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As fighting rages, Ukraine takes its battle to the diplomatic arena

GRANADA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 5: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (R) meets with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (L) during the European Political Community summit at the Palacio de Congreso on October 5, 2023 in Granada, Spain. Heads of state or government are expected to attend the meeting from all 27 EU member states and 20 European non-members, with the main focus of the summit being the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and artificial intelligence. (Photo by Juan Medina - Pool/Getty Images)  (Pool)
By Andrew E. Kramer and Matthew Mpoke Bigg New York Times

KYIV, Ukraine — Dozens of countries met for a second day Sunday at a forum in Malta intended to rally support for Ukraine and to encourage countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia that have taken a neutral stance in the conflict there not to side with Russia.

Countries sent national security advisers to the Ukraine Peace Forum, the third round of talks based on the country’s proposed 10-point settlement for the war, called the Peace Formula, which calls for a complete withdrawal of Russian forces, an end of hostilities and reparations.

Russia was not invited to the forum, reflecting the lack of appetite from Moscow or Kyiv for peace talks — the idea is anathema to Ukraine while Russian forces occupy part of its territory.

For its part, Moscow considers itself to have annexed five of Ukraine’s regions, and while that decision has been condemned internationally as illegal, Russia would consider retention of that land a prerequisite to any peace settlement.

Even as Ukraine battles to regain territory on the backfield, it is also pursuing an international consensus around its cause, and the forum provided an opportunity to advance its diplomatic position.

It is a “fundamentally important first goal” to rally international support, Pavlo Klimkin, a former Ukrainian foreign minister, said in an interview from the talks, which are being held behind closed doors. Another goal, he said, is “to prevent possible sliding toward Russia.”

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine said in an overnight speech that 66 countries had attended the forum, which Malta’s foreign ministry said it had organized at Ukraine’s request. Zelenskyy called the turnout a “good result.”

It was not possible to confirm the figure independently, but representatives from Ukraine’s allies including the United States, Britain and European Union countries attended, along with India, Brazil and South Africa.

Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, has dismissed the gathering in Malta without Russian participation as “counterproductive” to a settlement and said it was “a blatantly anti-Russian event.”

The forum came at a difficult moment for the Ukrainian government. The war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas has lowered the profile of the conflict in Ukraine, and a counteroffensive launched by the country in June is yet to achieve its central objectives of retaking substantial territory in the east and south.

Zelenskyy offered staunch support to Israel after Hamas led an incursion Oct. 7 that killed 1,400 people, and it was not immediately clear whether his stance on a divisive issue could dilute support for Ukraine among countries pushing for increased Palestinian rights.

In addition, Republicans in the United States were able to set aside their divisions and elect Mike Johnson as speaker of the House, throwing into doubt the fate of aid from Ukraine’s largest supplier of weapons. As one of his first moves, Johnson is resisting President Joe Biden’s proposal to bundle aid to Israel and Ukraine in a single spending bill.

Fighting in Ukraine has continued relentlessly all year, even though front-line positions have barely moved and Russia has continued its bombing campaign.

Over the weekend, Russian forces launched airstrikes at Ukrainian-held territory in the Kherson region, injuring five people at an educational facility in the small riverside city of Beryslav, according to the head of the regional military administration, Oleksandr Prokudin.

In a post on Facebook, he said that Moscow had fired a total of 28 airstrikes at the western bank of the Dnieper River since Saturday as well as more than 300 shells. It was not possible to confirm the figure independently.

Russian forces have increased their bombardment of the region in recent days in an apparent attempt to thwart a Ukrainian push to establish a military presence on the eastern side of the Dnieper, near the city of Kherson.

A foothold on the eastern side of the river in the Kherson region could provide an avenue for Ukrainian forces to advance toward Crimea, a peninsula held by Russia since 2014.

The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank based in Washington, said Friday that Ukraine had “marginally advanced” in fighting on the east bank of the Dnieper, close to Kherson city.

Russia took the city near the start of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than 20 months ago, but its forces had to retreat in November in the face of military pressure. Since then, Russian forces have shelled Kherson relentlessly from positions on the eastern side of the river.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.