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On Thursday morning, the hot ticket in the Swiss mountain town was an early morning breakfast session hosted by the foundation of Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky beamed in virtually for a conversation moderated by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, who was joined in the room by a slate of prominent Western cabinet ministers and politicians, as well as CEOs and fund managers.
Zelensky, who spoke at multiple events held in Davos this week, reiterated his nation’s determination to push Russian forces out of its lands. But the Ukrainian cause, as Kyiv has long insisted, has to be fortified by foreign steel. “Our goal is to deoccupy all our territories,” Zelensky said, explicitly including Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. “Crimea is our land, it’s our territory, it’s our sea and mountains. Give us your weapons, and we will get back what’s ours.”
Sitting next to Zakaria, former British prime minister Boris Johnson — who, no matter his controversial ouster at home, remains a popular figure among Ukrainians — echoed Zelensky’s call. On Friday, Ukraine’s allies will convene at a military base in Germany and go over terms of a major new package of aid that will deliver more sophisticated military technology and equipment to Kyiv. These include various types of strike vehicles from a number of countries, though at the time of writing it was still unclear whether Germany would sanction the transfer of German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine.
In Davos, the sentiment was overwhelming. “Give them the tanks! There’s absolutely nothing to be lost,” Johnson insisted, adding that the world needed to place greater trust in the Ukrainians’ courage and fighting spirit. “We continually underestimated the willingness and the ability of Ukrainians to fight and defend their homeland. … They proved the world completely wrong. They are going to win. We need to help them win as fast as possible.”
Often at the World Economic Forum, there’s a gap between what world leaders say publicly and the business elites admit behind closed doors. The worthy liberalism espoused by the hosts — their language of inclusion, development and sustainability — dissolves in the face of the pragmatism (or cynicism) and self-interest of the moneymakers.
When former president Donald Trump made his debut in Davos, many other political figures spoke up about the perils inherent in his brand of nationalism and his willful disregard for the scientific consensus around a warming planet. But the business community was far less perturbed and eagerly awaited the tax cuts that eventually padded their bank accounts.
On Ukraine, though, a more pervasive Western unity seemed to be on show in Davos this week. The town itself has embraced Ukraine. For years, the annual gathering was replete with Russian oligarchic interests, but now Kremlin officials and Russian business executives are now persona non grata here — a source of disquiet only for a few attendees. A Pinchuk-funded Ukraine pavilion along the main promenade of Davos was packed throughout the week. Meanwhile, the building that for years was the site of the main Russian pavilion was ceded to the Indian state of Maharashtra.
In its pavilion, U.S. tech company Palantir hosted Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, who celebrated his nation’s usage of Palantir’s data-driven software in its prosecution of the war against Russia.
At the same breakfast session, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, spoke of his plans to help coordinate billions of dollars worth of reconstruction financing for Ukraine, saying he hoped the initiative would also turn the country into a “beacon of capitalism.” David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs, spoke cheerily of Ukraine’s postwar future. “There is no question that as you rebuild, there will be good economic incentives for real return and real investment,” he said.
Whatever the optimism of business, few diplomats or politicians were ready to predict how this intractable war would end. Zelensky insisted that it’s impossible to talk about negotiations while there is no good faith partner on the other side. “When we speak about ‘peace talks’ — I don’t understand whom we’d be talking to. … I think that Russia needs to produce somebody first, and then propose something,” he said.
A succession of European leaders, like Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, insisted their governments would maintain total support for Ukraine for as “long as it takes.” Members of a bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation echoed the sentiment. The rhetoric belies concerns privately held by many officials: As my colleagues reported Thursday evening, CIA Director William J. Burns recently traveled to Kyiv to meet Zelensky to brief him on U.S. expectations for Russia’s upcoming military campaigns and convey that, at some point, the scale of current assistance to Ukraine may be harder to come by.
More the reason, Ukraine’s supporters contend, to rush aid now and help Ukraine make more rapid gains. “Whenever Ukraine goes to negotiations, it has to go in as strong as possible in those talks,” Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told me.
“At the moment it looks very difficult and perhaps the conflict has to go on to a certain point where both sides come to the conclusion that it’s time to come to the negotiation table,” Haavisto said. “I think it’s unfortunate particularly for the civilian population of Ukraine that this goes on because we see the very cruel tactics of Russia.”
In the absence of meaningful dialogue, Haavisto pointed to some “tiny steps” taken — wrangling over the release of Ukraine’s grain supplies, prisoner exchanges, mediation over a nuclear power plant — which show the potential for larger diplomatic efforts. “It’s important to see the sunlight at the end of the tunnel,” he said.