Volodymyr Zelenskiy: ‘Only Russia wants to kill me; everyone wants to kill Putin’

In a press availability with Spanish media outlets – including EL PAÍS – the president of Ukraine discussed the new dangers facing Europe and his country, along with the growing instability in Russia

Zelenskiy this Friday in Kyiv during a meeting with Spanish media, including EL PAÍS.
Zelenskiy this Friday in Kyiv during a meeting with Spanish media, including EL PAÍS.Luis de Vega
Luis de Vega

Ukraine and all of Europe face new challenges in the context of growing Russian instability. In addition to the fact that the Wagner Group’s mercenaries have been displaced to Belarus, Kyiv has called attention to an alleged plan by Moscow to bomb the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy discussed these issues this past Friday in Kyiv, in a press availability with Spanish media outlets – including EL PAÍS – on the eve of a visit by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. Sánchez arrives in Kyiv just as Spain assumes the EU’s rotating presidency.

Zelenskiy acknowledges that – along with members of his entourage – he has become “accustomed” to living under threat. However, he makes it clear that the “greatest danger” is being faced by his soldiers in the trenches. For the first time, he also alludes to risks faced by President Vladimir Putin – especially after the failed mutiny that the Russian leader put down last Saturday. “Only Russia wants to kill me… but everyone wants to kill Putin,” he notes.

The Ukrainian president speaks about a possible World War III breaking out if Russia wins. “If Ukraine doesn’t resist and Russia advances towards Poland or the Baltic countries, that would mean World War III,” he predicts. Placing Kyiv under the cloak of NATO is the best way, he feels, to make Putin see that “there is no fear of any aggressor.”

“We would like to receive the invitation [to join NATO] at [the summit in] Vilnius,” the Ukrainian president affirms, referring to the Lithuanian capital, where the alliance will hold their next meeting on July 11 and 12. He thinks that “NATO is the best security guarantee” in the face of the open conflict with the Russian invasion. “We don’t have any other alternative,” Zelenskiy insists, when he is asked about his country joining the organization.

The Ukrainian leader calculates that his army has knocked out about 100,000 of Wagner’s Russian paramilitaries, with 21,000 dead and 80,000 wounded. He emphasizes the “colossal” casualties and a blow to the morale of the invaders. However, one of the best-kept secrets by the Ukrainian authorities is the number of casualties among their troops, which Zelenskiy refuses to make public.

For several days, the government in Kyiv has been insisting that Moscow has a plan ready to attack – with explosives – the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, located in the southern Ukrainian region of Zaporizhzhia, occupied since March of 2022 by the Russians. Zelenskiy says that “they plan to blow it up to generate a [radioactive] release.” He recalls that, last year, Kyiv warned about the risk that the Kremlin’s army would destroy the Kakhovka Dam… something that occurred this past June 6. Initial investigations suggest that Russia dynamited the installations. The Ukrainian president estimates that there are some 5,000 heavily-armed invading soldiers stationed at the nuclear plant and that, with an attack against such sensitive facilities, Moscow seeks to prevent the advance of Ukrainian troops. “His plan is to erase us from the face of the Earth,” Zelenskiy concludes.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, during a press availability with Spanish media outlets in Kyiv, on Friday, June 30, 2023.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, during a press availability with Spanish media outlets in Kyiv, on Friday, June 30, 2023.Luis De Vega Hernández

“We cannot send our soldiers to certain death,” he affirms, explaining that, in the counteroffensive, Ukrainian troops are facing minefields laid by the enemy. He describes the possible doubts that may exist among NATO partners about Ukrainian progress as mere “politicking,” while also blaming the alliance for having sent artillery “late.”

“Our people are our treasure,” which is why “we are very cautious,” he adds. The president assures the media that he prefers to take four or five months to wage the counteroffensive and save casualties, rather than try to gain ground in two months at the price of thousands of deaths.

“Some partners laugh at me, but I know in detail what each country has,” Zelenskiy notes. He has once again asked his allies for artillery, as well as anti-aircraft systems and “modern” aircrafts to defeat Russian dominance in the sky. He even acknowledges that, in the past, he has sometimes criticized his partners… and the response has been to slow down aid shipments. With more weapons, he adds, NATO could save civilians and 95% of the critical infrastructure that Russia attacks, such as electricity, ports and railways. “I’m very clear. I cannot tell them, ‘give me everything.’ But I know what I ask of [them],” he adds, while also thanking foreign countries for all that Ukraine has already received.

The crisis unleashed in Russian territory between the Wagner Group’s boss – Yevgeny Prigozhin – and Putin has opened up a new range of tension in the region, with the leader of the paramilitary group now in Belarus, following the mediation of President Aleksandr Lukaskenko. Zelenskiy notes that these mercenaries “may prepare attacks from [Belarus]” or organize “sabotage groups” that not only put Ukraine at risk, but also Poland or Lithuania… NATO territory, he specifies. He speaks of “hybrid warfare,” although, in any case, he doesn’t believe that this is an imminent danger. However, Zelenskiy affirms that he has already ordered his commanders to pay special attention to the border with Belarus, since it is the closest entry point to reach Kyiv. In fact, the Russians already took advantage of this route at dawn on February 24 of last year, when the invasion broke out.

Russia is a country divided between the “many” who support the warlord – a reference to Prigozhin – and “that large part” that continues to support Putin, according to the Ukrainian president. He believes that this will bring consequences to Russia’s forces on the battlefield, which the Ukrainian troops can benefit from. “We have to take advantage of all this [chaos] to expel the enemy,” he emphasizes.

The Russian mercenaries have been sent as “cannon fodder,” without any possibility of returning to their positions “because they are quickly killed.” “These criminals were said to be so powerful… [but our army] is the most motivated, the one that wants to survive.” The 100,000 casualties among the Russian ranks is a key part of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the president says. While he claims to know the details about casualty figures within his own army, he doesn’t want to make them public when asked about them. He feels that Ukraine has “adequate” reserves of soldiers, although he points out that it’s not easy to replace someone who has experience in war.

Zelenskiy – who doesn’t comment on his preference between a second Biden term or a possible return of Trump to the White House after the 2024 US presidential elections – says that some Republicans (without mentioning names) are sending out what he considers to be “dangerous signals.” He acknowledges that he’s not totally in agreement with Biden, who is suspicious that Kyiv could attack Russian territory with weapons provided by allies. He’s also urging the fastest possible delivery of American F-16 fighter jets, which are not set to arrive in 2023.

Meanwhile, regarding the EU, Zelenskiy also does not wish to offer an opinion about the upcoming Spanish elections. Regardless of which party wins in the country that will assume the EU presidency, he wishes to maintain the current level of collaboration with Madrid. “We want to live like you – but for that, we first have to survive.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, on Friday, June 30, 2023 .
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, on Friday, June 30, 2023 .Luis De Vega Hernández

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