NEW YORK — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Tuesday for world leaders to abandon neutrality, step up military and other support for his country, and stay united as it tries to repel a Russian invasion.
Zelenskyy didn’t name names, but — in a live video interview with former U.S. President Bill Clinton — he warned that “in this world you cannot remain on the sidelines.”
“You definitely have to choose sides,” Zelenskyy said. “You cannot vacillate between good and evil, light and dark.”
The Ukrainian leader was speaking at the revived Clinton Global Initiative. After being on hiatus for several years following controversies linked to former first lady Hillary Clinton’s presidential run, CGI is once again being held this year on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
The event crowd shouted “I love you” to Bill Clinton as he arrived on-stage. Many appeared surprised when Zelenskyy beamed in, and gave the Ukrainian leader a standing ovation.
Zelenskyy, dressed in a dark T-shirt emblazoned with the hashtagged slogan “Stand With Ukraine,” spoke following recent Ukrainian battlefield victories against Russia, which launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.
A Ukrainian counteroffensive in recent weeks has pushed Russian forces out of swathes of the country’s east, including in the Kharkiv area, and psychologically boosted Kyiv and its partners. With whispers of going for all-out victory over Moscow, Ukraine wants the United States and its allies to send it more weapons and other aid.
“Our army has become stronger on the battlefield. Our servicemen have become resilient,” Zelenskyy told Clinton, adding later, amid pleas for more military assistance, “When we received what we needed, we already immediately showed what we are capable of.”
A plea for assistance
Zelenskyy also noted Ukraine’s current and future infrastructure and economic needs given damage caused by Russian attacks. Repairing the school system in particular is a concern, he said.
When a very sympathetic Clinton asked if Zelenskyy had “any other marching orders,” Zelenskyy talked of the need to find ways to ensure that his country’s future security is guaranteed — an apparent reference to a post-war deal with NATO or Western powers.
Zelenskyy is likely to hit similar themes during his speech to the General Assembly in the coming days. He’s been given an exception and allowed to send in a pre-recorded address instead of attending in person.
Around 7.3 million Ukrainians are believed to have fled the country, with many heading elsewhere in Europe, while nearly 7 million are displaced within Ukraine, according to figures from the United Nations. Some Ukrainians have made it to the United States under special programs.
Call it a comeback
The Zelenskyy interview underscored the ongoing influence of the Clinton brand, which has faced plenty of hits in the past decade.
CGI began in 2005 but went on hiatus after 2016 as Hillary Clinton was running for president.
The event had come under heightened scrutiny as critics questioned if the access it gave world leaders to the Clintons would lead to financial and other conflicts of interest for the former secretary of State should she reach the White House. Such concerns were often raised about the CGI-affiliated Clinton Foundation, which admitted it had made some errors in its financial disclosures.
In the years that followed, amid scandals involving Clinton’s handling of government emails and questions about Russia’s role in paving the way for her loss to Donald Trump, CGI was temporarily shuttered.
Following Joe Biden’s ouster of Trump from the Oval Office, the political environment has become more favorable, but the UNGA event space is also more competitive.
Other event organizers — including Bloomberg, Concordia Summit and the World Economic Forum — quickly filled the gap left by CGI’s disappearance, putting pressure on organizers to return with a bang.
This year’s version of CGI was just two days long, shorter than the three- to four-day gatherings in years past, but it featured a familiar cast of international political, business and philanthropic figures as well as many of the same themes as previous CGIs.
Jordan’s Queen Rania and education activist Malala Yousafzai were among this year’s attendees, along with local politicians Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams. The Jordanian royal is one of the first supporters of CGI, and she spoke Tuesday of the importance of remembering the humanity of all refugees, noting how differently Western countries have treated Ukrainian refugees as opposed to Syrian ones.
There were plenty of first-timers at this year’s gathering, too.
Rahim Rasool and Spencer Gudewill helped co-found Strong Haulers, which bills itself a tech app designed to help people with chronic health conditions.
Rasool and Gudewell, who are involved with the affiliated CGI University program, said the Clintons’ history of involvement in promoting public health was a plus. “It really helped us in getting access to networks,” said Rasool, 26, of the overall initiative. “As students, we could never access this sort of stuff.”
Klymenko was selected from nearly 7,000 applicants from 150 countries for creating patented prototypes of landmine detector drones. The devices detect both anti-vehicle and anti-personnel landmines with an accuracy of less than one inch.
“Telling President Clinton my story, as he was listening to me I just realized that this conference he created is extremely helpful,” Klymenko said. He said he will use the prize money to attract investors to expand his idea’s capabilities, achieve certification from military authorities and move to mass production, hopefully within a year. “My life mission is to also create another drone for removing landmines to avoid the human factor,” he said.
CGI mimics the World Economic Forum in many respects — down to the event’s color scheme — but participants are traditionally asked to make concrete commitments to tackle global challenges in areas such as public health, women’s empowerment and poverty. Many announce financial or other pledges during the event — with pledges sometimes running into billions of dollars, according to CGI organizers.
A slew of Ukraine-related commitments were announced in connection to Zelenskyy’s appearance.
They included the provision of training to 1,000 Ukrainian community leaders in managing trauma, through the Center for Mind-Body Medicine; a mass survey of Ukrainian refugees in Poland under the auspices of the Social Progress Imperative; and funding to map the needs of Ukrainian refugees with disabilities.