Speaking in person at the conference for the first time since Russia launched its full-scale invasion nearly two years ago, Zelensky said Ukraine had defied expectations in repelling Moscow’s forces for so long and that its allies “know what’s needed” to allow “progress on the ground,” which has been in short supply for many months.
At the start of Zelensky’s address, which he delivered in English, he said he understood many in the audience would be asking difficult questions: “When will the war end? Is the third world war possible? Is it time to negotiate with Putin?”
Zelensky warned “any frozen conflict will eventually reignite,” pointing to how Russia renewed its aggression after “attempts to freeze the war in the Donbas” after 2014. Instead, he said Ukraine needed to be provided with more weapons to bring about a “just and stable” peace.
Putin’s war was less than a year old when Zelensky last spoke at Davos via a video link in January 2023. Ukraine had then recently liberated the cities of Kherson and Kharkiv, which had been occupied in the early weeks of the war, and Kyiv was beginning to prepare for a broader counteroffensive it hoped would yield greater gains still.
A year on, those gains have failed to materialize. The head of Ukraine’s armed forces, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, warned in November that the war had instead entered a “stalemate,” and that without technological improvements there would “likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough,” but an equilibrium of devastating losses and destruction.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s allies have been distracted by Israel’s war against Hamas – which is threatening to spark into a regional conflagration – and many will soon be distracted further by their own elections. Also speaking Tuesday at Davos, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called 2024 “the biggest electoral year in history.”
But, despite these setbacks, Von der Leyen stressed that Ukraine had far exceeded expectations at the war’s outset, which she said was a cause for optimism.
“We haven’t forgotten that when Russia invaded Ukraine, many feared that Kyiv would fall in just a few days and the rest of the country within weeks. This did not happen. Instead, Russia has lost roughly half of its military capabilities,” Von der Leyen said, claiming Russia had failed militarily, economically and diplomatically.
Speaking later on Tuesday, Zelensky echoed this message, saying Ukraine began its defense “at a time when almost no one in the world believed in Ukraine. But we turned the tables, so that now the world has stopped believing in Russia.”
He said “even Putin’s current buddies in Pyongyang and Tehran” were exploiting him, “using his madness while he still has technologies and resources to pay them. No one believes in his future or invests in it.”
While expressing his gratitude to his allies, Zelensky also criticized their timidity and sluggishness in refusing to provide Ukraine with better weapons sooner. He said that the West’s fear that doing so would “escalate” Russia’s war had denied Ukraine the chance to make military gains and emboldened Putin.
“Every ‘Don’t escalate’ to us sounded like ‘You will prevail’ to Putin,” Zelensky told the heads of state gathered at Davos. He said “nothing harmed our coalitions more than this concept,” stressing that the West should have been quicker to call Putin’s bluff and Moscow’s baseless threats.
“We asked for new types of weapons, and the response was ‘Don’t escalate.’ But then weapons arrived and there was no escalation,” he said.
Zelensky did not refer to specific weapons which he alleged Ukraine’s allies were slow to provide. But allies spent months debating whether to provide Ukraine with, for instance, cluster munitions, Leopard 2 tanks, and F16 fighter jets. Each time they voiced their fears that Putin would use the supply of weapons as a pretext for “escalating” the war, which Zelensky said wasted time and lives.
“Because of ‘Don’t escalate,’ time was lost,” he said. “And the lives of many of our most experienced warriors, who fought since 2014, were lost. Some opportunities were lost.”
Zelensky urged his allies not to make the same mistakes again: “Every reduction in pressure on the aggressor adds years to the war, but every investment in the confidence of the defender shortens the war.
“We must gain air superiority for Ukraine, just as we have gained superiority in the Black Sea. We can do it. Partners know what’s needed and in what quantities. This will allow progress on the ground,” he said.
Speaking at Davos shortly before Zelensky, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said only continued support for Ukraine would make Putin to relent.
“What we can do is to just maximize the likelihood that at some stage President Putin will understand that to continue this war will have too high a price, and then at some stage he has to sit down and negotiate some kind of just, lasting peace, where Ukraine prevails as a sovereign, independent nation,” Stoltenberg said.
“And the paradox is that, if we want that to happen… the way to get there is [to send] more weapons to Ukraine. The more credible we are in our military support, the more likely it is that the diplomats will succeed.”