It was the moment when a throwaway diplomatic mantra — “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine” — actually made a giant difference.
A personal plea for help by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued directly to EU heads of state and government via video link as the leaders met at an emergency summit in Brussels last Thursday night is now being credited as the key intervention that led to a stunning acceleration of Western support, including weapons, officials and diplomats said.
Even after Zelenskyy’s speech, some EU leaders balked at imposing the most drastic economic sanctions, cutting Russia off from the SWIFT international payments system. They opted instead for a step-by-step approach.
But over the next 48 hours, with Ukrainian soldiers putting up fierce resistance to the Russian invasion, the EU shifted to the vanguard of action against Russia by imposing sanctions personally against President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Then, EU leaders mustered big pledges of weapons and other help for Ukraine, which entailed a historical shift by Germany to end its long-standing policy of not sending arms into conflict zones.
In hindsight, as new details of Zelenskyy’s appeal have emerged, his remarks are now being viewed as a singular turning point in persuading heads of state and government on the European Council to provide more assistance, telling them that he was a personal target for assassination and that it might be his last time speaking to them.
“It was an incredibly emotional intervention,” said a senior EU official who watched the Ukrainian president’s presentation. “It was incredibly professional, but I think that President Zelenskyy managed to make an emotional connection with leaders on the basis of the dire situation his country was facing.”
“He spoke about how he was the No. 1 target for Russia, and that he felt this may well be the last time that he would be able to speak personally to many of the leaders,” the official said. “He spoke about the threat his own family faced. And I think that focused minds. And, in my humble opinion, it was a historic moment. It was a decisive moment, it is one which I think reinforced the determination of leaders to remain unified.”
An EU diplomat confirmed that Zelenskyy had told the EU heads his own life was under threat and, speaking privately, several leaders have told aides or associates that they were moved by the presentation.
The official added, “It also gave additional impetus to go further that translated then, immediately, the next day with the addition of President Putin and Minister Lavrov, to the sanctions list. It then translated, as the situation escalated, into a determination to go beyond what had originally been conceived.”
Since the Russian invasion and bombardment, Zelenskyy, who is a former comedian, and television and movie actor, has won wide acclaim as a symbol of his country’s determination and resilience. He has posted videos of himself in his office and on the streets of his capital, Kyiv, unshaven and wearing military greens, to provide updates on their war effort and refute disinformation that he had fled. The posts have been shared tens of millions of times.
The danger of Zelenskyy’s situation in a capital being targeted by missile strikes has been evident in some of his other conversations with EU leaders, including Council President Charles Michel, who had invited Zelenskyy to address the emergency summit directly.
Zelenskyy and Michel have been speaking daily, the senior official said, adding that: “On Friday, at one point in time, the president had to cut the call short, he said ‘Charles Charles Charles, I’ve got to stop. We’re under fire.’”
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.