THE fatigue over the war in Ukraine, which will complete 15 months on May 24, is suddenly over for many people who had become tired of the same headlines and images, as often happens in conflicts which seem to have no end in sight.
The fatigue is over not only because of spectacular claims by Ukraine to have shot down 29 out of 30 Russian missiles fired at Kyiv in one night, including the ‘unstoppable’ Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic weapon and similar others fired from land, sea and air. Ukraine’s claims have been upheld, at least partially, by some photos and videos of missiles being shot down over sea and against the backdrop of Kyiv’s skyline of historic, domed Orthodox churches. The shots have been riveting.
The war fatigue got a pause when Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine, got out of round-necked, collarless T-shirts, which had become his trademark dress since the start of the war. Last Friday, he landed in Jeddah in a polo shirt with army shades, a very welcome sartorial change. As a concession to conservative Arab sensitivities in dress code, Zelenskyy’s polo shirt had long sleeves and covered every bit of skin, except his palms, head and face. It was appropriate etiquette at the Arab League Summit, a welcome change from his speech to the 77th UN General Assembly last September in a creasy Henley shirt with round neckline and placket sleeves — an affront to protocol and diplomatic decorum.
Defying Russian air attacks and appearing with immaculately dressed world leaders on the streets of his capital in those almost shabby T-shirts may have been Zelenskyy’s way of making a statement, but after more than a year of it, such antics by a sitting President had become tiresome. The President showing his biceps may or may not boost the confidence of Ukrainians who have been living dangerously, but for many people across the world, it is not in good taste.
The recent changes did not come by accident. Slowly, but surely, Ukraine is beginning to give as good as it gets from Russia. Ukraine is no longer as much of an underdog that it was when the war started. Rescuing itself from overnight weapons, which were hitherto considered invincible, is only part of the new confidence manifesting in Kyiv.
Zelenskyy’s machinery appears to have succeeded in activating its thousands of sleeper cells, which have always existed inside Russia. Nearly six million ethnic Ukrainians live in Russia, according to reliable statistics, a leftover of history from centuries of mutual integration through proximity and politics. In any such circumstance, there would be thousands of people who are willing to act as a fifth column for their original fatherland. Reports have emerged that the unmanned drones which were shot down over the Kremlin sky at the beginning of this month were actually fired by this fifth column from inside Russia. That is how they avoided detection, which would have occurred had they been on flight from Ukrainian territory. Increasing acts of sabotage and destruction to property in Russia also point to successes in activating Ukrainian sleeper cells within Russia. The situation is similar to cross-border terrorism that is exported by Pakistan to India.
It is very likely that the tide may be turning for Ukraine in the war because of the sophisticated, state-of-the-art weaponry that Zelenskyy has finally received from his allies in the West. It is likely that secretly, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) personnel are operating these high-tech defensive equipment such as anti-missile batteries which have reached Kyiv. Greater precision in hitting Russian military targets also points to NATO involvement.
It is to match a turn in the tide of war that Zelenskyy is getting an image makeover. He arrived for the Group of Seven Summit in Hiroshima (May 19-21) in a deep brown windcheater with a hood. Not yet in a jacket with a tie. Two days before he landed in Jeddah in his polo shirt, his wife, First Lady Olena Zelenska, spoke at one of Seoul’s highest-profile media events dressed in a thick, partially military-style green dress that extended from her lower neck to well below her knees. Gone was her casual appearance familiar to all in Kyiv. When she appeared later that day to sign a cultural exchange agreement with the Seoul Metropolitan Government, she was the height of elegance in a stunning white shirt and contrasting black pants with an appropriate waist belt and only one piece of jewellery. Juxtaposed with former UK PM Boris Johnson, with his tousled hair and ill-fitting suit, at the 14th annual Asian Leadership Conference organised by South Korean newspaper The Chosun Ilbo, Zelenska appeared more elegant than ever. She made an impression on South Koreans by pointedly asking their President Yoon Suk Yeol only for non-lethal military assistance for her country.
Zelenskyy went on a diplomatic blitz all over Europe this month, marking a change in Ukrainian leaders’ earlier policy of mostly hunkering down at home and getting counterparts to meet him in Kyiv. He has visited Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK since May 1. The most emotionally powerful visit was to the Vatican in mid-May.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not have given the time of day to Zelenskyy before February last year because Ukraine was an unstable country that was of no use to India. Nothing could be done there without greasing the right palms in any case. Besides, successive governments in Kyiv have been trying to sell arms to Pakistan for use against India. When Modi agreed to meet Zelenskyy in Hiroshima during his ongoing trip to East Asia, it was a recognition that after 15 months of war, Ukraine’s diplomacy was making advances. It is wishful thinking in some quarters that it was part of any peace plan from New Delhi, even as India recognises that it has to be nimble and make frequent adjustments to its approach to the Ukraine war.
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