Olena Zelenska delivers a speech at the World Economic Forum (Markus Schreiber/AP)
17 January 2023

Ukraine’s first lady pleads for global help to stop Russia during Davos speech

17 January 2023

Ukraine’s first lady has called for international action to end Russian aggression during a rare international address at the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in the Swiss town of Davos.

As the anniversary of the war in Ukraine nears, Olena Zelenska said parents are in tears watching doctors trying to save their children, farmers are afraid to go back to their fields filled with explosive mines, and that “we cannot allow a new Chernobyl to happen”.

She criticised government leaders and corporate executives in a speech on Tuesday for not always using their influence enough.

With the war raising inflation and expanding food insecurity in developing nations, she called it “an insult to mankind and human nature to have mass starvation”.

She said the war could expand beyond Ukraine’s borders and worsen the crises but “unity is what brings peace back”.

Security teams fanned out and snow ploughs cleared streets as hundreds of government officials, corporate leaders, academics and activists from around the world descended on the town billed as Europe’s highest for the traditional winter gathering.

The Covid-19 pandemic torpedoed the snow-covered event each of the last two years but a springtime version was held eight months ago.

Davos attendees are faced with global strife including Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has killed thousands of civilians, displaced millions, and disrupted food and fuel markets worldwide.

Adding to the gloom are an economic slowdown and a warming world, with the week-long event of big ideas and backroom deal-making prioritising such problems but never making clear how much concrete action emerges to help reach the forum’s stated ambition of “improving the state of the world”.

In a reminder of the fragility of the planet amid climate change, a giant illuminated wall featuring colourful, AI-conceived art derived from real images of coral reefs was one of the innovations welcoming attendees, showing how technology can immortalise images of natural beauty that might vanish one day.

Dozens of sessions on Tuesday will take up issues as diverse as gender parity, the return of manufacturing, the green transition, efforts to end tuberculosis and the intersection of food, water and energy, which will feature actor Idris Elba. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He were among the speakers.

The gathering comes just days after a Russian missile hit an apartment building in the south-eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro, killing at least 40 people in one of the deadliest single attacks in months.

Ukrainians have reacted to such tragedies during nearly a year of war with unbowed defiance, anger and determination to fight back.

Ms Zelenska’s speech came after she told CNN through an interpreter on Sunday that despite Russia missile strikes that have pounded Ukrainian energy infrastructure and civilian areas in recent months, “we understand that upon carrying on for a year, we are capable of persevering for even longer”.

The high-level Ukrainian diplomatic push in Davos in the spotlight of CEOs, global government officials and the media offers a new chance to enlist and ramp up international support that the Ukrainians have been clamouring for – weapons like tanks and anti-rocket defences as well as greater pressure to further isolate and squeeze Russia’s economy.

France, the UK, the US and other nations are vowing to send increasingly powerful weapons to Ukraine, such as tanks or armoured combat vehicles.

Ms Zelenska asked Congress for more US air defence systems as she visited Washington for a week in July and met US first lady Jill Biden at the White House.

Mr Zelensky, after traveling to Washington himself last month to reinvigorate support for Ukraine in his first known trip abroad since the invasion, will be beamed in by video on Wednesday to complement the in-person delegation of his wife and officials such as Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, who urged company leaders to shun business with Russia.

“Stop trade with Russia: Every dollar that you send to Russia is bloody money,” he told reporters on Monday.

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