As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was ushered in front of the press by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels on Wednesday, his smile quickly faded and his look turned somber. It was Zelensky’s first time at the alliance’s headquarters in the Belgian capital since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
On this occasion, however, the Ukrainian president was forced to address a crisis currently drawing more attention than Moscow’s invasion of his country: the brutal attack by Hamas on Israel.
“We are in the war, we understand what it means (to suffer) a terrorist attack,” Zelensky told journalists, putting Russia and Hamas in the same basket.
“I remember the first days of the war… so many dying people, so many deaths, it was very important not to be alone,” Zelensky added. “So my recommendation for the (NATO) leaders is that they go to Israel, and support the people.”
Zelensky’s visit to Brussels coincided with the latest gathering of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a bloc of 54 countries who are providing military support to Kyiv. It was the first time the Ukrainian president had attended the meeting in person, underscoring how pressing it is for Kyiv to keep supplies flowing in.
It’s now several months into a slow advancing summer counteroffensive that will likely continue into the winter — a time of year Russia has tried to exploit in the past by targeting energy facilities and using the cold in an attempt to force Ukrainians into submission.
This is a critical moment for Ukraine, especially as international fatigue starts to set in and the world’s attention shifts to the Middle East.
Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel Saturday sent shockwaves around the globe — its impact felt all the way in eastern Ukraine.
An uncomfortable silence seemed to have taken hold in the Donbas on Saturday morning. After the deadly missile strike on the village of Hroza last Thursday, which decimated a fifth of its population, this could’ve been just an expected lull in this war, but something felt different.
According to Ukraine’s General Staff, clashes between Russian and Ukrainian forces were still ongoing on Saturday and Sunday, but the constant artillery barrages and the contrails from multiple rocket launch systems were absent. The usual reports of shelling along the front line also seemed muffled, unable to break through.
For the first time since the war had begun, more than a year and a half ago, little to no attention was being afforded to Ukraine.
“These days, our attention is focused on the Middle East,” Zelensky told the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in a video address on Monday. “No one can ever forget what the terrorists did in Israel,” he added, his words a graceful yet difficult acknowledgement that Ukraine was not dominating headlines.
In his nightly address Monday, posted on social media, Zelensky also suggested Moscow saw an advantage in the Israel-Gaza war. “Russia is interested in triggering a war in the Middle East, so that a new source of pain and suffering could undermine world unity, increase discord and contradictions, and thus help Russia destroy freedom in Europe,” he said.
But if Ukraine had already been left somewhat nervous by recent events in Washington — with Republicans refusing to include funding for the war-torn country in a 45-day short term spending bill to avert a government shutdown — the United States’ sudden focus on Israel has only fueled fears American aid could slow down soon.
After the funding bill was passed, US President Joe Biden tried to reassure leaders in Kyiv, vowing military aid for Ukraine would continue. The White House also said Biden would make a speech specifically addressing those concerns — those remarks have now been shelved in light of the situation in Israel.
Ukraine, however, has since clawed back some attention, reminding the world of Russia’s war crimes in places like Bucha, a town northwest of Kyiv which it occupied early in the invasion, and equating its forces’ brutality with the atrocities committed by Hamas.
“The Israelis themselves — Israeli journalists who were here in Ukraine, who were in Bucha, are now saying that they saw the same evil where Russia came,” Zelensky told NATO lawmakers. “The same evil, and the only difference is that there is a terrorist organization that attacked Israel, and here is a terrorist state that attacked Ukraine.”
“The intentions declared are different, but the essence is the same,” he added.
Russia has denied any involvement in the mass killings in Bucha, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Zelensky delivered a similar message to the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, led by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, on Wednesday.
“We are in a special situation on the front line, where it is important to put pressure, and without any pauses — it’s very important, without any pauses,” Zelensky explained as he thanked allies for their continued support.
The Ukrainian president acknowledged Russia was putting up some stiff resistance to Kyiv’s counteroffensive but said his country remained on the offensive.
“It is still Ukraine, it is still our soldiers who determine the course of events,” he said. But Ukrainian men and women are just one variable in this war’s complicated equation.
On the front lines in both the east and south, as well as in offices in Kyiv, Ukrainians know that Western support, especially from the United States, remains key.
“Terrorists like Putin, or like Hamas, seek to hold free and democratic nations as hostages and they want power over those who seek freedom,” Zelensky said. “The terrorists will not change, they just must lose. And that means we must win, it requires patience, it requires steady and continuous support.”
Austin said that support would continue “for the long haul,” announcing another $200 million military aid package for Ukraine.
“We’re here to dig deep for Ukraine’s most urgent needs, especially for air defense and ammunition,” the US defense secretary insisted. “We’re here to deliver what it takes, for as long as it takes so that Ukraine can live in freedom.”
That freedom may be increasingly costly for US taxpayers, especially as Israel calls on Washington for additional military support ahead of an expected ground offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Despite Austin’s vow of support for Ukraine, the new package was one of the smallest provided by the United States. While the issue remains contentious in Congress, and with the conflict in Israel only likely to demand more resources, it may yet dwindle further.