Steeped in semi-darkness, the corridors of the bunker that has become the presidential headquarters in Kyiv are in keeping with the rest of the country. It is through one of these corridors that Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 44, shows up. President of Ukraine since 2019, he became a global icon on February 24, 2022. On that day, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of his neighboring country, claiming that a Nazi elite was running Ukraine and that it was the Kremlin’s mission to liberate the population from under its yoke. Zelenskiy, the son of Jewish scientists and a successful actor and media entrepreneur, now heads a country fighting for survival. In an interview with EL PAÍS, the first one granted to a Spanish-language newspaper, the Ukrainian president underscored the atrocities of the war as a message to countries that have declared themselves neutral, including several in Latin America. He also stressed that peace negotiations with Moscow will only be considered under the condition that Putin withdraws his forces and acknowledges the error of the invasion: “If they withdraw and recognize that they have made a terrible mistake, then we could seek a format for dialogue.”
The darkness of the bunker makes sense: the heart of the state’s power is heeding the call to save energy, so any lights that are not considered strictly necessary are switched off. Russian shelling over the past month has left Ukraine without 40% of its energy infrastructure, with power outages and lack of heating affecting millions of people. But once these corridors are left behind, the interview takes place in a generously lit room that is usually reserved for institutional meetings. The room is ornately decorated with mirrors, draperies and golden hues. In the middle of the room there is a huge meeting table, similar to the one that Putin has made famous, where the Russian autocrat sits at one end and his interlocutor at the other. The difference here is the proximity: the Ukrainian leader sits face to face, and does not shy away from contact or improvisation.
Zelenskiy walks through the door unannounced. He greets EL PAÍS jovially, briefly and in English. He is wearing the by now traditional khaki attire he adopted when the invasion began. In the current phase of the war, in which the Ukrainian Armed Forces are advancing on multiple fronts, Kyiv’s mantra is that the war will only end when they have recaptured all the territories occupied by Russia. Although a large majority of Ukrainians say, according to the latest polls, that they do not want to open a dialogue with Russia, there are also those who do expect it. They are people like Irina, a tobacconist from Kvartal 95, the neighborhood where Zelenskiy was born in the town of Kryvyi Rih, and who confided to this newspaper last week that she wished to see Putin and Zelenskiy sit down to seal the peace. The Ukrainian president smiles when he hears the anecdote and picks up the gauntlet to respond to his fellow Ukrainian: “We are witnessing a very concrete intention to occupy and destroy Ukraine. What do I have to say to someone who simply wants to destroy us? There would be no point in that conversation.”
The message is very forceful. Zelenskiy underscores that “the final straw was the annexation referendums” that illegally incorporated four Ukrainian regions in September: Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. The capital of the latter region is currently one of the most hotly contested sites of the war, with Ukrainian troops right outside the city. These four annexations are in addition to the illegal occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea since 2014. But Zelenskiy adds a nuance that, according to sources close to the president, hints at a slight opening: “If the Russians withdraw and recognize that they have made a terrible mistake, if it is even possible to talk of a mistake in these circumstances, then we could seek a format for dialogue. But if we are going to continue to sacrifice thousands of lives to get our territory unoccupied, I think that will hinder the process for years.”
One of the threats hanging over the Ukrainian resistance comes not from Moscow, but from Washington. The United States, Kyiv’s main military and economic supporter, faces a possible political shift if the Republican Party wins a majority in Congress in the November 8 midterm elections. Notable Republicans have voiced their opposition to maintaining the current pace of aid to Ukraine. Zelenskiy stresses that, no matter who is in power in the US, they must keep in mind that the majority of American society stands with Ukraine: “I see no cause for concern in terms of support for Ukraine on the part of American society. We will respect their choice, but I think they will also decide to choose that their own society is in favor of helping Ukraine and in favor of fighting for democracy, freedom and international and humanitarian law.” The Ukrainian leader concedes that a political change could bring “a slower process” in terms of bilateral decisions, but he notes that everyone expected a cooling of relations with Italy following the victory of the far-right candidate Giorgia Meloni, or with the recent changes in government in the United Kingdom. Yet, in his experience, this has not been the case.
Ukraine’s future inevitably depends on its accession to the European Union, its president stresses. And other countries threatened by Russia could follow in its footsteps: “The war started because Russia does not recognize us an independent country, a European country. The same thing will happen in Belarus, where the people also want to be independent. Why should Russia decide how people in Belarus should live? Not every country has to go through this torment that we are experiencing because Russia will not make it easy for Belarus, Moldova or Georgia. I hope that the leaders of the EU will show courage,” he concludes, acknowledging that there are some EU members that “do not want to accelerate the process” of integration. Even so, his forecast is that Ukraine will join the EU. “I do not want to say sooner or later, because I believe it is already late.”
Zelenskiy also has recurring words of gratitude for the help received from Spain, especially for the four Hawk air defense systems that should become operational in the coming weeks. Asked whether he expects more material assistance from Spain, whose contribution has been discreet on the military level compared to other major European countries, the Ukrainian leader reiterates that all aid is necessary: “This is a question that the Spanish people also have to ask themselves, whether it is enough, because this is a war for our common values and for everything democratic that Europe stands for.”
On whether he sees a lack of greater Spanish leadership in international initiatives, Zelenskiy concludes that Spain mainly joins projects initiated by others: “I would be grateful if [Spanish Prime Minister Pedro] Sánchez had these initiatives, it could involve the reconstruction of the country, promotion of business, in the labor market or in security matters.”
Zelenskiy is aware that while a large majority of European governments and public opinion are in favor of military assistance to Ukraine, there are sectors on the left - and for other reasons also on the right, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – who oppose the supply of weapons because they consider it an obstacle to peace and because, according to this interpretation, NATO is just as responsible as Russia in the conflict. This is one of the issues on which the president is most explicit, gesticulating and making it clear that the issue irritates him: “It is important to underline to these people that this is a war for Ukraine against Russian aggression. We are a shield. We have not taken the route of nuclear weapons, of guided missiles, of Iranian drones or tanks invading foreign territory. We do not rape Russian women and Russian children or torture people in Russian villages.”
In Spain, these views also exist among some of the government’s coalition partners, and Zelenskiy is at pains to argue why he believes them to be wrong: “When these people talk about NATO, I would say to them we are not in NATO. Spain is in NATO and Spain is not at war thanks to being part of NATO, unlike us. We are fighting to prevent a second or third country being invaded.”
The Ukrainian president is visibly irritated when asked about the dozen pro-Russian parties that have been outlawed by Ukraine in these months of war, accused of being agents of the invading country. This issue has raised suspicions among European left-wing parties. “Which parties have been banned in Ukraine? Russian parties, you mean? If Brussels is concerned, let them find room for these parties in Brussels. I’d like to see how they coexist with these parties in Brussels when they display their European values,” he says.
Beside the European process, Zelenski also analyzes Latin America’s view of the war. “It saddens me deeply that the Soviet Union had so much influence in Latin America,” he says. Asked about the fact that several governments in the region, such as Colombia or Mexico, are maintaining a neutral position, Zelenskiy is reproachful: “with time, all of these countries will also understand what is happening. These are countries that also fought for their independence and they will understand that Russia is the invader. The physical distance with regard to Latin America is great but the military distance is not so great because Russian missiles have a range of thousands of kilometers.”
“What Russia is doing is blackmail, cutting off maritime transport in the Black Sea, for example,” he adds to illustrate how the entire international community could be affected. “Latin America used to receive many things from Ukraine and we used to import many things from Latin America. They have severed this commercial relationship. Perhaps now Latin America does not have a wheat and cereal deficit as large as the African countries, but in time they will feel the effects.”
Does Zelenskiy seriously believe that the military threat in Latin America is possible? He replies with another question: “In Latin America do they think a nuclear missile cannot reach them?” Against this backdrop of a potential nuclear attack, Zelenskiy warns that “Russia is not a subject of the civilized world; it is a terrorist organization led by a clique.” The leader argues that not only sanctions, but a sort of international sanitary cordon should be applied to Russia: “Russia must be isolated until it understands that it has the same rights as every other nation. If you don’t want to be democratic in your country, you at least have to act democratically with other countries. You don’t have to impose your worldview and your order on us.”
In a recent interview with EL PAÍS, the Ukrainian minister for foreign affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, pointed out that countries such as Mexico, which are benefiting from price increases for export resources like oil and natural gas, should have greater responsibility. Zelenskiy notes down these words and pulls out his cellphone to find information about the army of Mexico, a country that he seems to have a special interest in. The rest of the people in the room – his spokesperson, the journalists, the interpreter and the presidential photographer – have not been able to bring in their phones, nor have they been able to use their pens or watches, for security reasons. Zelenskiy stretches out his arm and moves the screen away from his face, but he finds it hard to read without his glasses. So he borrows the glasses from one of the journalists, which he uses as a magnifying glass. After a few minutes in silence as he searches for the information, he launches into a soliloquy to refute that neutrality in this war is possible: “Imagine if the second-largest army in the world, or at least Russia defines it as such, invaded Mexico. They always find some pretext to do so, as in Syria. Would Mexico defend itself alone or would it ask for help from its allies, its neighbors like the United States?”
After almost 50 minutes of conversation, the Ukrainian president says goodbye without any special protocol and after a few photos he locks himself in the premises where he will continue to work, a space in which a large Ukrainian coat of arms stands out, the same place from where he will deliver his daily message to the nation in the evening. It is cold in the halls; heating has not yet been turned on in Kyiv because of the energy shortage caused by the Russian attacks. “What advantages has Russia’s war against Ukraine brought, aside from the fear, the threats, the migration, the blockage of agricultural commerce, the rise in prices, gasoline as well, apart from the threats to Europe and Ukraine of being cold this winter?” he asks before ending. “We did not accept any ultimatums, nor did we want to lose part of our territory. We said we would fight to the end to defend our home. But, above all, we must try to save lives.”