commitments of F-16 fighter jets from Denmark and the Netherlands, an Iranian military delegation was visiting Russia, a sign of how deep ties between Moscow and Tehran have become since the war began.

Iran’s prowess in drone and missile production and its hostile relations with the West have made it an appealing partner for Russia.

That was unmistakable on Monday when the head of Iran’s ground forces, Brig. Gen. Kioumars Heydari, was welcomed to Moscow by his Russian counterpart, Gen. Oleg Salyukov. The two men attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the tomb of the unknown soldier outside the Kremlin wall, according to Russia’s Ministry of Defense.

“Iran is considered by the Russian Federation to be one of the key countries in the Middle East. It is a strategic partner of Russia,” General Salyukov said in a statement released by the ministry.

For his part, General Heydari said that Tehran’s ground forces were ready to increase their cooperation with Russia, Iran’s state news agency, IRNA, reported.

Isolated by much of the West since it invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow is also working to herald its ties with nations that have refrained from denouncing it or have at least used more measured language.

On Tuesday, the Kremlin will look to gain ground when the group of nations known as BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — begins a meeting in South Africa. The group represents 40 percent of the world’s population and a quarter of its economy.

The Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, had planned to attend the gathering in person, but that grew complicated after an international court issued a warrant in March accusing him of war crimes. Now he plans to take part remotely — but from Russia’s perspective, the summit may still provide an opportunity to court the developing world.

The task of finding common ground, however, is only becoming harder. As Russia’s war in Ukraine pushes on, the conflict is destabilizing food and energy prices for many of the poorer countries that BRICS members claim to represent.

In Athens on Monday, with Russian hostilities disrupting Ukrainian grain exports to hungry nations, Mr. Zelensky also asked Greece for help transferring agricultural products from Black Sea ports. Prime Minister Mitsotakis said that Greek ships were already carrying more than 50 percent of Ukrainian grain exports.

Before embarking on his latest diplomatic blitz on Saturday, beginning in Sweden, Mr. Zelensky suggested that “powerful things” were in the works for a week that includes Ukraine’s Independence Day.

By the time he arrived in Greece, Mr. Zelensky had announced commitments for dozens of F-16 jets, and he was expected to ask the same from Athens. But late Monday, it was unclear what, if anything, Ukraine and Greece had agreed to.

Mr. Zelensky said he and the Greek prime minister had discussed “certain priorities aimed at stopping this terrible invasion” and referred in particular to a proposal for Greece to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets. “We need the support of Greece for the preparation of our pilots for the F-16s,” he said in a joint televised appearance with Mr. Mitsotakis.

Mr. Zelensky, on his first official visit to Athens, also thanked Mr. Mitsotakis for Greece’s support for Ukraine’s accession to the European Union and NATO.

Mr. Mitsotakis condemned Russian attempts to “redraw borders” and said that atrocities Russia committed in Ukraine should be punished. “We unreservedly condemn war crimes, which should be punished by international justice,” he said.

Later in the day, Mr. Mitsotakis, Mr. Zelensky and nine Balkan leaders met for an informal dinner that was also attended by E.U. officials. The group issued a statement declaring unwavering support for Ukraine and arguing that an enlarged and united bloc was more important than ever in the wake of Russia’s invasion.

“The escalating war of aggression against Ukraine revealed the urgent need for a strong, resilient and inclusive E.U. as a cornerstone of peace and prosperity among our peoples during these challenging times,” the declaration said.

Reporting was contributed by Farnaz Fassihi, Cassandra Harvin, Enjoli Liston and Matthew Mpoke Bigg.

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