The main pictures were a win for all concerned: a family photo from a British and Belgian royal tour, a tank, a Paris dinner and 27 EU leaders applauding.
But behind the scenes a tour of European capitals by Ukraine’s war leader, President Volodymyr Zelensky, was as improvised as it was stage-managed and it sparked diplomatic jealousy.
Ever since the Ukrainian leader visited Washington in December – his first trip outside Ukraine since the Russian invasion – European capitals have been jockeying to host him.
The United States is by far Ukraine’s largest source of military aid, but taken together, financial military and humanitarian aid from EU member states adds up to tens of billions of euros.
Despite the tight secrecy surrounding Zelensky’s movements, Brussels has been abuzz with rumors of a visit since Monday, when news of his trip was leaked.
That’s why he was surprised when he reached London in a Royal Air Force plane on Wednesday.
Zelensky’s moving speech at historic Westminster Hall in the UK capital and an audience with King Charles graced a full state visit, causing an uproar in Paris.
President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Scholz were informed on Monday that European Council President Charles Michel had invited Zelensky to Thursday’s EU summit in Brussels.
– Russian offensive –
However, the Ukrainian leader’s movements were not set in stone. It was unclear until the last minute that he would be able to spend time away from Kyiv as Russian attacks intensified.
Already on Tuesday evening, Macron’s office began hosting Zelensky on the eve of Thursday’s summit, according to French and Ukrainian diplomats.
But the plan only took shape, the Ukrainian source said, on Wednesday morning – when, unbeknownst to Paris, Zelensky was on his way to London.
And it was only early in the evening, that the Elysee Palace announced that Macron and Scholz would dine with Zelensky – just as Brussels was preparing to receive them.
Up to this point, Zelensky met British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in front of a Challenger tank, oversaw the training of Ukrainian troops in Britain, and received an ovation from MPs.
He will attend a royal reception before boarding a British jet for Paris, where he is greeted by an honor guard and the Minister of Defense on his way to the Elysee.
He also received an offer from Britain to train Ukrainian pilots – and was assured that London would seriously consider the request to donate advanced fighter jets.
Some observers interpreted the staging as showing that Zelensky preferred his British ally over the French, or even that Brexit had given London more diplomatic freedom to manoeuvre.
Unnamed diplomats told The Wall Street Journal that Macron’s office never sent a formal invitation to Zelensky, but Ukrainian diplomats denied this.
“That’s not true at all,” one insisted, adding that both Macron and Zelensky wanted, and want, a Paris meeting as part of the trip.
After the event, French diplomats surmised that, while Britain had made a grand show of its support, Macron’s more discreet dinner with Scholz was intended to demonstrate EU unity.
If it was a message, however, it did not reach Brussels – or Rome – in time.
Diplomats based in Brussels learned about the Paris phase from reporters and arrived at Thursday’s summit and Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni made clear her irritation at being left out.
– ‘Improper’ dinner? ,
Meloni was asked whether a trip by French and German ministers – without EU allies – to Washington earlier this week to discuss US green subsidies was inappropriate.
He told reporters, “To be honest, yesterday’s invitation to Zelensky seemed more inappropriate to me, because I think our strength in this fight is unity.”
“I understand the questions of internal politics, the fact of privileging domestic public opinion,” she said.
“But there are moments where the risk of privileging domestic public opinion is detrimental to the cause, and this seems to me to be one of those cases.”
Macron will not be attracted to Meloni’s barb. But he told reporters he wanted Zelensky to meet with Scholz because of the “special role” Germany and France play in the crisis.
Both countries are in four-nation talks with Russia and Ukraine, called the Minsk Format, which has been effectively dead since Moscow’s invasion.
Macron tweeted a photo of the 27 EU leaders standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Zelensky, with the caption: “The European family.”