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In Interview, Zelensky of Ukraine Challenges West Over Hesitations

With his army struggling to fend off fierce Russian advances all across the front, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine urged the United States and Europe to do more to defend his nation, dismissing fears of nuclear escalation and proposing that NATO planes shoot down Russian missiles in Ukrainian airspace.

Mr. Zelensky said he had also appealed to U.S. officials to allow Ukraine to fire American missiles and other weaponry at military targets inside Russia — a tactic the United States continues to oppose. The inability to do so, he insisted, gave Russia a “huge advantage” in cross-border warfare that it is exploiting with assaults in Ukraine’s northeast.

His comments, made in an interview on Monday with The New York Times in central Kyiv, were among his most full-throated appeals yet to the United States and its NATO allies for more help. Over 50 minutes at the ornate House With Chimeras in the presidential offices, he spoke with a mix of frustration and bewilderment at the West’s reluctance to take bolder steps to ensure that Ukraine prevails.

Mr. Zelensky has long lobbied the West, for more weapons in particular. But his pleas this week come at a critical time for Ukraine’s war effort, with its army in retreat and a new package of American arms yet to arrive in sufficient quantities. Not since the early days of the war has Ukraine faced as grave a military challenge, analysts say.

It’s also a pivotal time in Ukrainian politics. Mr. Zelensky spoke on the last day of his five-year presidential term. Elections scheduled for March were suspended because of the war, and he will remain president under martial law powers, with his tenure potentially stretching as long as the war.

In the wide-ranging interview, Mr. Zelensky, 46, discussed the wrenching sadness of visiting mass graves and consoling the families of dead soldiers, but also his own personal journey, and the “recharge” he gets from the little time he has to spend with his children. He said he would like to read more but falls asleep too quickly at night to get far.

He was most animated as he ticked off a checklist of actions he believed his allies should take to support Ukraine. He argued that NATO should shoot down Russian missiles in flight over Ukraine — without planes crossing into Ukrainian airspace — saying that would be a purely defensive tactic and pose no risk of direct combat with Russian forces.

“So my question is, what’s the problem? Why can’t we shoot them down? Is it defense? Yes. Is it an attack on Russia? No. Are you shooting down Russian planes and killing Russian pilots? No. So what’s the issue with involving NATO countries in the war? There is no such issue.”

“Shoot down what’s in the sky over Ukraine,” he added. “And give us the weapons to use against Russian forces on the borders.”

That kind of direct NATO involvement, which analysts say could provoke Russia to retaliate, has been resisted in Western capitals. But Mr. Zelensky drew a comparison to how the United States and Britain helped Israel shoot down a barrage of drones and missiles from Iran last month.

“This is what we saw in Israel,” Mr. Zelensky said. “Not even on such a large scale.” The White House response to the comparison then was, “Different conflicts, different airspace, different threat picture.

Mr. Zelensky also urged the alliance to come through with more F-16 fighter jets as well as Patriot air defense systems.

“Can we get seven?” he said, saying Ukraine needed more Patriot systems but would settle for that number to protect regions key to the nation’s economy and energy sector. He suggested a decision might be reached when NATO leaders gathered for a summit in Washington in July.

“Do you think it is too much for the NATO anniversary summit in Washington?” he asked. “For a country that is fighting for freedom and democracy around the world today?”

Asked about potential cease-fire negotiations, he called for diplomacy that avoids direct talks with Russia but rallies nations behind Ukraine’s positions for an eventual peace settlement. It would begin with plans to secure Ukrainian food exports to developing nations, prisoner exchanges, measures to secure a Russian-occupied nuclear power station in Ukraine’s south and returning Ukrainian children whom he said were abducted and taken to Russia.

He said he hoped dozens of nations would get behind such an initiative when they gathered at a “peace summit” in mid-June in Switzerland. And he pressed again for a plan for Ukraine to join NATO.

He also welcomed recent suggestions by some allies that NATO send troops to train or support Ukrainian forces in Ukraine, though he added, “I don’t see it, except in words.”

More immediately, he said the ability to use Western-provided weapons to strike at military targets inside Russia was essential for Ukraine’s success.

Only by using these weapons to destroy logistical hubs in Russia and Russian planes in Russian territory, he said, could Ukraine effectively defend itself from the recent assault in the northeast which threatens Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

“How do we respond when they strike our cities?” he said, noting that Ukraine could see Russian forces massing across the border before they attacked but was powerless to strike them.

“They proceed calmly,” he added, “understanding that our partners do not give us permission” to use their weapons to retaliate.

The West’s primary reason for hesitating — fear of nuclear escalation — was overblown, Mr. Zelensky said, because President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia would refrain from using nuclear weapons out of a sense of self-preservation.

“He may be irrational, but he loves his own life,” Mr. Zelensky said.

He also suggested that there was another reason for the West’s hesitation: Some countries were seeking to retain trade and diplomatic ties with Russia. “Everyone keeps the door slightly ajar,” he said.

It’s been a tumultuous run for Mr. Zelensky. He was elected in 2019 on a platform of negotiating peace with Russia, which his critics said was naïve. He also pledged to crack down on corruption and promised to serve only one five-year term.

A television personality before becoming president, Mr. Zelensky, alternates between diplomacy to drum up support for Ukraine and exhortations to his soldiers and civilians in the face of deteriorating military prospects. He said has little time to see his son and daughter, 11 and 19, but called spending time with them his “happiest moments.”

“For example, I ask my son what’s happening,” he said. “He says they’re starting to learn Spanish. I’m interested in that. I don’t know Spanish, but honestly, I’m only interested in the time I can spend with him, no matter what he’s doing.”

“These are the moments that recharge you, give you energy. These are the happiest moments. That’s when I can relax.”

He said he also recharges by working out in the mornings, and tries at night to read. “I’ll be honest, any kind of fiction, I read at night, two, three, four, 10 pages max, and then I fall asleep,” he said.

He reflected for a moment when asked what he would do after the war, and appeared to contemplate the prospect that Russia would prevail. “After the war, after the victory, these are different things,” he said. “It could be different. I think my plans depend on that.

“So, I would like to believe that there will be a victory for Ukraine. Not an easy one, very difficult. It is absolutely clear that it will be very difficult. And I would just like to have a bit of time with my family and with my dogs.”

Mr. Zelensky passed a critical point in his presidency early in the war with the failure of Russia’s attempted decapitating attack on the Ukrainian leadership in Kyiv, which he has said included a plan to capture or assassinate him.

Now, nearly 17 months later, it’s unclear how or when his presidency will end. Ukraine’s martial law, which is periodically renewed with votes in Parliament, rules out holding presidential elections. Though his party, Servant of the People, holds a majority of seats, party discipline has reportedly unraveled in recent months, and Mr. Zelensky has struggled to push through bills.

After the shock of the initial invasion, 90 percent of Ukrainians said they trusted Mr. Zelensky; that figure had fallen to 60 percent by February, according to polling by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.

Competitive national elections have been a success of Ukraine’s politics since independence in 1991, fulfilling the promise of a democratic transition that fell flat in Russia, Belarus and some countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

International experts on elections have supported Ukraine’s decision to suspend voting during the war, given that millions of Ukrainians would be unable to vote in areas under occupation, as refugees in Europe or while serving as soldiers at the front.

Asked to assess the health Ukraine’s democracy, he said, “Ukraine doesn’t need to prove anything about democracy to anyone.”

“Because Ukraine and its people are proving it through their war,” he went on. “Without words, without unnecessary rhetoric, without just rhetorical messages floating in the air. They prove it with their lives.”

Bill Brink and Philip P. Pan contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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