May 20, 2023

The New York Times

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine landed in Japan on Saturday to meet with leaders of the world’s wealthiest democracies, bolstered by a major shift from President Biden that opens a path for Ukraine to get the American-made F-16 fighter jets he has been pleading for. A red carpet had been rolled out on the tarmac of an airport in Hiroshima, Japan, where live footage on the public broadcaster, NHK, showed Mr. Zelensky stepping off a French plane wearing an olive green-colored hooded jacket — putting to rest intense speculation over whether he would attend the Group of 7 summit virtually or in person. He was immediately whisked away in a black sedan.  “Japan. G7. Important meetings with partners and friends of Ukraine,” Mr. Zelensky wrote on Twitter shortly after landing. “Security and enhanced cooperation for our victory. Peace will become closer today.”

He later posted videos of himself meeting with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of Italy, both of whom he visited in their own countries last weekend as he embarked on a flurry of trips outside Ukraine to shore up support ahead of an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Mr. Zelensky’s visit to Japan for the Group of 7 meeting — the details of which were kept murky until shortly before he stepped off the plane — followed a trip to Saudi Arabia, where he urged Arab leaders meeting there not to turn a “blind eye” to Russian atrocities in Ukraine. It also came after Mr. Biden told U.S. allies that he would allow Ukrainian pilots to be trained on American-made F-16 fighter jets, moving toward letting other countries give the planes to Kyiv, a major upgrade of the Ukrainian military and a sharp reversal in policy.

Early Saturday in Hiroshima, Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, confirmed reports that the United States and its allies would discuss in the coming months how to supply Kyiv with the jets themselves, despite earlier reluctance by the administration, which feared the move could lead to further escalation. The United States is not expected, at least under current plans, to send its own F-16s.

Mr. Zelensky welcomed the “historic decision” by Mr. Biden, and said on Twitter that he would discuss its “practical implementation” at the summit. He was expected to address G7 leaders on Sunday as part of his continued efforts to marshal more military aid for his country, an appeal that comes in a city that serves as a sobering reminder of the devastation of war.

The leaders gathered in Hiroshima — besides President Biden, they include the heads of government from Japan, Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Italy; and a top European Union official — will be talking over the weekend about all dimensions of Russia’s war in Ukraine. In addition to questions of when and how to provide Kyiv with the F-16 fighter jets, they may also discuss the possibility of negotiations over an armistice or peace treaty.

Mr. Zelensky will almost certainly meet one on one with Mr. Biden. The leaders of India, Brazil and other nations that have been reluctant to support Ukraine are also at the meeting, as observers, and Mr. Zelensky’s presence could make it more difficult for them to maintain that stance, several officials said.

His appearance was arranged after Mr. Zelensky expressed a “strong desire” to participate in the summit face to face, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

His presence is also a strong rebuff to President Vladimir V. Putin and a reminder of how thoroughly relations with Russia have deteriorated. Mr. Putin’s own participation in what was once known as the Group of 8 ended after he ordered the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russia was suspended from the group and left it entirely three years later.

The G7 leaders have already pledged at the summit to toughen punishments on Moscow and redouble efforts to choke off funding for its war. In a joint statement released on Saturday, the leaders condemned Russian aggression and reiterated those pledges, stressing their “unwavering support for Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, President Biden told the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, that he could not have American precision missile systems. The White House feared they could tip Russia into reaching for its tactical nuclear weapons.

Then he allowed them.

The same dynamic infused debates over providing tanks several months ago. Now Mr. Biden, who in February rejected F-16 fighter jets as unnecessary, met in Hiroshima on Friday with leaders of other major democracies and told them that he would allow Ukrainian pilots to be trained on the American-made warplanes. He added that in a few months, the allies would figure out how to begin delivering modern Western fighters to a Ukrainian force struggling to keep an aging, dwindling fleet of pieced-together, Soviet-made fighters in the air.

It all raises the question: Are there any conventional weapons in the American or NATO arsenals that the president would not, eventually, provide to Ukraine?

Washington’s pattern of saying no before saying yes has repeated itself enough times over the past 15 months that Ukrainian officials say they now know to ignore the first answer and keep pressing. But White House officials say the shifting positions reflect not indecision, but changing circumstances — and changing assumptions about the risks involved. “When it comes to the question of escalation, of course, the United States government is a learning organism,” Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, said on Saturday morning in Hiroshima. “This conflict has been dynamic. It has unfolded over time.” So, he said, Mr. Biden’s decisions have kept up with Ukraine’s changing needs.

In the weeks after the invasion, the teetering Ukrainian government needed Stinger missiles and other anti-tank systems. When the war shifted to the south and the east of the country, with big open plains, they needed artillery and air defenses — and 155-millimeter howitzer shells. And while Mr. Biden does not believe fighter jets will play an important role in the conflict for a while, providing them is part of thinking about how to defend Ukraine for the long term — after the current phase of the war is over.

That suggests the administration and its allies now believe that even if there is a negotiated end to the fighting — perhaps a Korea-like armistice — Ukraine will need a long-term capability to deter an angry, sanctioned Russia. In that case, the F-16 decision may be the best evidence yet that the administration believes that while Ukraine will survive, some level of conflict could exist for years, if not decades. In a briefing to reporters on Saturday, Mr. Sullivan repeated Mr. Biden’s two touchstones: “Support Ukraine and its defense and its sovereignty and territorial integrity” while proceeding “in a way that avoids World War Three.”

The latter is a phrase Mr. Biden has used often with his staff. But the thinking behind what it means to avoid World War III has evolved. Weapons that Washington thought might set off escalation have turned out not to do so. As recently as five months ago, White House officials were worried that Mr. Putin would conclude that his army will take a decade to rebuild after the disaster it has brought on itself. That would leave him with only two viable options: using his formidable cyberweapons to cripple infrastructure, or threatening to use his nuclear arsenal, in hopes of freezing Western aid to Ukraine.

So far Mr. Putin has been cautious with his cyber-capabilities: He has used them extensively against targets in Ukraine, American and British officials say, but has been reluctant to attack NATO nations and risk bringing them directly into the conflict. And after China’s leader, Xi Jinping, explicitly warned late last year against threatening the use of nuclear weapons, Mr. Putin has quieted down.

But few think that is for long. No one knows what might trigger Mr. Putin, though Russian officials have specifically warned against giving Ukraine ATACMS, a long-range precision missile system made by Lockheed Martin that would enable Mr. Zelensky to target Crimea, and Russian bases there, from afar.

Some experts warn that Mr. Putin hasn’t dropped his nuclear threats; just delayed them. “Putin is not waiting for a misstep by the West,” Kevin Ryan, a former defense attaché at the American embassy in Moscow, wrote recently in “Russia Matters,” a website run by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard that examines Russia’s strategic choices. “He has been building the conditions for nuclear use in Ukraine since early in the war and is ready to use a nuclear weapon whenever he decides, most likely in response to his faltering military’s inability to escalate as much as he wishes by conventional means,” wrote Mr. Ryan, a retired brigadier general, who directs back-channel talks with retired Russian military officers.