BRUSSELS — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrived in Brussels on Wednesday to discover a Europe no longer completely focused on the war Russia has unleashed on his country, but he’s rolling with the punches.
He insisted that there was no danger of Israel crowding Ukraine out of the limelight, and instead encouraged Western politicians to visit Israel — replicating similar treks to Kyiv by most of the world’s leaders.
“My recommendation to the leaders [is] to go to Israel,” said Zelenskyy. “Unity is more important than to be alone.”
He also sought to tie the two conflicts together, saying that divisions in the alliance will only help the Kremlin: “Russia’s counting on it, on dividing support,” he said during an appearance with Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. He then made the link between the two crises explicit, calling both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hamas “terrorists” that “seek to hold free and democratic nations as hostages.”
Russia “still has enough resources to incite conflicts and turn them into full-scale tragedies. This is happening in the Sahel, and it can happen even more painfully in Israel and in the Middle East as a whole. We must not allow this to happen,” Zelenskyy told NATO defense ministers.
Zelenskyy’s appearance was a surprise at a meeting that was supposed to be at the ministerial level, but with Ukraine facing a renewed Russian offensive in the east and the prospect of widespread attacks over the winter, Kyiv is desperate to ramp up shipments of Western weapons and ammunition.
“Air defense is a significant part of the answer to the question of when this war will end and whether it will end justly for Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said.
Western countries are responding to those appeals, and insisting that they can support both Israel and Ukraine at the same time — a message underlined by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
“Absolutely we can do both and we will do both,” Austin said, referring to security assistance to Ukraine and Israel. “We are the strongest nation in the world and we are going to do what’s necessary to help our allies and partners.”
The same signals came from smaller allies.
“I got the word from the U.S. secretary of defense that they can manage both conflicts, so this is important,” said Hanno Pevkur, the defense minister of Estonia — which borders Russia and relies on American security guarantees to fend off threats from Moscow.
Wednesday saw a rush of military promises made to Kyiv.
The U.K. promised a £100 million package of military support that includes mine-clearing equipment and shoring up fortifications. London also announced a separate £70 million package that includes the MSI-DS Terrahawk Paladin drone destroyer.
“During my recent visit to Kyiv, I assured President Zelenskyy that the U.K.’s support for Ukraine and their most urgent needs is unwavering,” said Defense Secretary Grant Shapps.
Belgium pledged to deliver F-16 fighters by 2025, as long as the next government agrees.
“Let’s be very clear, Belgian F-16s will be available,” De Croo said.
Austin said allies in the security bloc’s Ukraine Defense Contact Group had decided to form smaller “capability coalitions” focusing on specific areas of support for Kyiv. For example, Estonia and Luxembourg will lead on supporting Ukraine’s IT infrastructure to “defend its networks,” while Lithuania will help with demining.
He added that the United States will head up a coalition of countries training Ukrainian pilots and crews to operate and maintain F-16 fighter jets alongside the Netherlands and Denmark.
Still, NATO countries are increasingly preoccupied with the Middle East.
U.S. President Joe Biden made a 10-minute televised speech on Tuesday highlighting American commitment to Israel’s right to self-defense, while the British government dispatched Foreign Secretary James Cleverly to Tel Aviv on Wednesday. French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, lashed out at Iran’s potential “aid” and “cooperation” for Hamas.
Israel isn’t the only distraction facing NATO allies.
Just hours before the defense meeting started, news broke in Finland and Estonia that undersea gas and telecom links were disrupted.
“We have contacts at the highest political level [on the pipeline incident],” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, referring to his calls on Tuesday with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas.
The blizzard of news highlights the crucial role that NATO is playing.
“We don’t have the luxury of choosing only one threat and one challenge,” Stoltenberg said.