On October 12, the German journalist Katrin Eigendorf interviewed the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for the ZDF TV channel. When she arrived to meet with Zelensky in Kyiv, he suggested, on the spur of the moment, that they talk in Russian. We have transcribed and translated some highlights of this extended interview, in which Zelensky spoke openly about “iPhone diplomacy,” how Europe should talk to Russia, Putin personally, and handling Russia’s nuclear and energy blackmail.
On Ukraine’s strength
Our main energy source in this war is being right. This means: someone came to us and, for many years, takes away something that is ours — people, territories, peace of mind, and so on. Our strength is in being on the right side. We don’t fight on Russian territory, or any other country’s. This war is happening on Ukrainian territory. The whole world can see this. Yes, some people still keep their eyes shut, they’re still afraid to open them — and to believe what’s happening. […] But truth is like water — it’ll get though. It’s only a matter of time.
On ‘iPhone diplomacy’
I always thought that truth gets across faster than lies. And faster than diplomacy, if that diplomacy involves some share of deceit. The truth, though, travels the shortest distance to getting, or not getting, a result. In more or less peaceful times, before the full-scale invasion, I probably did try to behave by the rules of diplomacy. With the full-scale invasion, I began, quite naturally, to talk to people as I think they deserve to be talked to. I don’t have time to bow, or to wait in line. It’s all just direct communication. […] Each minute can mean another missile strike, an hour can mean a death of a person. The sooner I can get a result, the more lives I can save. I think that’s my main objective.
I’ve developed close relationships with Johnson, Duda, Draghi, with leaders of Western countries. Macron always tells me, “Just call me on WhatsApp.” We really do sidestep the protocol with many of these leaders. It’s all just quick reactions. A war, especially against Russians, against that big complicated country, dictates quick decisions. It suggests not ordinary diplomacy, but, I would say, “iPhone diplomacy.” I think this is something that never yet happened in the world. Not because I’m special, or because we are. It’s this war that is special.
But is WhatsApp safe?
How Europe should speak to Russia
Europe still lives in fear. What about the Russians? What will Putin say? What will happen tomorrow if there’s no Putin? Just like war, this is a question of initiative. In the first days of the war, the Russians had the initiative. But now we have captured it, and we’re on the offensive. That’s why they’re shelling us — there’s nothing they can do in terms of combat. They want us to cower, they want to break us.
Diplomacy is exactly the same. Energy threats — that that the whole of Europe will freeze — and nuclear blackmail on Russia’s part, and so forth — this is happening because, for many years, Russia was handed the initiative. Europe curtsied and bowed — but you cannot do that, you have to look them straight in the eye. I’m not saying that the Russians should have been made to bow and scrape. All countries must be equal and look each other in the eye. But Russians will now have to plead for forgiveness. No one’s going to forget what they did, just like that. And the power of a united Europe should be in grasping the initiative. No country should tell the whole world how to live and whether to be cold or warm, or have the whole world hooked on its gas supply, without any alternatives.
On the risk of the Kremlin using nuclear weapons
This risk does not at all depend on Europe’s position. Russians will be afraid to use this or that kind of weapon when all of Europe comes to feel empowered — when they realize that they cannot be blackmailed by anything. As long as someone remains an invader, his political isolation must be clear-cut. He is behaving as a terrorist — and Europe should not behave in the same way. You cannot compromise in these relations with the Russian leadership.
Europe’s weakness with respect to Russia will enable Russia to use any weapons it likes. Because there’re no consequences. [Putin] saw the consequences of occupying the Crimea: there were none. Let’s be honest, the sanctions were very superficial. He got a warning, but not a punch in the face. This is the problem. He went further, taking away part of our Donbas. Nothing happened, just more decorative sanctions. He went further. And look what happened next to the energy complex. To all his forward steps, Europe stepped back. Europe thinks that it was stepping towards him, meeting him halfway — but in this embrace, Russia will strangle you.
He will only use nuclear weapons if he knows that afterwards nothing will happen to him. Why did he fire a hundred shots? Because he isn’t hurting, not yet.
And what if Europe refused to talk to him? “You don’t want to sell your energy resources to Europe, you’re raising your prices? Fine. We’ll deal with it. We’ll make it through one winter.”
If he understood that he is isolated and that no one will talk to him… If you said: “Dear Russian citizens, your head of state is talking about using nuclear weapons. We cannot talk to him. You’re all going to suffer because of this. We’re isolating ourselves from you, because we don’t want to deal with terrorists. This is only fair. We’ll talk when you’re ready for dialogue without blackmail, without machine guns, when you leave territories that don’t belong to you, and when you stop killing people.” But, excuse me — his inner circle is just a bunch of whelps, and after just half-a-shot of vodka they all shout, “Tomorrow, we launch the nuclear weapons!” What do you call that?
If there’s a strong position and they get to feel it, they won’t use any weapons.
On talking to Russia
We’re ready to talk to those who want peace. Including the Russian Federation. I was ready to talk to Putin since the first day of my presidency. But they didn’t want to talk — for two years leading up to the invasion. They wanted to show that the don’t have to talk, that they’ll just come and invade. So they began “invading” — and now that they can’t do it, he goes on all the channels, saying “I’m ready to talk.” But who does he think he is? He has killed people, his soldiers have raped children. He says, no, you made it all up, this cannot be true, Ukrainians did it all themselves. He says all this while dealing a hundred blows to Kyiv.
When the Second World War began on June 22, 1941, the Nazis bombed Kyiv. They dropped 22 phosphorus bombs on the Kyiv region. If you look at their targets, they were the Bolshevik industrial plant, the airport, the train station, and the power plants. When Putin struck two days ago, he was targeting our power plants and infrastructure. Back then, they bombed a military academy; this time, a university. There’s no difference at all.
The plot is very simple: he turns off the light, then the heat. He tells his society: “Look, it’s all lies that we’ve no success in combat. Look what I’m doing.” But he is unable to do anything. His soldier is weaker than a Ukrainian soldier. And when his soldier cannot kill a Ukrainian soldier, he kills one of our civilians. That’s the whole plot.
With every missile strike, the chances of talks are vanishing, they simply evaporate. To our country today, he is the composite image of a terrorist. What would we talk to him about? This is why, as a country that stands for peace, we say: Yes, we’ll talk with Russia, but via a different person. Someone else will surely show up.
On possible future scenarios
No matter how much [the Russian president] might like it, you cannot remake a society — a different society in another country. He has entered a house that did not belong to him. He made it filthy, he killed and raped in it. All of this is now on his hands.
But I’ll describe to you my forecast. They will strike the Ukrainian gas transport system. They’ve exploded the Nord Stream 1. Next, they’ll explode something else, at home. They could care less, it’s just their style. They’ll blame us — in order to hit our gas pipeline system, saying, “we were just responding.” Then they’ll say to Europe: “Look here, there’s no other way for you to get gas than to urgently restart Nord Stream 2, which you’re not starting. So, you must remove your sanctions, or else Europe will be left without gas, all because of Ukraine.”
But we understand their steps. Why is he disconnecting Ukraine’s heat? You’re trying to win in battle — why do you occupy the Zaporizhzhia atomic power plant? What is the aim here? To turn it off? Whom are you turning off? The civilian population? And what do they have to do with it? You just told everyone this isn’t a war but a “special operation,” and that you’re eradicating “fascists,” as you call us. And who do you think has occupied that power station?
He is disconnecting us from energy, and terrorizing our people — so that they’d come out into the streets demanding that I pacify Putin, that our army surrender, that we sign our capitulation, or something along those lines. It’s all very primitive.
Within two months, what I told you about the gas is going to happen.
On the future of the world
There’re two possibilities. Either the world will be lorded over by strong countries who will overwhelm all the rest with their threats. This is what will happen if Russia is permitted to win. Then everyone will see that this works — and so, not just Russia, but others can do this, too.
This will certainly lead to a world war. It’ll be a world of big monopolies, with big countries strangling the little ones, as they carve up the world.
But there can be an opposite kind of scenario — in which everyone on Earth will know that, regardless of what country they live in, they have the same rights and protections as any other person in the world. Ukraine’s example can prove this: regardless of how big Russia is, the world will come to your defense if your rights are violated.
What could be better? I prefer this model of equality and freedom. But the world itself has to decide how to live.