Read a Transcript of Volodymyr Zelensky’s Interview With The Times

Date: 2024-05-21T16:19:53.000Z

Location: www.nytimes.com

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine spoke to the Times journalists Andrew Kramer, Philip P. Pan and Bill Brink for 50 minutes at the presidential office in Kyiv on Monday. Anastasia Kuznietsova provided translation.

This transcript of the interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q. The Biden administration has prohibited Ukraine from using American-made weapons to strike inside Russia, out of concern for escalation, including the risk of nuclear war. Your government has urged a change. Given the situation on the battlefield, how should this policy change, and why?

First of all, the Biden administration was indeed against the use of Western weapons. Today, we have our own weapons, our own drones, and we use them, but I would like to note that we do this for defense. This is very important, and what we have always asked of President Biden — and not only President Biden, but the leaders of many countries — is that we want to use the weapons for defense.

When there are attacks from Russian territory targeting civilians exclusively, and artillery is firing exclusively at civilians, when artillery strikes a city, the city center — that’s how it happens — you can’t respond to them because of the range of your artillery. We don’t have long-range shells. You must understand that for the last year and a half, Ukraine hasn’t had any long-range shells.

How do we respond when they strike our cities? They are stationed in the villages nearest to the border of Ukraine in Russia. They strike from there, knowing that we will not return fire, knowing that they are using civilian populations as cover, because their weapons are located among the civilian population of the Russian Federation. But they proceed calmly, understanding that our partners do not give us permission, as you said.

And here, when we talk about ATACMS or HIMARS, or we talk about artillery shells, or relevant missiles — Storm Shadow, Scalp, etc. — we do not have permission to strike the territory of the Russian Federation, their military locations, headquarters, etc. This is part of our defense. How can we protect ourselves from these attacks? This is the only way.

It is the same for air defense. How can we protect ourselves from constant strikes by guided bombs, various missiles, etc., from Russian territory? They strike with missiles from Russian territory, up to 100 kilometers away from a point in Ukraine or the border of Ukraine. How can we protect ourselves?

We can either strike the missile that is entering Ukrainian territory or strike the aircraft before launch. To strike the missile, we need air defense. To strike the aircraft, we need appropriate weapons — weapons and permission.

Q. Do you feel there’s something about the situation that you face on the battlefield right now that makes this request more urgent?

The recent Kharkiv example shows that when you understand and have information — thanks to our partners who share some intelligence, especially satellite data — you know that along the border, Russia is massing troops and forces. Trains bring in equipment, tanks and armored vehicles, etc. They unload in the Belgorod region, among other places. They are unloading there, and you know that it’s happening.

This means that tomorrow, they will not come with flowers. They will come to us with death. Right? Right. When they move from where they are massing to 10 different places, for example, in the Kharkiv region, I have a question: If we know that tomorrow they will come not to celebrate but to kill us, why can’t we use weapons to destroy them where they are massing?

This would also help because they wouldn’t be united in a single operation. They would know that if they accumulate at a particular point, we will strike.

It’s like a fence, a fence before they cross our border. But it’s a fence of fire. Because this is a different war — modern, hybrid — and you can’t say that only a real physical fence, a trench, or minefields will work. No. It’s a complex action — if you have weapons that can at least reach the border with Russia.

And if we cannot reach those areas, what can we say about the places where their equipment masses on Russian territory? This is their huge advantage. The shelling of Kharkiv, all the deaths of people, children — this is their huge advantage. The daily use of bombs — this is their huge advantage. The use of S-300 systems — they have accumulated 10,000 S-300 missiles. Ten thousand — this is their advantage again.

Are there suitable weapons in the world to counter this? Yes. Are there suitable weapons better than what Russia has in its arsenal? Yes. Does Ukraine have both of these elements — sufficient quantity and permission? No.

Q. Have you asked permission from the Biden administration?

I asked for permission from Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken. I sent signals to [National Security Adviser Jake] Sullivan. I spoke through various contacts and intelligence channels, and to the administration of the president. And at the same levels, leaders of other allied countries, European Union states, received such signals from me.

Q. What do you say to the people who argue that it is too risky to allow Ukraine to use these weapons inside Russia because of the risk of escalation?

There are no risks of escalation. Escalation has already occurred: Russia’s escalation against Ukraine.

It’s like sanctions. They talk about the risk of economic escalation with Russia. This shows that our partners are afraid, in principle, of completely severed relations with the Russian Federation.

When you sanction Russian businesses and withdraw yours from their market, it’s a sanction that works 100 percent. If sanctions cannot be bypassed, you prohibit any accounts, banking systems, freeze Russian capital located in the territory of a particular country altogether.

If you freeze, for example, their capital, does frozen Russian capital on E.U. territory help E.U. society? No. Do they use this money? No. Do they receive this money as assistance to people? No. Do they benefit from this money? No. It is frozen. Yes, but they do not transfer this money to Ukraine. Why? Let’s find the answer together: Because it would mean a total rupture of economic relations with the Russian Federation.

It’s similar to embassies. Did everyone close their embassies? No. Did everyone send Russian diplomats home from their countries? No. Did they recall their ambassadors from a state that is a terrorist? No. And so diplomatic sanctions — were they applied 100 percent? No.

Therefore, we cannot say that we have pressured Russia diplomatically or economically through sanctions. No. Because there was no total rupture. Why? They’re afraid of being left without diplomatic ties with the Russian Federation. Isolation has not occurred.

And now we move on to the issue of weapons. Nothing here is different. Why can’t Ukraine be given the ability to use them? You will be told that it’s escalation. No. It’s a complete rupture of any relations with the Russian Federation. Everyone keeps the door slightly ajar with Russia. Slightly ajar. Not as open as it was after 2014, when there was a big mistake. But each of the leaders left them slightly open. Not everyone, but many. Just a crack. “What if Ukraine loses? We should not close the doors completely with Russia.”

So, when it comes to escalation and nuclear weapons, and all these narratives that Russia speaks of — you know, he’s an irrational person. Because a rational person cannot unleash a full-scale war against another state. He’s irrational, or he knew that there would be no consequences for him, which means there was discussion with other countries. And I don’t even want to think about it because then it’s not partnership, it’s playing behind each other’s backs, and it’s betrayal, complete betrayal.

So let’s say that he didn’t have any agreements, and he’s just an irrational person who decided that nobody would defend Ukraine and he could invade and destroy us.

So then he could have used nuclear weapons. When he failed to capture us in the first year of the war, he didn’t use them — because he may be irrational, but he loves his own life very much and understands that the doors will be completely closed, completely, if he uses nuclear weapons. Because the use of nuclear weapons is not a red line. It’s a different level. So that’s it. This is World War III.

So, tell me, what could be a greater escalation than mass killings of people in Ukraine?

Q. You’ll be holding peace talks next month in Switzerland, and the month after that, NATO leaders will be gathering in Washington. What do you hope to achieve from each of these meetings? Regarding peace talks, these are indirect talks, talks with partners. Under what conditions would you begin direct talks with Russia, and what role would you see for China in a peace settlement?

The peace summit is based on the formula proposed by the Ukrainian side. We have outlined in our plan what challenges we see.

Unblocking the sea — food security — let’s be honest, did anyone, apart from deep analysts of this war, understand how much harm blocking the Black Sea would bring to the African continent? What price dumping there would be on agriculture? And that Russia would do this dumping by blocking the Black Sea and transporting its agricultural products to Asia, Latin America, Africa, etc., and selling them at a much higher price? And they are also politically deciding with this or that African country what will happen there, what the policies will be, how they should treat the E.U. countries and the United States, who they should maintain relations with and whose to sever.

So it has become a weapon. Food products have become a kind of weapon for the African continent. There are chemical weapons they used on our territory, and there is a weapon like this, which can lead to famine in one or another country.

We understand deeply the crises that this war has brought, and, therefore, we propose our plan. The peace summit will involve a large number of countries. It is very important to address the first three points, three points that can bring all the countries of the world together.

One point is food security. What I mentioned in part about agriculture and the blockade of the Black Sea, the Azov Sea, there are challenges there and so on.

The second issue will be nuclear security — energy. This is very important. Who knows what is really happening at the nuclear power plant in the city of Enerhodar? Who really knows the details? But we know. The IAEA knows.

It is mined. There is weaponry there. There are armed individuals from the Russian Federation, mercenaries or military. There are Ukrainian citizens working at the plant who, for the first year, constantly sent us information about the situation there. There has never been danger like this before. If we remove them from there tomorrow, that station will definitely collapse. It will be a risk for everyone. Six reactors. It’s like six Chernobyls. How can there be military forces there? They don’t want to leave, they won’t give it up voluntarily. They don’t want to. But they’re afraid that the station will explode, so our people work there.

Here’s another argument. The personnel of Rosatom who managed this operation and are currently managing this station — why haven’t sanctions been imposed on them? What’s the problem? Although the fact is absolutely confirmed here, absolutely confirmed, that they have occupied the station and are holding everyone hostage. All the people working there are hostages. You know, it’s a fact, proven, that the children of people working at this station have been taken to Russia. They are hostages. That’s why they work at the station, because their children have been taken away.

And the third point is the [prisoner-of-war] exchange of “all for all,” as well as the return of deported children. This third point is humanitarian.

If we support resolving all three crises separately, responsible countries will gather at a technical level and develop a plan that we will support.

I believe if we develop a detailed plan to address these three points, it needs to be handed over to representatives of the Russian Federation. And when they see that, for example, 60, 80, 100 countries believe it’s a fair plan, well, then we’ll see if Russia wants to end the war. And we’ll see if the world wants the war to end on fair terms, not on what a person in the Kremlin sees.

Q. We’ve reported that NATO is considering sending instructors to Ukraine to train Ukrainian forces. Other NATO countries have discussed sending troops to Ukraine. Would you welcome either move?

This is an independent decision for each state, including NATO countries. Undoubtedly, as a country at war, we would positively welcome any assistance, and we would support such a decision.

It’s true that no one has offered us anything yet. The first signals came through the media. They came from France, from Emmanuel Macron. We talked with him about what he means. There’s logic in two things that I definitely understood. This includes training on Ukrainian territory, simply speeding up the process, without having to send your brigade somewhere else, to one country or another, and then it returns. And there’s also the need for adaptation time here in the conditions of war.

Yes, training here is faster, building repair hubs for equipment is faster. But there are a lot of media words behind this. So far, this idea hasn’t gone anywhere. I don’t see it, except in words. But, nonetheless, how can anyone be against this? We are only in favor.

And then they talk about the troops. I don’t quite understand yet how this corresponds to reality and whether it’s true, and whether it’s possible, etc. I am grateful, again, for the boldness of Emmanuel, etc., but it’s necessary to understand what he’s really willing to do, what can be and how it can help us.

I asked, can we first shoot down — from the territory of a NATO country, from the territory of our neighbors — the missiles flying towards our energy facilities, without crossing into Ukraine’s airspace?

Technically, all of this is possible. Shooting down Russian missiles already in Ukrainian territory, from their planes. This is what we saw in Israel. Not even on such a large scale.

If you’re shooting down missiles targeting our energy facilities, you can deploy your planes. You already do. You should know that NATO countries are already deploying them because the missiles are heading towards our Western partners. For example, the gas network in western Ukraine, and missiles heading in that direction. Our neighbors are already deploying planes anyway.

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. It’s defense.

Tomorrow, all these missiles will fly into these countries. Don’t doubt it. It’s just a matter of time. Why not shoot down the missiles? Where’s the involvement in that? When we talk about NATO countries discussing troops on Ukrainian territory, these are living people. I’m just responding to you, let’s take the first practical step. Shoot down what’s in the sky over Ukraine. And give us the weapons to use against Russian forces on the borders.

Q. Did you ask Mr. Macron this?

About the aircraft? No, I’m going to talk about it, but I asked other partners. I conveyed to all key partners that I believe it’s fair to shoot them down with aircraft.

Let’s agree: The Russian Federation has a fleet with 300 aircraft that the Russian fleet uses against Ukraine. Three hundred aircraft. Our analysis told us that we need 120 to 130 F-16s or aircraft with high technical characteristics.

Let’s agree: If Ukraine doesn’t receive such a quantity of aircraft for various reasons, why can’t a smaller number of aircraft located in NATO countries close our airspace? This is a reasonable option for today until we have F-16s. Not just that, I would say, until we have a number of F-16s adequate to the Russian fleet. Because when you only have a small number of F-16s, it’s undoubtedly insufficient to counter significant, serious attacks in many cases.

The Washington summit, I did not answer about the Washington summit.

Q. I had another question, but let’s hear about the Washington summit with NATO.

I want practical solutions. I would really like us to get an invitation [to join NATO], because I know that this would be a very serious card in Ukraine’s hands before the end of the war. Although I believe that when this card is in Ukraine’s hands, it is also in the hands of the United States and other partners, and even those who are not in NATO. Those who are Russia’s neighbors, and those who are concerned about their security. Because everything can change completely.

Those who today believe that Russia will never attack them, and those who consider themselves economic partners will become its enemies tomorrow. Wasn’t it like that with Ukraine? Weren’t we their main friends? Were we not their main market? Were they not our main trading partner? Families, friends, economy, geography, security, everything. And now we are 100 percent enemies.

So this card is not only in our hands. This is change. A change in geopolitical security in our region. I believe this will have an impact on the whole world. So I would like specifics, an invitation.

Yes, this is a political instrument. However, this doesn’t mean we are in NATO. And we are not pushing. We understand that if there is an invitation, we will only discuss NATO membership after the war. We understand all the arguments. There will be no pressure from our side.

But everyone says that this is escalation — again. I believe that the U.S. and Germany are not ready for this. Right? Right.

Then we can eventually get seven Patriot systems from NATO countries? Seven. We would like to close the airspace over all our regions and have 20 to 30. Let’s forget about that. Can we get seven? Do you think it is too much for the NATO anniversary summit in Washington? For a country that has been trying to become a NATO member since 2008? For a country that is fighting for freedom and democracy around the world today? Seven systems. This is just the practical result of the summit.

And an American decision to give us its F-16s. Because without them, Ukraine will not have a fleet of 130 aircraft. It just won’t. And this means that there is no point in talking about it anymore, because there won’t be an adequate fleet that can fight the Russian air force.

I think that’s two solutions. Maybe it’s a lot. We apologize, but they are very practical solutions.

Q. Could you say a few words about your own life as a wartime president? What was a moment if you look back at the war when it seemed most difficult, and another moment when you were most hopeful and proud, for example?

When we talk about difficulties, of course, the full-scale invasion was the most difficult moment. Of course, the first days were tough, and then it went on. Because you don’t think about yourself, you think about everyone. And, of course, when there are people under occupation, and losses, it’s just hard. And when we were liberating our territories, liberating Moshchun, Bucha, and when I saw those mass graves, it was the hardest thing.

I’m not afraid of any physical work. I’m not afraid of working long hours, doing my job. The most difficult weight is emotions. You understand this, right? Emotions, suffering. When you see people, when they tell you about it, when you give a medal — a hero’s star — to a mother who lost her child, or see children who lost their parents — those emotions, they are the hardest.

It’s terrifying when you can’t help people who are in occupation. It’s harder for them there. They are the real heroes. I’m not saying this for rhetorical effect. I’m speaking the truth. When a person is in a hopeless situation, truly physically hopeless, but they keep fighting. That’s the hardest part. But no matter how difficult it was, we fought and were united when we liberated most of our territories.

And now, with more than 20 percent still under occupation, people are beginning to forget. Now, it’s also about forgetting the war. Forgetting in the cities that have been liberated, in the capital, and so on. This is also very difficult, very serious.

Because society starts to divide. Some are at war, and some are not at war. And, on the one hand, you understand, that’s why we are fighting — to liberate people, for cities to live, for people not to be at war. But above all, we must understand that we are all still at war until it ends, and civilians must all work to strengthen the soldiers, those who die or get injured every day.

When it is very hard, everyone is united. When it gets a little easier, everyone is divided. And at this moment, the enemy can exploit this in various ways. I believe that this is our most difficult moral challenge right now. To prevent division in society, in politics, to prevent division in the world, in the European Union, in the United States, regardless of elections, regardless of anything in the E.U., or elections in the United States, to prevent a rift between the U.S. and Europe. This is also very important. It will have an impact on this war.

Q. Mr. President, can you find ways to relax?

Like everyone else. The choices are limited during wartime. Honestly, emotions help. If there’s a chance to see my children, I see my wife more often because she’s in the office, but I see the children very rarely. If you can see your family, it’s emotionally uplifting.

I’ll tell you honestly, if there’s an opportunity to just talk, even to ask what’s going on in school, for example, I ask my son what’s happening. 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. My son is young. And my daughter, she’s already grown up. These are the moments that recharge you, give you energy. These are the happiest moments. That’s when I can relax.

I also enjoy reading books. I’ll be honest, any kind of fiction, I read at night, two, three, four, 10 pages max, and then I fall asleep. It’s the same when I try to watch a video or a movie at night — I just don’t have the energy. I’ll tell you, once I’m in bed, whatever I try to read or watch, I fall asleep. I wake very early.

And, probably, the second thing that recharges me, besides family, is a bit of exercise. In the morning, it also gives me energy.

And probably understanding what we are doing, what we can do, and believing in Ukraine’s victory. I believe very much in people, especially when people know and say, “We know how hard it is for everyone, but you, Mr. President, you are holding on, and we are with you.” I am always with the people. I think we recharge each other. So you see, again, it’s just emotions, some positivity, and that’s probably enough.

Q: It’s now been five years since you’ve been president, and it’s a very uncertain time for Ukraine. Could you assess the health of Ukrainian democracy during the war, and how would you like to see Ukrainian democracy develop after the war?

I think Ukraine doesn’t need to prove anything about democracy to anyone. Because Ukraine and its people are proving it through their war. Without words, without unnecessary rhetoric, without just rhetorical messages floating in the air. They prove it with their lives. By choosing how to protect Ukraine, how to defend it, because we are defending, first and foremost, values, principles, the way of life we live.

Yes, of course, territory is very important. It’s our land. We cannot imagine our life without it. It belongs to us by right. But understanding who is coming against us, and what life is like there in Russia, we do not want a return to Soviet times, and we do not want to be part of Russia’s history.

You know, I once gave this example. Once, Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania — I told him that I needed to pass several reforms because it was necessary. These were the conditions for candidacy in the European Union. This was before we received candidate status. I told him, I want to show that even during wartime, we can move forward. He responded to me: Yes, but I want to tell you that Ukraine — by the way it is conducting itself during this war, by defending other states — is protecting the freedom of the world and the democracy of the world. This is the most important reform in which you need to succeed.

And that’s how it is. Our people are doing it at the cost of their lives, children at the cost of their childhood, their happy years that they are giving up. So, when we talk about democracy, I believe that we are the most democratic country in Europe. One of the most democratic countries in Europe, which has proven this not with words, but with strength, weapons, and our lives. Not proving, but we have proven this to the whole world.

And what kind of country can one wish for after the war? The kind of country it is now: free. Of course, during wartime, there are various restrictions. Regarding the mobilization of young men who cannot leave the country. There is martial law. There are other restrictions because of the war. Russia itself imposed these restrictions on us. Because it came with war, and war always brings losses and restrictions. This is understandable. But we want to live in a country like the one we have today, only in a peaceful one.

Q. Maybe there’s a short answer to this one. What are your plans after the war?

I would like to … after the war, after the victory, these are different things. After the war, 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. We have two dogs. One dog passed away, and now we have two dogs.

Q. I wanted to clarify, you had said you need seven Patriots. Are you asking for them specifically from the United States?

Let me explain. We have a map, and our partners have it, too. And there are points marked on this map, conditional points where the Patriot systems should be placed, and their analogues — short range, medium range, long range.

For example, long range systems like THAAD, which are in the United States — we don’t have any. I’m just giving you an example. So, when I talk about seven Patriots, it doesn’t mean it fully covers our skies and our people. There’s a powerful, developed system, and it includes everything — all systems. When I talk about seven systems, we need to understand, I’m talking about specific needs today, to cover several places, to cover a few places in our country, without which we will completely lose our economy and energy sector. This is what we are talking about. The economy, including grain, metallurgy, and many other things. We would lose everything.

That’s why I hammer this point every day. Because I know we could lose our energy sector and economy. And if we talk about a comprehensive air defense system for Ukraine, it includes everything: how many NASAMS, IRIS-T, Patriots, THAAD systems we need. And some of them we don’t have at all.

It’s OK. We will win. We must.

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