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Zelensky makes surprise stop at Singapore defense gathering as Ukraine pushes for its peace plan amid Russian advance

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksy arrived in Singapore Saturday for a previously unannounced appearance at a summit of defense chiefs from across the Asia-Pacific as Ukraine’s troops scramble to counter a major Russian advance into its northeast.

Zelensky’s surprise attendance at the gathering is a stark illustration of Kyiv’s determination to keep the international community engaged in Ukraine’s defense – and its vision for peace – more than two years into Russia’s devastating invasion.

The Ukrainian leader has traveled outside his embattled country sparingly during the war and earlier this month called off international engagements as his troops defended against the surprise Russian offensive in northeastern Kharkiv.

His attendance at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore provides a rare opportunity for Zelensky to potentially meet with defense chiefs from across the Asia-Pacific, including China which has deepened its relations with Moscow since the war.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and defense heads from US allies Australia, Japan, and South Korea, as well as China’s Defense Minster Dong Jun are expected to be in attendance for the three-day gathering.

Announcing his arrival at the summit, Zelensky said in a statement on X that he would hold “a number of meetings,” in particular with Austin, Singapore’s president and prime minister, Timor-Leste’s president and Singaporean investors. The pentagon confirmed on Saturday that Austin would meet Zelensky and Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov at the Shangri-La on Sunday, “to discuss the current battlefield situation in Ukraine and to underscore US commitment to ensuring Ukraine has what it needs to defend itself against ongoing Russian aggression.”

Zelensky arrives in Singapore weeks ahead of a Ukraine-backed peace summit slated to be held in Switzerland amid a mounting urgency for Kyiv to bolster international support for its peace plan – especially in the face of the looming US presidential elections, which could see a shift in the level of US support for his cause.

Ukraine relies squarely on international funds and weapons – and faces shortages of manpower and equipment. Months of political wrangling on Capitol Hill as well as lack of supplies from NATO countries have kept Ukraine’s forces significantly outgunned against Russia. A major $61 billion aid injection for Ukraine bill was finally passed by the US in late April.

On Friday, Zelenksy was in Sweden for a summit with Northern European leaders where he said Ukraine’s “top priorities” were to ensure more air defense systems and weapons for Ukraine, as well as “global efforts to force Russia to make peace,” according to the leader’s post on the platform X.

In Asia, Zelensky may carry a similar message.

The conflict, though a continent away, has been watched closely by governments across the region, especially those contending with territorial disputes with another military and authoritarian power in the region, China.

The conflict in Europe is also widely seen to have impacted the security climate in Asia. Russia has nurtured a burgeoning relationship with North Korea, believed by Western governments to have supplied Russian forces with munitions in recent months.

Moscow and Beijing have also deepened their strategic partnership during Russia’s war, with the US accusing China of bolstering Russia’s defense industrial base with dual-use exports – and divisions between China and the West deepening over Beijing’s close Kremlin ties.

Those exports were raised during a meeting Friday between Austin and his Chinese counterpart Dong Jun. Austin indicated to China that there would be consequences if Beijing continues to support Russia militarily, a senior US defense official said after the meeting.

Dong said China, which claims neutrality in the conflict, had honored its “promise not to provide weapons to either side of the conflict” and has strict controls on dual-use exports, according to China’s spokesperson.

Beijing also confirmed Friday that it would not send a delegation to the upcoming, Ukraine-backed peace conference in Switzerland, with its Foreign Ministry citing its view that any international peace conference should have “recognition by both Russia and Ukraine, equal participation by all parties, and fair discussion of all peace plans.”

Zelensky’s 10-point peace plan calls for Russia to withdraw all its troops from Ukrainian territory and the restoration of Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders.

Zelensky has previously made surprise appearances at global summits to keep attention focused on Ukraine’s plight and strengthen ties – he famously dropped in on the Group of 7 (G7) summit last year in Japan.

It’s not clear if he will have an opportunity to meet with any Chinese officials during his time in Singapore. Russia is not participating in the gathering.

In an interview with Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested Thursday that China could organize a peace conference involving both Russia and Ukraine.

Key European leaders have also signaled a similar position shift.

However, the US elections have raised uncertainty over the level of US support for Ukraine’s war effort if the fighting continues into next year –– widely seen as adding another measure of urgency to Ukraine’s push for peace on its terms.

Biden, a staunch supporter of Kyiv, competes for office against former President Donald Trump, who in the past refused to say whether he wants Russia or Ukraine to win the war and raised questions about his commitment to America’s NATO allies.

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