The Ukrainian president has told Sky News he is “not interested” in meeting Vladimir Putin for peace talks, describing him as a “nobody” who lives in an “information bubble” and does not really know what’s happening on the battlefield.
In an exclusive interview with Kay Burley, Volodymyr Zelenskyy also responded to speculation of a Russian offensive in Ukraine in the coming weeks, and recalled the first moments of the invasion and how close enemy forces got to him.
He said he “doesn’t understand who makes decisions in Russia” and while Moscow asks for peace, it then lies by attacking his country with missiles at night.
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“They don’t want any talks, and this was the case before the invasion. President Putin decided so,” said Mr Zelenskyy.
“He doesn’t want negotiations because he doesn’t want peace.
“I am convinced that Ukraine is just the first step for him. I am convinced that he is waging a big war. And having the whole world helping Ukraine now – he is not thinking about that. He is thinking, ‘Well, it’s not working out in Ukraine now but we will wait… the world won’t stay united, they will get tired and I will move further’.
“But after Ukraine there will be further steps, there will be other countries, if we fail to withstand. I think we will manage, we will get support and we will win.”
Recalling the night of the Russian invasion almost a year ago, he described it as the start of a long, difficult day that has not yet come to a close.
“I remember there were explosions and calls in the night and I said [to my wife], ‘Get ready. You should get our children ready and tell them what’s going on and be prepared because it won’t be safe to stay in the president’s residence [where we had been living at the time]’.”
Asked how close the invading Russian forces got to him, the president said “nobody knows”.
“There were some people who were being detained in this district, this government district, and this is just a few kilometres from here,” he said.
“There was a lot of intelligence… And a lot of this intelligence suggested that I should move fast and I should go somewhere… Don’t believe it when they say that there have been dozens of attempts, and so on. I don’t know, maybe secret services know about that more.”
Putin ‘says one thing and does another’
When asked if a face-to-face meeting with Mr Putin would help to resolve the ongoing conflict, Mr Zelenskyy said: “It is not interesting for me. Not interesting to meet, not interesting to speak. Why? Because we had meeting with him in Normandy Format, it was before full-scale invasion. I saw the man who said one thing and then did another.
“I can’t understand – is it his decisions or somebody else? So to meet what, to shake hands? Not interesting. To speak? I really don’t understand who makes decisions in Russia.
“Who is he now? After full-scale invasion, for me he is nobody, nobody.”
A war-torn family
Mr Zelenskyy not only spoke of the toll of the war on his people, but also his family – and notably his 10-year-old son.
He revealed he rarely sees his wife and children, but when he does, they share a meal together and talk about the war.
“It’s a pity that I can’t see my children, once per… now it’s often than from the very beginning. Last two, three months we have once per 10 days I can see my children, one, two weeks, I see, have some food, have some talks and I can see my daughter because she’s a student from this year and that’s why I often see her than my son.
“He’s 10 years but he’s thinking like… it’s tragedy… it’s tragedy for all our families through Ukraine. All our children are adults. All of them. They speak about war, they speak about when we will win. They know it exactly. They know better than me I think.
“It’s tragedy they speak about it, not about children, not about their games between each other, not about soccer, no dialogues about soccer. That is the difference but we will change this situation I think soon.”
‘I’m proud of my people’
Asked about the number of Russian boys being sent to their deaths, Mr Zelenskyy said: “As a father I don’t understand how you can let your child go, realising that they are going to die whilst trying to take something that doesn’t belong to them.
“In other words, by letting your child go, you’re already making them a criminal. And this is a crime. This is murder. This is not self defence. This is murder, a deliberate murder. And they will have to be accountable for this. If they become war prisoners, they will have to accept responsibility for their actions, or, in any case, they will face judgment in front of God.
“But they are left behind, having died young, on our land because of the ambitions of President Putin, just one person.”
A comedian and actor before moving into politics, Mr Zelenskyy said of his own wellbeing: “I’m well, I’m strong, as are our people. Sometimes, a little bit sad when we have some attacks, and each day proud of our soldiers and our army… And of course first of all I’m proud of our people.
“I didn’t imagine before this war, before this job that I will have to do it so that’s fine for me. I’m okay, really okay.”
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‘I haven’t lost my sense of humour’
When asked about the importance of keeping his sense of humour, he said: “I never lost my sense of humour. I think when people lose it, they lose… state of mind.”
He continued: “You have to wake up and think what will you do today to make victory closer? That is very important. And that’s why, to be adequate, you have to sometimes you know… yes… in the night… have some 15 minutes to think about… to speak with children by phone… something like this… to not, without any crying… it’s so difficult and very huge to lead the country without all these things.
“You have to be strong and that’s why sense of humour shows, when you can joke, show sometimes of course, show that you are okay, that you are strong, that you control the situation… The result depends on you. So that’s why you have to concentrate. And humour makes you human.”
‘Russians don’t count their war dead’
The city of Bakhmut, where Russia’s Wagner mercenaries and Ukrainian forces have been locked in battle, has witnessed months of fierce fighting.
As speculation of a Russian surge in southern and eastern Ukraine grows, Mr Zelenskyy said it is crucial for Ukrainian forces to be prepared for a possible wave of attacks.
He said: “It all depends on our defensive strength. It all depends on how much we can hold them back.
“In the east they are moving forward and losing a lot of people. It’s just an extraordinary number. They don’t care about it. I mean, they don’t count their people. This is a fact.
“We are counting their people. But we don’t have exact numbers. There are much more casualties from their side. But from what we have already seen and counted, there are thousands of people dead from their side, and they are just throwing them, and throwing them, and throwing them and throwing them.”
What countries are sending tanks to Ukraine?
- The US will send 31 M1 Abrams tanks
- Germany will send 14 Leopard 2 A6 tanks
- The UK has announced it will send 14 Challenger 2 tanks
- Poland has pledged to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks
‘Thankful for tanks’
During the interview – filmed on Mr Zelenskyy’s 45th birthday – the Ukrainian president learnt that Germany had decided to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv after weeks of indecision.
He told Sky News that he was “very thankful” for the tanks but warned that the number and timing of their delivery was “critical”.
Washington also announced yesterday that it would send 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, with US President Joe Biden saying armoured capability has been “critical for Ukraine” and the US “will train Ukrainian troops as soon as possible”.
The UK became the first Western nation to promise main battle tanks when Rishi Sunak pledged 14 Challenger 2s this month.
The series of announcements of the modern battle tanks for Ukraine marks a significant blow to Mr Putin’s forces.
Mr Zelenskyy added: “For me, people are the number one priority. That’s why I don’t want to fight on Russian territory. I just want them to stop the war as quickly as possible, and leave our country as fast as possible.
“I can tell you for sure if they leave our territory the war will stop.”