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Zelenskyy pushes for air defense, energy grid repairs ahead of G-7

His diplomatic blitz comes as Ukraine reels from Russia's devastating aerial assault, which has intensified since March.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (AN/President of Ukraine)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy launched a high-stakes diplomatic marathon, urging Western allies to deliver crucial air defense systems and support to repair his nation's battered energy grid amid relentless Russian missile strikes after nearly two and a half years of war.

Zelenskyy arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday as part of an unannounced leg of his trip despite the close ties between Saudi and Russian officials on oil policy. "We will keep working together," he said after holding what he described as "a meaningful and energetic meeting with His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman."

Before that his first stop on the trip was in Berlin, where he addressed the Ukraine Recovery Conference on Tuesday, emphasizing the urgent need for equipment to repair heating and electricity plants shattered by Russian attacks. 

"This will allow us to respond to the situation here and now," he said, stressing the importance of securing these repairs before winter, when Ukraine's freezing temperatures can make blackouts life-threatening.

Zelenskyy planned to head to the Group of Seven summit in Italy on Thursday, followed by a global peace conference in Switzerland over the weekend. 

His diplomatic blitz comes as Ukraine reels from Russia's devastating aerial assault, which has intensified since late March, destroying half the country's energy-generating capacity.

Kyiv, a city of 3 million, is frequently plunged into darkness, with residents relying on flashlights and private generators to navigate the streets. 

Zelenskyy said Russian missile and drone strikes knocked out nine gigawatts of Ukraine's energy capacity, representing half of its peak consumption last winter and over four times the energy consumption of major European cities like Berlin.

"Until we deprive Russia of this ability to terrorize Ukraine, Putin will have no real interest in pursuing an honest peace," he told the conference, identifying air defenses as the key to Ukraine's resilience. "Once [the air defenses] start working to protect our people, it will be a significant restoration of confidence – confidence that peace is closer."

Ukraine has struggled to secure adequate air defense from its allies throughout the war. As a Republican-led blockade delayed U.S. air defense shipments for months, Russia intensified attacks, causing over $1 billion in damage to civilian infrastructure, "the most destructive form of Russia's vision of energy as a weapon" since the war began, Zelenskyy said.

"At the moment, Russia's greatest strategic advantage over Ukraine is the advantage in the skies," he said, adding that Ukraine faces up to a hundred guided aerial bombs daily.

A recent triumph, enabled by anti-air missiles from the U.S. and Western allies, saw Kyiv shoot down 29 of 30 missiles in an overnight Russian assault, demonstrating Ukraine's capabilities when properly equipped. 

“Air defense is the answer,” Zelenskyy said. 

G7 divided over $50 billion loan amid U.S.-E.U. rift

As Zelenskyy ramps up his diplomatic efforts, Western allies are divided over the best way to provide long-term financial assistance to the war-torn nation.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced new E.U. funding for Ukraine from the Berlin conference, including €1.9 billion from the Ukraine Facility by the end of June and €1.4 billion in agreements with partner banks to attract private sector investments.

An additional €1.5 billion in proceeds from Russian assets would be made available to Ukraine in July, with 90% for defense and 10% for reconstruction, plus an additional €1.9 billion by late June, she said. She estimated that rebuilding Ukraine would require nearly US$500 billion over the next decade.

Behind the scenes, however, a growing rift is dividing the U.S. and E.U. over a proposed US$50 billion loan to Ukraine, backed by frozen Russian assets. The U.S. has suggested European countries bear the financial risk as sole guarantors, Politico reported, sparking E.U. frustration as American companies could reap the most from reconstruction contracts.

"What Washington is proposing is, 'We [the U.S.] take a loan, Europe takes all the risk, you [Europe] pay the interest, and we [the U.S.] use the money for a U.S.-Ukraine fund,'" a senior E.U. diplomat told Politico. "We might be stupid but we're not that stupid."

The U.S. plan requires the E.U. to guarantee that Russian sanctions remain indefinitely, something it cannot do as sanctions expire every six months without unanimous renewal from all 27 states, including Hungary's Russian-friendly leader Viktor Orban.

The Hungarian leader's close ties to Russia have led to a discussion on his country's exclusion from the Bucharest Nine, a group of Eastern European NATO Allies, this week.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, both politically weakened after major electoral defeats in the European elections this week, are expected to push back against the U.S. proposal at the G-7 summit.

Some European officials suggested an alternative mechanism where the E.U. issues its own bilateral loan backed by Russian assets, though this would also need unanimous approval – including from Hungary. 

The deadlock over the US$50 billion Ukraine loan threatens to overshadow the G-7 summit in Italy this week, where leaders had hoped to display a united front in support of Ukraine. While the G-7 is expected to endorse the loan in principle, disagreements between the U.S. and E.U. over the specifics may prevent a final deal from being reached.

The outcome could have profound consequences for Ukraine as the war grinds on. As Zelenskyy told German lawmakers: "No matter how the political environment in Europe changes, the fact of our reality is that all Europeans, without exception, need the European Union... Ukrainians belong to such a nation."

G7 to call on China to stop enabling Russia's war effort

G-7 leaders are expected to show unity on another war front: calling on China to stop enabling Russia's war effort. A draft communiqué reported by Bloomberg on Wednesday follows U.S. intelligence assessments accusing China of supporting Russia's military expansion by providing technologies used to produce weapons.

The declaration, expected during the G-7 summit this week, comes after U.S. officials shared intelligence last month with European allies, alleging that China is exacerbating the war in Ukraine by helping Russia undertake its biggest military expansion since the Soviet era.

The U.S. has accused Beijing of selling microelectronics, machine tools, and other technologies that Moscow is using to replenish its weapons stocks, particularly the guided missiles it is raining down on Ukraine.

The declaration calling out China’s role in the war is set to come against a backdrop of heightened trade tensions, as the E.U. announced on Wednesday it would levy tariffs of up to 38.5% on Chinese electric vehicles entering the bloc to counter alleged unfair subsidies that undercut competition with its domestic car manufacturers.

Germany, opposed to the E.U. move, warned it could be the first step in a trade war with China. 

The E.U.'s decision follows similar trade measures taken by the United States last month, which imposed a 100% tax on Chinese electric vehicles. The U.S. also tightened export controls on advanced microchip technology in October, aiming to restrict China's access to high-end artificial intelligence chips and prevent their use in military applications.