Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks in an interview with Julie Pace, vice president and editor-in-chief of The Associated Press, on a train traveling to Kiev from the Sumy region of Ukraine, Tuesday, March 28, 2023. In In the interview, Zelenskyy warned that unless his country wins a protracted battle in a key city in the east of the country, Russia could begin to build international support for a deal that would require Ukraine to make unacceptable concessions. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
ON A TRAIN FROM SUMY TO KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Tuesday that unless his country wins a protracted battle in a key eastern city, Russia could start building international support for an agreement that would require Ukraine to make unacceptable concessions. He also extended an invitation to the leader of China, a longtime ally of Russia.
If Bakhmut were to fall to Russian forces, its president, Vladimir Putin, “would sell that victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran,” Zelenskyy said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.
“If he gets to feel blood, to smell that we are weak, he will press, he will press, he will press,” Zelenskyy declared in English, the language in which he spoke during practically the entire interview.
The Ukrainian president spoke to the AP aboard a train that takes him across Ukraine, to cities near some of the heaviest fighting and to other towns where his country’s forces have successfully pushed back the Russian invasion. The AP is the first news organization to make an extended trip with Zelenskyy since the war began a little over a year ago.
Since then, Ukraine — supported by much of the West — has shocked the world with the force of its resistance against a much larger and better-equipped Russian army. Ukrainian forces have maintained control of the capital, kyiv, and driven Russia out of other strategically important areas.
But as the war enters its second year, Zelenskyy finds himself focused on maintaining motivation among his armed forces and the general population of Ukraine, especially the millions who have fled abroad and among those living in relative calm and peace. safety away from the front lines.
Zelenskyy is also well aware that his country’s success is largely due to the enormous amount of international military support, especially from the United States and Western Europe. But some Americans — including Republican Donald Trump, the former president and current 2024 candidate — have questioned whether Washington should continue to provide billions of dollars in military assistance to Ukraine.
Trump’s potential Republican rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, also hinted that defending Ukraine in a “territorial dispute” with Russia was not a significant US national security priority. He later retracted these statements after receiving criticism from other members of the Republican Party.
Zelenskyy did not mention Trump or another Republican politician by name — whom he might have had to deal with if they had won the 2024 election. But he did say he worries the war could be affected by a shift in the political balance. in washington.
“The United States really understands that if they stop helping us, we won’t win,” he said during the interview. He sipped his tea as he sat on a narrow bed in a simple sleeping car of a state railway company train.
The president’s train ride, precisely timed, was an eye-catching overland tour in a country at war. Zelenskyy, who has become a recognizable face around the world thanks to his persistence in telling his side of the story to country after country, used the morale-boosting trip to bring his considerable influence to the regions near the front.
He was traveling with a small team of advisers and a large group of security personnel, heavily armed and dressed in combat gear. His tour included ceremonies to mark the first anniversary of the liberation of towns in the Sumy region and visits to soldiers stationed in frontline positions near Zaporizhia. Each exit was kept secret until he was gone.
Zelenskyy made a similar visit near Bakhmut, where Ukrainian and Russian forces have been locked in a bloody battle for months. Although some Western analysts have suggested the city is not of great strategic importance, Zelenskyy warned that at this point, a defeat anywhere could jeopardize the hard-fought Ukrainian initiative in the war.
“We cannot lose steps because the war is pieces of victories. Small victories, small steps,” she said.
Zelenskyy’s comments were an acknowledgment that losing the seven-month-old battle of Bakhmut – the longest of the war so far – would be a costly political defeat rather than a tactical setback.
The president predicted that the pressure of a defeat in Bakhmut could come quickly, both from the international community and from his own country. “Our society will feel tired,” he said. “Our society will pressure me to compromise with them.”
For now, Zelenskyy says he hasn’t felt that pressure. Most of the international community has rallied around Ukraine following the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022. In recent months, a succession of world leaders have visited Zelenskyy, most on trains similar to those used by Zelenskyy. to move around the country.
In his interview with the AP, Zelenskyy invited to Ukraine a noted and strategically important leader who has not made the trip: Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We are willing to see you here,” he said. “I want to talk to him. I had contact with him before the full-scale war. But in all this year, more than a year, I have not had it.
China, with decades of economic and political affinity with Russia, has provided Putin diplomatic cover by maintaining an official position of neutrality in the war.
Asked if Xi would accept an invitation from Zelenskyy or if one had been made officially, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told reporters she had no information to offer. Beijing, she noted, maintains “communication with all parties involved, including Ukraine.”
Xi visited Putin in Russia last week, raising the possibility that Beijing may be preparing to provide Moscow with the weapons and ammunition it needs to replenish its dwindling stocks. But Xi’s trip ended without such an announcement. A few days later, Putin announced that he would deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Russia’s neighbor Belarus, bringing the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal closer to NATO territory.
Zelenskyy suggested that Putin’s decision was intended to distract from the lack of guarantees he had received from China.
“What does it mean? It means that the visit was not good for Russia,” Zelenskyy speculated.
The president made few predictions about the biggest question about the war: how it will end. However, he was confident that his country would prevail through a series of “small victories” and “small steps” against a “very big country, big enemy, big army.” But an army, he added, with “little hearts.”
And Ukraine itself? Although Zelenskyy admitted that the war “has changed us,” he noted that in the end, it has made his society stronger.
“It could have gone one way, to divide the country, or another, to unite us,” he said. “I am very grateful. I am grateful to everyone, each one of our partners, our people, thank God, the whole world, because we have found this path at this critical moment for the nation. Finding this path was what saved our nation, and we saved our land. We are together”.
Julie Pace is vice president and editor-in-chief of The Associated Press. Hanna Arhirova is an AP Ukraine correspondent.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy walks down a corridor upon his arrival for an interview with The Associated Press on a train en route from the Sumy region to Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky )Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during an interview with Julie Pace, vice president and editorial director of The Associated Press on a train traveling from the Sumy region to Kiev, Tuesday, March 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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