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Ukraine, Ambassador Zazo: “Kiev appreciates Prime Minister Meloni’s continuous support” (Adnkronos)

Rome, 22 February 2023 – Ukraine “attaches particular importance to its relationship with Italy” and Giorgia Meloni’s visit to Kiev was an opportunity to reaffirm “the great appreciation for the continuous support” that Italy has provided since the beginning of the war. Following Prime Minister Meloni’s visit, the Italian ambassador to Kiev, Pierfrancesco Zazo, spoke of the “excellent atmosphere” in which it took place and of the recognition of Italy’s commitment.

A commitment that can be seen in the “decisive driving role played in favouring the granting of EU candidate country status, as well as in the military, political, financial, economic and humanitarian aid ensured in recent months, and in the serious and convinced compliance with the sanctions against Russia,” as Ambassador Zazo explained in an interview with Adnkronos.

Italy’s continuous support will see a further step in the Conference on reconstruction announced by Prime Minister Meloni, which will be held in Rome in April. As emphasized by the Ambassador, it is a Conference to which Ukraine looks forward with great expectations, “as Italy is the third largest economy and the second largest manufacturer in Europe, and considering that Italy and Ukraine have very complementary economies, Ukraine knows that Italy can play a very important role”.

The same role it has played for granting Ukraine the EU candidate country status, on which Italy – as stressed by Ambassador Zazo – has pushed significantly and keeps on pushing, “encouraging Ukraine to do what it must be done: we recognise the progress made, but we urge the country to continue reforms on the rule of law and keep on fighting against corruption”. Because this path will, on the one hand, “speed up the country’s progressive integration into the European market and accelerate the start of EU accession negotiations and, on the other, it will help create a favourable climate for investment and the arrival of Italian companies”.

Furthermore, Ukraine does not fail to emphasise – with great satisfaction – “Italy’s firm compliance” with sanctions against Russia. As the Ambassador stressed, “Ukraine is very impressed by the speed with which we have taken action to reduce dependence on Russian gas and to freeze the Russian oligarchs’ assets”.

Not to mention, as Ambassador Zazo added, “Italy’s continued commitment on the humanitarian front, with aid arriving from cooperation agencies, civil society organisations, the Civil Protection units and the Red Cross” to support the population exhausted by a year of war.

The beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on 24 February 2022, which few people believed it could take on such a scale, “was a shock and the first few days were the most difficult and risky ones”. The Ambassador recalled them, recounting what were the most challenging moments from a personal and professional viewpoint. He said: “From a personal viewpoint, the invasion was a real shock, with hundreds of Italians staying here, in a confused scenario with the Russians at the gates. Those were the most difficult and risky days”.

From a professional viewpoint, Ambassador Zazo speaks of these 12 months as “a very demanding and tiring experience from a psychological viewpoint, a feeling shared by everyone who is staying here: we live the war every day, 24 hours a day, between missile attacks and alarms, and we experience the sadness, the anger, the anguish of the Ukrainians, with whom we inevitably empathise”. Not to mention that, “as the Ukrainian crisis is at the centre of the international community’s attention, the embassy has a huge amount of work on all fronts, which it carries out with necessarily limited staff due to understandable security problems”.

The “great courage” shown by President Zelensky has been a “game changer” in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which may have changed the fate of what for the Kremlin should have been a blitzkrieg. Following the visits of President Biden and Prime Minister Meloni, which served to reaffirm unwavering support for Ukraine and reassure on the risks of “war fatigue”, Ambassador Zazo maintained that “the Ukrainian people have found themselves united around their President, who “somehow reminds us of Churchill” during the Second World War and of resistance to the Nazis.

As the Ambassador said, “before the invasion, Zelensky’s approval ratings had dropped. There was some disappointment for the insignificant results achieved in terms of economic growth and the fight against corruption. With the war, however, everything has changed: not only has he proved to be an extraordinary communicator, but he has also demonstrated to undoubtedly have great courage. He has not run away and this has been a game changer. The Ukrainian people have found in him a reference figure. President Zelensky somehow reminds us of Churchill, he is now a symbol”. According to Ambassador Zazo, “all the Ukrainian people have stood absolutely united behind his extraordinary courage and determination. According to a recent poll, 85 per cent of Ukrainians support the demand for full restitution of territories and for accession to the EU and NATO”.

As the Ambassador emphasized, a demonstration of the feeling that binds the Ukrainian people to President Zelensky has been seen, inter alia, in recent months when, during the massive missile attacks on infrastructure launched by Russia last autumn, “Ukrainians did not escape. They were left without water and light, but they did not flee the country: anger prevailed over fear.”

A year later “they continue to fight for survival, in the belief that the only way to end this war is to win it”. Ambassador Zazo also made reference to the fears of the Ukrainian population, grateful to the West for aid, but worried that – between disinformation and the rising cost of raw materials – the West will get “tired” of the war. A fear that was vigorously dispelled by Prime Minister Meloni yesterday in Kiev – “no wavering” – and by President Biden, in Warsaw, with the assurance that “we will never get tired” of supporting Ukraine.

Ambassador Zazo, however, warned that it is feared that Russia, “playing on various tables, with the threat of escalation, NATO involvement, and the constant allusion to the use of nuclear weapons, may frighten Western public into reducing sanctions and aid”. Moreover, Ukrainians – for whom “the Russian people have turned from a brother into an oppressive people – cherish no illusions about the possible collapse of Putin’s regime”.

Ambassador Zazo also commented on the hypotheses of a Korean scenario – with Russia and Ukraine divided as the two Koreas along the 38th parallel have been since the 1953 armistice – as a way out of the war on which commentators and analysts are reasoning. “It is obviously difficult to make predictions” about the course of the conflict and how it might end, “because much depends on what will happen in the coming weeks” – he argued, noting that “while there are no signs of Russia backing down, with continued threats of nuclear escalation, the Ukrainians are convinced they can pull through.”

Against this background, however, it remains to be understood what would be the red line for Ukraine – whether the recovery of the territories conquered by Russia after 24 February, with the region of Zaporizhzhia, for example, which is 60% controlled by Russia, and Kherson, taken back by the Ukrainians, a circumstance which, however, the Kremlin actually ignores”. While Putin “continues not to recognise the legitimacy of a Ukrainian State separated from the Russian motherland, or at least to want to bring it back under the Russian sphere of influence, annexing the four regions of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Luhansk and Donetsk and also the areas he does not control, as well as seizing as much as possible of the territory to the left of the Dnieper inhabited by Russian-speaking populations” – the Ambassador explained.

The Russian war in Ukraine will also be remembered for a series of mistakes and underestimations – both on the political and the battlefield levels, due to which it did not end in the few days’ blitz that the Kremlin expected, with the fall of Kiev and the escape of President Zelensky. As Ambassador Zazo explained, these mistakes also include “Vladimir Putin’s illusion about the welcome that the Russian-speaking population would have given to his military.”

Ambassador Zazo, who has been serving in Kiev since 2021, admitted: “At first, frankly, I did not expect the war to last a year, but I immediately had the feeling that it would not be easy for Russia. When I saw men of all ages, young and old, lined up to enlist, to learn how to make petrol bombs, ready to go and fight, I realised that even if the Russians managed to enter Maidan, the main square of Kiev, their entry would turn into a gigantic Afghanistan.

As underlined by Ambassador Zazo, a “gigantic” mistake was Putin’s miscalculation of the Russian-speaking population’s reaction, as well as his cherishing the illusion that they would welcome his soldiers and that it would be easy to install a puppet government. There was immediate confirmation of a total underestimation of the national identity feeling that has become much stronger in Ukraine in recent years”.

The Ambassador concluded that Bucha “was a point of no return in the fratricidal war” between Russians and Ukrainians, while recalling one of the most tragic moments of the conflict, when the first news arrived of the horrors perpetrated by Russian troops in Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka. Horrors and torture that the international community defined as war crimes.

Ambassador Zazo, who yesterday accompanied a deeply-moved Prime Minister to those places, said: “When we heard the news of what had happened in those places, we realised that the conflict had changed completely. A feeling of deep hatred of Ukrainians towards Russians prevailed and it was a point of no return in a fratricidal war”.